Reviewed By: Kirk Hiner
Review Date: February 9, 2003
Review Computer: 867MHz G4, 640MB RAM, ATI RADEON 8500, Mac OS X v10.2.3
I've never been a huge fan of comics books. I think I've probably pointed that out in other super hero game reviews such as Spider-Man, but I want to mention it again. I enjoy movies about super heroes, I sometimes enjoy TV shows about super heros, but my comic book collection has never extended beyond Flash Gordon and Son of Ambush Bug.
So, when Freedom Force claims it harkens back to the "silver age of comic books," I have to admit that I have no idea what that means. I have no idea what the stories were like in the silver age, and I have no idea how the characters behaved. Bear this in mind as I proceed to explain why I was so disappointed with this game.
My first thought after installing and starting Freedom Force was that it looked great. [Note: My system locked up when attempting to take screen captures, so the images on this page been pulled from various other sources.] The cut scenes are colorful and quick, focusing more on style than on detail. Immediately, you know you're in a comic book. The levels themselves are equally well done. Again, the vibrant colors and subtle details call to mind the comic book world in which the game is based...if not also a new expansion pack for the Sims. Maybe there should be a tie-in here. Your Sims character could take a job as a super hero, fighting crime by day and going to parties, putting out kitchen fires and urinating on the floor by night.
The audio is equally impressive, with sound effects that are as over-the-top as the action. I can't imagine that tearing a chimney off a roof would really be nearly as loud as knocking down that roof--or the entire building, for that matter--but hey...as we've learning in movies, everything has to sound impressive. I suppose that's why movie punches sound more to me like alligators biting down on bubble-wrap encrusted bricks than like just plain old punches.
Freedom Force has a tutorial that does a nice job of familiarizing the player with the controls of the game. It explains the basics of combat and how you can use the environment to your advantage, then lets you have at it. I especially liked how the tutorial was blended into the first level...you could leave the tutorial at any time and simply proceed with the mission. More and better information is included in the manual (which also carried on the comic book theme, of course), so you'll want to take a look at that as well.
Unfortunately, It was soon after the tutorial ended that Freedom Force started to fall apart for me. It began, I suppose, with the story, so I'll start there.
Basically, there's this alien race who wants to control the universe. Fair enough. Alien races have wanted to control the universe ever since man first started writing stories about alien races. I guess that's just how it works. However, most alien races come up with better ways of doing it. These guys simply plan to release canisters of a chemical called Energy X into our planet, directed at our villains. This, they theorize, will make our villains more powerful to the point that they can't be stopped. The aliens should realize this isn't the route to go with humans, since chances are the now super villains would probably just turn against each other and then against the aliens who gave them their powers. Perhaps some team-building workshops along with the Energy X would work, but I'm still not so sure. A better method to take over the Earth, as we're learning from North Korea right now, would be nuclear blackmail.
Still, it never reaches that point. An obligatory good alien named Mentor tries to stop the Energy X from reaching the Earth, but ends up only scattering it all around the planet. The result, of course, is that just about anybody can now get their hands on Energy X, so all kinds of people are suddenly finding themselves with super powers. I find it odd that the sudden acquisition of super powers immediately leads people to either fight crime or commit crimes. If it happened to me, I'd keep my new powers secret, using them only to jump further ahead in line at the post office or to knock people's cars off the road when they don't use turn signals.
It also amuses me that each canister of Energy X apparently also comes with a costume custom fit for the recipient's build and custom designed for the persona the recipient plans to take. At least these guys and girls are quick thinkers. Realizing they have super powers, they immediately decide what they're going to call themselves. That would take me weeks. I'd have to come up with at least a dozen possible names, then run them by my family and friends to see what they liked best. I may even go under multiple names at first just to see which one looked best in the papers and sounded best on TV.
Take Minute Man, for example. After getting shot in City Park, Minute Man acquires his costume and super powers from an Energy X imbued statue of a minute man. Good thing it wasn't a statue of Hans Christian Anderson or Peter Pan. It's also an ironic choice, considering his costume actually seems patterned after British military uniforms, the very people the minute men actually fought. Real minute men, after all didn't have uniforms. They were "minute" men, not "I have to put on my uniform, I'll be there in a few minutes" men. They pretty much fought in whatever they were wearing at the time.
Am I nitpicking? Sure, but there's so much nitpicking that can be done with this game, it just can't be helped. Take, for instance, Manbot. When he first meets the slowly growing Freedom Force, he tells them he doesn't have a name. It's El Diablo who dubs him Manbot. We then see Manbot's origin in which, just after acquiring his powers and well before he meets Freedom Force, he refers to himself as Manbot.
