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Freedom Force, Irrational, 2002

Freedom Force is a superhero game, a genre that has existed under a well-known curse for many years, a curse that now seems to be broken. Companies that tried to make superhero-related computer games, what would at first seem to be a logical and even lucrative ambition, would go broke, cancel the game, or encounter some other ugly fate. Of the handful of superhero games released, none were decent, or even anywhere close to a breakout success. That has been changing, and Freedom Force is the clearest sign of that change so far. Freedom Force is not a media tie-in, so all of the superheroes have been created by Irrational, but that does not stop the game from being fresh, funny, extremely playable, and a joy to come back to again and again.

The game begins with one superhero, Minute Man, becoming transformed by some mysterious power early in the Cold War era. I was immediately hooked when I played the game because Minute Man’s voice is a dead ringer for the voice of the Tick from the animated cartoon a few years ago. That is a good thing! Freedom Force is not quite so outlandish in tone as The Tick, which is also a good way to go. In any case, the Minute Man follows a spy through the city, trying to find out what the evil infiltrator was up to. Soon he has encountered another superhero with mental powers named Mentor, and a Hispanic fireball named El Diablo. It seems that a Russian villain named Nuclear Winter is up to something. The storyline gradually accumulates more heroes -- such as Alchemiss (a Southern belle), Man O’War (with a Sean Connery accent), Manbot, Ant, Microwave, and many others -- as well as a whole catalogue full of different villains -- such as Mr. Mechanical, the Timemaster, dinosaurs, robots, aliens, you name it, the game has it. The story is obviously as over the top as Irrational could make it, but it suits the episodic style of the game.

Freedom Force is played from the top down, with the camera zooming from about skyscraper height down to the thick of the battle. The characters move in 3D, as some of the heroes and villains can fly, some can burrow. The cityscapes and other areas are filled with destructible buildings and other things, although as the ostensible good guys you do lose points if civilian structures become damaged. You don’t lose points though for wielding lampposts, traffic lights, cars, or anything else you can lay your hands on. You can control up to four heroes at once, with the left mouse button controlling action and the right mouse button pausing the game and allowing for choice of commands. It’s an incredibly slick system, as moving the mouse to the edge of the screen scrolls the view and the mousewheel controls the zoom. The game can be played immediately, with almost nothing in the way of help, although the game does begin with a helpful and funny tutorial.

The graphics of the game make the most of viewpoint. Attacks and magic effects are all awesome, and the accompanying speech balloons -- “POW!” and “ZAP!” and “FWOOOSH!” -- are all seamlessly integrated. The music of Freedom Force is particularly well picked for the genre. The music of the first level is what kept the game in my mind when I played the demo, and the follow-up pieces are up to the same level. I particularly liked the Nuclear Winter song, all pseudo-serious Soviet male choir stuff.

The game has multiplayer out of the box. Multiplayer in Freedom Force is fun! Up to four heroes can face off in a set number of arenas, like a small city, a frozen park, and so forth. The characters are infinitely customizable, with control over any of the powers, attacks, defences, names, looks, and all the rest. The only constraint is the set level of prestige points of the server you are joining -- a more powerful attack costs you more prestige points, so the playing field is kept balanced. I’ve encountered some hilarious battles, but I enjoyed LAN gaming the most with Freedom Force. In between each battle, my friends were frantically trying to upgrade or change their characters, asking for advice but trying to shield the screen, and so on. The game is definitely a different experience than the typical online game, so that’s worth checking out. A recent patch has added a number of helpful features, like a skirmish type game, where you can test your character against any of the heroes or villains of the game or against other characters you’ve created. It’s worth downloading.

All in all, Freedom Force would have to be my top contender for best game of 2002. It’s hilarious to play, easy to learn, always enjoyable along the way, and satisfying in a way that many recent games haven’t been. Kudos to Irrational!


Last modified: May 6, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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