Comic book games have, as a rule, never been too great on the PC. The scant few that have actually appeared on this particular gaming platform have been of low quality, and many of them were cancelled before they even had a chance. However, with the release of Freedom Force, the curse seems to have ended. Irrational Games, the team behind the modern classic System Shock 2, have created what is easily the best video game representation of comic books ever made. The real accomplishment is that they did so without the use of any sort of license. That's right, you read it correctly: the game is about comic books, but contains no comic book characters whatsoever. As strange as it may seem, this turns out to be one of the game's best aspects.
Freedom Force plays a little differently than your average PC RPG. Rather than a sprawling, epic quest full of open-ended gameplay and NPCs to talk with, Freedom Force is structured into missions. The mission goals consist of things like eliminating all opponents, protecting buildings, and searching for objects. None of them are too complicated, and there are no puzzles. The game is purely about combat and character building, and nothing else.
The combat itself is executed quite well. It plays out similar to combat in the Infinity Engine games. You control a party of characters in real-time combat, but you have the option to pause and hand out orders at any time. However, unlike the Infinity Engine games, the interface is expertly streamlined so as to take up a very small portion of the screen and never be in the way. You can select party members by clicking the appropriate character portrait or you can click and drag to select multiple party members. Any object can be right-clicked to bring up a menu of potential actions. This is one of the game's strongest points. Right clicking a parked car with a strong character will bring up the option to pick the car up. Once you have possession of the car, right click an enemy and select the option to throw the car. It's intuitive and it eliminates the need for a cumbersome interface. Almost every object in the game has at least one action that can be performed on it. The environments are destructible, and the physics are excellent. The first time you throw a car at a building and watch it crumble as another party member shoots lasers from his eyes, you will feel as though you are experiencing a moving comic book in action.
Character building is excellent. Throughout the game's story, your roster of superheroes will grow, and you will also be able to recruit optional characters by racking up enough "Prestige Points". Prestige is obtained by killing enemies, completing extra objectives, and engaging in other activities of the sort. You also have the option to create your own superhero. As you progress through the game, your characters will level up, which presents you with points to increase that character's abilities or buy new ones. Some of the powers are really cool, such as flying, wall climbing, and various beam attacks. Overall, character building is great fun, and it's always rewarding when you obtain a particularly cool ability for a character.
Even though it doesn't pump out polygons like a modern FPS, Freedom Force is very pleasing to the eye. The entire game is presented in bright colors, and it's filled with all sorts of neat effects to showcase the superpowers. The character models are excellent, although the animation seems a bit stiff at times. The fully destructible environments all look beautiful, even as they are falling apart. Some slowdown occurs when powers are flying everywhere and a large amount of enemies are present, and this can be annoying at time. On the whole, though, Freedom Force looks excellent.
Freedom Force's story is where it truly shines. Rather than using already established superheroes, Irrational has created their very own in-depth comic book mythos, complete with a fictional city as the backdrop, nefarious evildoers in need of thwarting, and corny dialogue a la comics from the 60's and 70's. The story begins when an alien race unleashes the mysterious "Energy X" onto the citizens of Earth. Throughout the game, you'll learn more about these aliens and their plans, as well as deal with numerous other villains. Everything is structured like a real comic series. There is an underlying plot to tie everything together, but you will deal with a very large amount of subplots at the same time. Characters will argue, new bad guys will cause trouble, and heroes will join your team. Much of the story is conveyed using in-engine cutscenes, but each character also has an origin cutscene. These scenes look like pages of a comic book, complete with dialogue bubbles and panels. They really add to the atmosphere of the game and are well done. If you like comics at all, you'll more than likely enjoy the setting and storyline of the game.
The sound and music of Freedom Force are excellent. The voice acting is spot-on, and really captures the spirit of a campy comic book, complete with stereotypical "evil commies" and overzealous patriotic freedom fighters. You'll crack up the first time you hear The Minuteman let loose with "For FREEDOM!", and that's a guarantee. The music is also well done, if simple. None of the music sticks out and makes you want to rush out and find a soundtrack, but it fits the game and never seems out of place. Sound effects are top notch, and they do a great job of helping to immerse the player in the game.
Overall, Freedom Force is yet another excellent RPG in a year when there have been many. It manages to stand out from the pack with its unique setting and engaging gameplay. If you've ever enjoyed comic books, or if you're just in the market for a good combat-focused RPG, you owe it to yourself to check out Freedom Force.
© 2002 Crave/EA