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Staff Article: Cheap Game Hunter, Vol.2


Mark E
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Welcome back, Cheap Believers! When we last left our wallets, they were about to come under attack from an onslaught of fresh, expensive software. The vile forces of shiny new toys are conspiring to drain your cash flow dry and leave you eating ramen for a month like you were still doing an undergrad degree.

 

But fear not! Like the heat from an out-of-control angel burning up on re-entry, the Cheap Game Hunter returns in a blaze of glory to battle back those who would try to leave you broke, penniless and a target for every Communist turncoat on our fair continent. Here to fight off the twin evils of low cash flow and high levels of boredom with one mighty blow from his word processor!

 

With a build-up of such blistering bombast, this month?s cheap game can only be?

 

Freedom Force

 

The superhero RPG was long the holiest of holy grails for many gamers. Since a lot of us, me included, conform to the geek archetype, there was a certain allure to the notion of mixing up our comic books with our computer games for some good old villain-stomping. Even the idea seemed like it was ripe for mining by any company with an ounce of talent and determination.

 

And so we waited, and waited, and waited. One of the most surefire concepts in gaming history languished while many of us were anxiously awaiting the chance to pummel villains in garish spandex. The first glimmer of hope came in the early 90s when the popular pen and paper superhero RPG Champions was licensed by Konami, who had then started to make inroads into publishing PC games. It looked for a long time like this would be the answer to our prayers. Champions even garnered a cover and very cool-looking preview in a 1992 issue of Computer Gaming World. After that preview, however, the game quietly sank into oblivion and was literally never heard from again.

 

In 1994, Steve Meretzky released Superhero League of Hoboken, which was a combination RPG/adventure game put out by Legend. While by many accounts an entertaining game, the title was played strictly for laughs and didn?t even attempt to replicate the feel of a traditional comic book adventure.

 

In the late 90?s, the superhero RPG was looking like it would never come to be when MicroProse announced Guardians: Agents of Justice. This was to be a tactical RPG in the vein of X-Com and was being headed up by Simtex, designers of the first two Master of Orion games and Master of Magic. By this time in its history, however, MicroProse was well on its way out of business and the game simply got canned before completion.

 

So, when Irrational Games first announced Freedom Force it was greeted with no small amount of skepticism. History had shown that getting hopeful for a meaty superhero RPG was about as realistic as hoping for a Superman game that didn?t suck. Irrational had already shown they could do a good job when they helped design the superlative System Shock 2 back in 1999. But would Freedom Force ever come out? And could it possibly deliver the goods?

 

It did, and it could.

 

What About the Gameplay, Old Chum?

 

Freedom Force?s core gameplay is essentially a real-time strategy/RPG set-up where you take control of a team of four heroes from your ever-expanding justice league and lead them into a series of missions to thwart some evil baddie. The game is a lot more ?tactics? than it is RPG, to be sure. You accumulate experience points and prestige during missions, the former being used to upgrade your current heroes and the latter being used to recruit new heroes who might be prompted to join up. However, each hero has a fairly straightforward upgrade path and there aren?t any items or armor to accumulate either beyond your new powers.

 

With that in mind, don?t think that Freedom Force skimps on RPG details like rolls, critical hits, status effects, etc etc. But to get it in the proper context, picture the combat system from Baldur?s Gate 2 with capes and comic book sensibilities and you?d have the right idea. Mind you, Freedom Force runs a lot faster than that game, looks better, and has an entirely different mindset.

 

Each mission leads you into a top-down view of an area, whether it be an aircraft carrier, secret lab, cityscape, or underground domain. Helpful arrows are often on hand to point you towards your goal and there?s an excellent in-game tutorial. That being said, don?t think the game is a total cake walk either. Freedom Force isn?t hard, but it is challenging. Some missions have you working to prevent a certain amount of property damage or save specific buildings and if you don?t coordinate properly you?ll never manage it.

 

One nice thing here is the environmental interaction. When we think superhero brawl, we tend to think of cars flying and buildings getting demolished. Freedom Force knows this and embraces it. If you have strong enough heroes, you can toss cars, park benches and garbage cans every which way, and use lamp posts and telephone polls as impromptu blunt clubbing objects.

 

All of the games heroes are memorable (though in some cases it?s because admittedly because they?re annoying) and unique, ranging from the fiery El Diablo, a Latino Lothario with a penchant for tossing off fireballs, to the patriotic Minuteman, whose rhetoric makes Captain America sound Communist. A lot of classic heroes have representation in the game, with Minuteman a clear analog for Captain America, El Diablo as the Human Torch, Mentor as Professor X, and The Ant a clear Spider-man for the group. The team interactions that go on both during and between missions are classic comic book material, with romance, butting heads and deadpan humor. The game?s sense of humor should not be discounted; you can overhear some hilarious villain conversations if you sneak up on some goons and there?s a memorable encounter that Mentor and Minuteman have with a street hustler that always makes me laugh.