Unfortunately, the story problems extend beyond this. I guess that, in an effort to get as many superheroes into this game as possible, the writers neglected to make the story interesting. For the most part, the game plays out in completely unrelated episodes, serving simply to introduce new heroes or villains. Now, I liked meeting new heroes--indeed, that was mainly the only thing that interested me about the game, since the story that brought them together was almost non-existent--but I like a good story better.
I'll get back to that in a bit, but I first want to talk about controlling these heroes. In the beginning, you're told which heroes you have to control on certain missions. As Freedom Force grows, you will often be assigned a couple heroes and then allowed to choose who rounds out the parties. Some heroes are automatically assigned to Freedom Force, others are "drafted" through prestige points acquired by completing missions. The more successfully you complete the primary and secondary objectives of the missions (catch more bad guys causing less damage to the property and civilians around you), the more prestige points you get. Each hero will also receive character points that can be used to increase powers and acquire new ones.
Now, this is all well and good. It's your basic RPG set-up. In fact, this game plays like a cross between Myth and Baldur's Gate, but ends up being less successful than either. I like having control of only a handful of heroes, but I would have also liked if the heroes had even a small degree of artificial intelligence. If you don't tell them what to do, they don't do anything. Often times, even when you do tell them what to do, they don't do it. They seem to forget their commands and just stand in one spot. On the other hand, there were many times when I was able to launch attacks at enemies and they wouldn't respond. They'd just stand in one spot and take it until they were killed...or, uh "KOed," as Freedom Force likes to call it.
Destruction is handled oddly in this game. An exploding gas tank, for example, can destroy the building on which it sits but won't kill an enemy standing right next to it. Most of the time, it's more effective to throw a phone booth at an enemy than it is to use a super power on him. Even better, although items such as street lamps can't be thrown through buildings, they can be carried through them. No matter how thin an alley is, your heroes can carry massive objects through them because the object will just dissapear into the wall. There were other minor graphics anomalies as well. The raptors, for example, would often become surrounded by dark rectangles when moving quickly, as when having just been hit with the aforementioned street lamps. Characters can off walk right through ledges without having to jump, and the game often got confused on where a character should move if told to stop near a building--on it or next to it.
Controlling multiple heroes against multiple enemies can be tough, especially when each hero has multiple attacks at his disposal. Some of these are normal attacks, while others require a certain amount of Energy X. The amount used can be adjusted, but the hero will have to wait until it's replenished to use it again. This requires more strategy, but it also requires more time to complete. As a result, I often had to pause the game during fights to plan out my attacks, thereby slowing down the action. I'd prefer to be able to let the action flow while I send out my commands. Too many breaks greatly reduces the momentum of the game.
I'm torn in my reaction to the heroes themselves. On one hand, I'm happy that they're all created specifically for this game. In fact, if you're so inclined, you can even create your own. Had the developers licensed popular super heroes, it would've removed all hope for charm and spontaneity. On the other hand, most of the super heroes they created were simply annoying. Minute Man was a dork, Mentor sounded drunk all the time, and so on. I enjoyed the banter of El Diablo to a certain extent, and of Alche-Miss to an even lesser extent, and the relationship between Man o' War and Sea Urchin was cute, but the over the top acting and dialogue throughout mainly just grated on my nerves. I get the feeling the writers couldn't decide if they wanted to make a comedy or an action game (60s Batman or 80s Batman), so it became a jumbled mess of super hero parodies taking themselves and their actions far more seriously too seriously. It seems like the developers created them just to make fun of them. It's almost mean.
The final letdown, then, comes from the multiplayer component. I'm not a multiplayer guy, so there has to be something special in there for me to enjoy it. Something like the multiplayer component of Return to Castle Wolfenstein. It seems to me a game such as this could've thrived with cooperative multiplayer...each person controlling a hero to complete a mission, but no. It's just more of the same old junk; choose four heroes and fight it out with other groups of heroes in various locations.
So, Freedom Force ends up being a game full of missed opportunities. This is too bad, as I've always wanted an RPG such as this set outside the realm of wizardry and dragons. Perhaps I'm being overly critical because I wanted so much more from this...expected so much more from this. What I got was action that doesn't flow well driven by characters who are mostly annoying engaged in a script that's completely uninteresting. If that's what the silver age of comics was all about, then I'll stick with Son of Ambush Bug.
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