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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Freedom Force review

Here is what I have been playing for about a week. It's, simply put, a superhero realtime tactical game with a coat of RPG.

I heard about the game for the first time when they released its sequel, "Freedom Force VS the 3rd Reich" and I tried the demo. I remember not being thrilled by it as it felt clunky and difficult, in spite of a bunch of charismatic characters and a nice superheroic homage feel. I know I wasn't much into superheroes back then either, which probably didn't help.

And then, I read that Steam has a promotional pack with Freedom Force 1 & 2 for a very small price, and I get curious again. I grab the demo again, but of the first game this time! And the little tutorial you get to play (Mission 1, really) was just what I needed to realize how fun the game was (the FF2 demo had tutorial bits too, but they were not enough).

The team takes on some bad guys

How does it play?
You go through a campaign which is a string of short missions (about half an hour each on average). You start with one hero and get additional ones as time goes. You can soon pick which heroes deal with the next mission. A bit later, you can recruit new heroes thanks to the Prestige you have acquired. The squad sent on missions can have 4 members max and sometimes one or two characters are forced upon you because of story requirements.

Missions take place on a single map or are divided in two or three chapters if there is a need for a map change. The game is in real-time but you can both pause it (ala Baldur's Gate / NWN) or slow it down at the press of a key... and it's more than needed as dealing with a whole team in real time is nearly impossible.
Objectives are varied : the usual "defeat all", check points to reach, artifacts to activate, time-limited activities, protect the civilians and/or buildings, etc... What you have to do is usually updated throughout a missions as you learn more about what's going on. We're not talking RPG quests though. It's more like the objectives you'd get in a RTS.

Man-bot and Alchemiss against... a bunch of bad guys!

Now, in all honesty, the game *is* clunky and even hard for various reasons. I didn't really believe the "tactical" part until I got my ass handed to me in one of the early missions.
So yes, it's tactical : there is a lot of friendly fire if you don't watch it. Beams, projectiles, explosions (eek!) and even wide melee attacks are all things you want to consider carefully and you should place your team members where it's safe. Then, there's the fact the game uses a physics engine for a lot of things and maps are not always flat, which makes elevation a good and a bad thing (mainly when it blocks attacks). And I will add that resistances and weaknesses can be the difference between win and lose in some missions. To summarize : it might be a superhero game, but it doesn't mean you fly through as an invincible group, which is nice for the challenge.

Mentor, the "brain" of the team, and his mental powers

About the RPG part. Even though we control superheroes, they are not set in stone from square one. Instead, you get to see them evolve through the campaign. Admittedly, their main attributes (Strength, Speed, etc...) are fixed, but they get new powers and abilities and can upgrade them.
This does mean they get XP, but it's based on a fixed rate : 300 points if they were in the active squad, 200 otherwise. As you can see, the game is not harsh on letting you try everyone out, though you might end up with characters who are not fully developed by the end of the campaign (happened to me).

Overall, it mostly means that you get a sense of accomplishment and reward for going through missions, but it also helps becoming familiarized with initial powers before getting new ones. So it's a rather good thing.

But wait, wait, wait! This is all good but that's not what superheroes are about, right? So let's focus on what makes Freedom Force really fun : mayhem!

Alchemiss sends enemies a-flying

That's what I discovered with the FF demo the second time around : the game does a lot of things to make you feel like you're in a superhero adventure.
First, it provides, through its main characters, many superhero archetypes you would expect in such a game : Minute Man is the usual Captain Something (strong, leader), Alchemiss is the mystical, reality-altering sorceress and Man-Bot is the slow but powerful human-in-a-machine. It's easy to recognize the inspiration for all of them, but the great thing is that they still manage to feel unique : more homage than rip-off if you will.

Traffic light, coming right up!

You also get the powers you would expect : beams of energy or elements, various melee attacks, mental control, regeneration, flying, high-jumpers, jet-fast runners, etc... And for the strong characters, you get the ability to pick up heavy things and either wield them or...

Mind the flying car, robot!

... throw them! Hell yeah! Not only cars of course : trashcans, postboxes, boulders and anything else that is not too incredibly heavy. I haven't tested the very limits of it... There's a bus I'd like to see flying one day :). Of course, what one character can lift, how far and hard he can throw it and how fast he is when carrying it is all dependant on his Strength attribute (melee characters can usually handle posts, strong ones will throw many things around and psy-types will keep to trashcans).