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Welcome back everybody! Let's keep on truckin'...

 

Walloping websnappers, what about the graphics and sound?

 

Graphics: Having come out in 2001, Freedom Force shows off a perfectly serviceable 3D engine that does some very nice lighting effects with its powers and gets the job done quite well. The game?s not going to win an award for its in-game look, but it isn?t a heifer either. The 2D presentation is what really deserves a mention. Clear inspiration for this game comes from the 60?s-era Jack Kirby comics and the art style reflects that as much as possible. The 2D drawings for both the loading screens (featuring comic book covers of Freedom Force?s current adventure) and the character?s origins are a lot of fun to take in and they really add something to the proceedings.

 

Sound: The sound in Freedom Force is fantastic. The sound effects are choice; the music is appropriately understated yet clearly present. Voice acting is extremely well done, with suitable hamminess and conviction from all those involved. Man O? War deserves special mention with his crusty sailor brogue that just happens to sound an awful lot like Sean Connery.

 

Presentation: I added in this section because frankly, graphics and sound don?t quite express how perfectly the whole Freedom Force package comes together. The game is a very loving homage to the straightforward and over-the-top nature of 60?s comics and it is pulled off beautifully. Rather than mocking its source material or playing it for laughs, Freedom Force lets the jokes come from its characters rather than holding them up to ridicule. It?s very reflective of the Silver Age stories and in capturing that mood it is simply fantastic. Whenever hits are scored against people, little graphics of ?whap? and ?pow? pop up along the lines of the old Batman TV show. The origin stories involve the usual tales of revenge, redemption, and misunderstandings.

 

Your villains are an equally interesting crew, although I have to admit that the very first supervillain puts the rest of them to shame. The first baddy is called Nuclear Winter and the tale of Freedom Force being formed and taking on this hilarious Communist stereotype (nice of him to wear that fur hat in the midst of an American city to let us know his intentions) is worth the cost of admission on its own. He even has his own theme song, with words, that plays over one of his missions. You can tell that this game was a labour of love for Irrational, and the care and attention that went into making it comes through in every aspect.

 

Every superhero has some kryptonite, right?

 

Oh yeah, let?s not say Freedom Force is perfect or anything. Those of you who aren?t into the tactics and plotting of a real-time game are not going to like this one at all. The presence of the ?pause anytime? button certainly helps to make up for this, but there will be times when things may feel like they?re out of control and some people aren?t going to care for it.

 

The A.I. is not horrid, but the cars in Freedom Force have to be singled out because the drivers in this game seem to have some sort of destructive mad on for killing off superheroes. Leaving somebody in the middle of the street can at times be tantamount to a death wish, as cars barrel into your heroes and drag them along the street to rack up the damage. Mind you, in the case of Liberty Lad this might not be a bad thing.

 

Some people aren?t going to appreciate the linearity of the story. For me I don?t mind so much, it allows the game to have tight plotting and natural progression as the game builds towards its enjoyable climax. But those of you used to a looser RPG like Planescape or Morrowind might not appreciate the gesture.

 

Multiplayer is pretty lame, to be honest. I tried it once or twice and it was not what I?d call impressive. Likewise, you can make your own characters for inclusion in the main campaign but they don?t level up with the other heroes so it?s pretty much a waste of time, not to mention you miss out on a lot of good interactions that way.

 

I?m sold, where do I get my spandex groove on?

 

Freedom Force is thankfully still pretty easy to track down with a little effort. EA Games started putting the title out in their CD-only bargain division a year or so ago and it?s still readily available both in stores and on eBay. It should run you about 5 dollars, which isn?t so bad for a good ten to fifteen hours of heroic hi-jinx.

 

Deliver the knockout blow, Cheap Man!

 

Freedom Force is a great little title that now comes with a great little price. You won?t have to exhaust weeks of your time to finish it, but you will probably have a lot of fun while you do so. Anybody with an affinity for comic books and their culture or who just likes a good strategy RPG with some sharp writing and a unique setting is well advised to check it out. And if you really enjoy it, don't forget that the sequel, Freedom Force Vs. The Third Reich, shipped just last week.

 

Oh, and I never delved into it much, but Freedom Force has an incredibly robust mod scene as well. You can check out the forums at http://www.freedomfans.com for more info on that.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm wanting to get this one back in the limelight given your review of the sequel to Freedom Force Mark. For anyone thats contemplating picking this one up (which can be done for a mere 10 bucks these days), make sure to read up on Mark's review of it's sequel for future purching prospects. The review can be found here:

 

Mark's Freedom Force Third Riech Review

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