Game Name:  Freedom Fighters
Developer:  IO Interactive
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
PC Release Year:  2003
Review Date:  October 1, 2013

Wolverines!  Cult movie fans and kids that grew up in the ‘80s will immediately recognize that single word as the rallying cry of Red Dawn.  Although extremely dated today, the film presents an intriguing what-if scenario.  How would people react if these United States of America, which have not experienced a foreign invasion since the War of 1812, were suddenly under the threat of occupation?  By whom, you may ask?  Those pesky Ruskies, of course!  It may be hard for most Millennials to grasp, but well before the War on Terror, the number one international bogeyman for Americans was the Soviet Union.  Given this context, it is only natural that theater goers cheered as Patrick Swayze took up arms and used guerilla tactics to defend his homeland against the vodka-swilling Communist horde.  While conflicts between America and Russia are common in video games, it is surprising to think that it took nearly 20 years for this type of alternate reality to be explored by the industry.  I was drawn to Freedom Fighters for this very reason.  The urban setting may be vastly different from the rural backdrop of the film, but this title manages to keep the core intensity of Red Dawn intact.  Despite the excellent premise though, the game’s brevity, overly simplistic mechanics, and frustrating bugs mar what could have been a truly memorable experience.

How did the Russians come to invade the United States you ask?  Freedom Fighters posits an alternate timeline of world history where Russia developed the atom bomb first.  Not only did this let them end World War II on their terms, but it allowed them to rapidly expand the Eastern Bloc to isolate the U.S.  By the early 2000s, this effort had been so successful that the Soviet Union was in a position to launch a surprise assault to ‘liberate’ the abused American worker with little fear of repercussion.  Enter the hero, Christopher Stone, who will later be known as the Freedom Phantom.  On the day of the invasion, he and his plumber brother are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  While working at the residence of an outspoken anti-Communist TV personality, Russian soldiers show up to make arrests and Troy Stone is mistakenly taken as a conspirator.  With nowhere else to turn, Chris finds himself pulled into the resistance as a way to rescue his brother.

The narrative of Freedom Fighters could have been solid, but ultimately suffers from the game’s compact nature.  After all, there is excellent setup established with the polished introductory cinematic, and the story has a nice structure to it.  As family and friends are captured or killed around Chris, and the resistance is betrayed from within, you see him make the transformation from a somewhat reluctant rebel to a full-blown patriot.  Unfortunately, none of this can be elaborated on nearly enough.  The exposition we receive comes at the end of every level and there honestly are not enough of these breaks, in the ten hours of gameplay, to allow the tale to flow at a natural pace.  The story feels forced as a result, and it can be hard to understand the characters’ driving motivations at times.

Gameplay mechanics in Freedom Fighters are better, but provide a prime example of individual components being worth less than the sum of their parts.  Boiled down to its most basic elements, this is a squad-based third-person shooter.  As you blast your way through the streets of New York City, you are given the ability to recruit fellow rebels to your cause.  These are controllable allies, and with the click of a button, you can command one to assault, defend, or follow.  The combination of these two disparate elements is where the title shines, and there is nothing better than directing your troops to advance on an entrenched enemy position, while you provide sniper support from the rear.  I could not shake the feeling though, that the whole experience should be better.  The shooting model is painfully simplistic.  Weapons have an automatic, almost instantaneous reload and firing barely causes any recoil.  Oh, what fun this could have been as a fully fleshed-out FPS.  On the tactical side, why is there no way to group individual troops?  As it stands, you command a mass of individual soldiers and getting the group to do something together requires repeatedly mashing the same key to distribute the order.  If I could have defined separate groups to perform different tasks, it would have made the whole process less frustrating.

One facet of Freedom Fighters that floored me with its creative implementation is the strategic overlay on the game.  Every level is actually a collection of sublevels, to be tackled in any order the player chooses.  Using the sewer transportation system, you can even move between them as long as you can find a manhole cover.  While the primary objective is always to raise an American flag over some landmark building, like a TV station or school, there are other spots that are equally important to progression.  As an example, you may get to a point in the game where your squad is pinned down by an enemy helicopter.  You could soldier on, and take tremendous casualties in the process, or you could search through those other sublevels for the helicopter’s landing pad.  Once you blast it to kingdom come, flights will stop on all related maps!  Where are you going to get the C4 for this side mission?  Well, you can find and raid a weapon depot on one of the other maps.  This kind of thoughtful approach to advancing on enemy locations worked so amazingly well, I am honestly surprised that I have not seen it replicated elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I cannot finish writing about Freedom Fighters without mentioning the terrible bugs that plagued my playthrough.  The most ridiculous of these occurs when moving between planes of varying heights, like ledges and stairs.  Frequently, this will not register in the game and you can continue to run off into space until the engine catches up, whereupon you drop to your doom like Wile E. Coyote in a Looney Tunes cartoon.  Another, which is far more game-breaking, involves the usability of certain objects.  At times, when attempting to open a door or raise a flag, the video will die and default to a solid-colored screen from which you must restart the software.  Maddening does not begin to describe the final glitch I experienced, which also involved useable items.  I fought through to the end of two separate levels before realizing I was not able to raise the flag needed to claim the building and move on.  The only way to progress past these points was to find a saved game on the internet that I could boot up to start the next level.  At ten years old, there is no excuse for these issues to remain outstanding.  I searched far and wide for a patch to correct these problems though, and there were none to be found. 

I can see why Freedom Fighters received the high marks it did back in 2003.  Not only does the game successfully channel the spirit of Red Dawn, but the unique combination of tactical strategy and shooter elements is something that is not often seen in an industry which regularly pushes more of the same.  While the individual components are overly simplified for my tastes, they form an enjoyable whole that helps me look past most of the title’s other shortcomings.  If not for the bugs, the strategic element alone would be worth the price of admission.  The problem is, the glitches are there and they break the game at the absolute worst possible moments.  I will happily wait for a sequel or spiritual successor to Freedom Fighters, but I refuse to battle technical problems at the same time that I am battling Communists ever again.

Verdict:  Not Recommended