And that's where the physics engine shines. Objects fly, people fly, debris are projected all around, buildings crumble in a billow of dust. Even when you destroy your first building by mistake, it's more of a "woah, I can do that?" than "oh no!" moment. So yeah... the moment you realize you can pickup a streetlight to use as a bat and send three thugs flying... that's when it gets good.
But many other super-abilities give that "super!" feeling : flying around, jumping on tall buildings and crossing the city hopping from one to the other, sprinting like the Flash to avoid an explosion or do some hit & run... it's all there and it's fun!

All the classic themes are here too! It starts with thugs and then you get your first super-powered villain. But it ends with the epic stuff while touching all the usual pulpy stuff in-between (city-destroying robots is one I can "reveal" since it's on the screenshots).

Minuteman's voice is a bit on the "too much" side

The campaign story bits tend to look like the above : in-engine sequences with comics fonts and thumbnails. One thing that is a bit hard to get used to at first is how over-the-top everything is. The actors are good, but it's obvious they push it to make each character's archetype show. Minuteman is all "For Justice!" and "Whaaat is goooing ooon?" with a low-tone voice. It's almost annoying at times and realizing it's all about having fun without looking for something too serious can save the day. That said, the characters tend to be endearing after a while, partly because of that.

It had to be Russians! (aah, clichés...)

The villains fare similarly, with quite a few stereotypes thrown in, but again, they're fun to interact with (interaction being blasting them :D).

The campaign offers quite a few environements to visit, from the basic city and frozen parks to canyon deserts and pocket dimensions. The city is the one to appear the most often, albeit in various forms (snow, night, rubble, ...)

For more superhero goodness, all characters get a "The Secret Origin of" introduction sequence, either in-game or on demand for the heroes you recruit manually. They're all rather well done, using a semi-animated comics style and showing how everyone became what they are.

And to finish this long review, let's talk about... custom heroes!

Le Fantassin est là! (my minimal mod of Minuteman)

Once again, this is something I totally missed when I first tried the FF2 demo : you can create your very own heroes, stat them up, power 'em up and throw them into the fray. Only in skirmish? No sir! You can actually recruit them during the campaign!

Statistics allow you to make a slow Hulk, or a speedy Flash, or maybe you want a magically powerful witch. Then, you create each power individually, choosing which type it is (melee, projectile, beam, area, direct or special) and how it works : does it do electrical damage? Piercing damage? How much? How much energy does it require? Does it stun or knockback the target? How much? Is it accurate? Is a projectile like a grenade or homing? Does it explodes over a large zone? Does it spawn multiple sub-parts in flight? Let's just say it offers choice. And when you're done with this, you can pick the character animation and the associated visual effect.

That's how much you can customize (for projectiles!)

Sadly, the game doesn't come with many models or skins, nor that many effects. Thankfully, it was meant to be an utterly moddable from the very beginning! Making new skins is rather easy (they're TGA files, you just need an image editor and some talent). Making new models is much mode difficult, but there is a very good community which has done a big part of the job over the years : : the main community about the game : one of the first websites I found with new models, mods and with most basic questions about the game answered in the FAQ.

What did I forget? Let's see... it has multiplayer (though it's mostly skirmish I think), a Danger Room mode where you pick your team and the villains and the map and duke it out. Nice to test custom heroes but I don't think it stays fun for long given the little number of maps given. You can play through the campaign maps with a fully customized cast, though... aaand, that's pretty much it. That's the one "bad" thing for replayability : I hope the campaign will be satisfying with my custom heroes included because otherwise there's little "pick-up yet fulfilling" gaming on the side. Except for mods maybe. I will have to check it all out. Chances are I will go straight to FF2 now, though :)

Conclusion? It's not perfect because of some clunky design and even a few random bugs (stuck carrying a car), but it provides a lot of fun and a setting of its own in the purest superhero fashion. If you can get it on Steam, at the price it's at, there's barely a reason to hesitate (I mean... two whole games for $5!)

Here's the link to the Steam promo-pack :

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