Game Name:  Freedom Force 
Developer:  Irrational Games 
Publisher:  Electronic Arts
PC Release Year:  2002 
Review Date:  May 30, 2013 

After finishing the brilliant No One Lives Forever, I wanted to find another title that captured the zany stereotypes of the 1960s without taking itself too seriously.  Freedom Force seemed to fit that bill perfectly, with its focus on the campy comic book culture of the era.  Having read many positive reviews at the time of its release and being thoroughly impressed by the level of polish I experienced at the outset of my playthrough, I found myself initially sucked into the promise of the game’s colorful world.  Unfortunately, production value can only go so far and the longer I played, the more I realized that there was not much under the hood to keep me engaged.

As far as presentation goes, Freedom Force really is top notch.  Being about superheroes and their criminal counterparts, the experience feels less like a video game and more like an interactive comic book.  The primary way this is conveyed is with the heavily stylized art design, which gives off a pen-and-paper, cartoonish kind of vibe.  This has thankfully allowed Freedom Force to age rather gracefully compared to most games its age, which is a huge plus for graphics snobs like me.  The game’s luster, though, is not limited to its visuals.  Take your squad of heroes out into the urban environments of Patriot City and all of the little pieces come into focus.  Fights, for example, are chaotic affairs, but interspersed throughout the battles are the “Smack!” “Foosh!” and “Krak!” action bubbles you would have seen in an episode of Adam West’s Batman series.  The over-the-top narration is inspired by this same television show and as I made my way through the game, I half expected to hear, “Tune in next week bat fans!”  The cutscenes that provide the superhero backstories complete the effect.  They are entirely 2-D affairs with minimal use of animation, giving the impression that the images just came off of the printing press.

The characters themselves also add to the atmosphere of the game.  Despite the fact that most of their superpowers originate from the same alien chemical, the heroes are all unique and well-defined.  The leader of the group is Minuteman, a scientist on the Manhattan Project who dons a revolutionary war costume and smites communists with his staff.  Then you have El Diablo, a gang leader inspired by Bernardo in West Side Story, whose fiery temperament gives him command of the fire element.  Among many others, you also have the Ant, who is a teenage victim of bullying that gains the powers of the insects he studies in his free time.  If you can conjure an image of an outlandish superhero in your head, you will likely run into one that is very similar as you work to put together your very own version of the Justice League.

While Freedom Force falls apart on the gameplay side of the equation, I have to give the developers credit for creating a unique blend of RPG and RTS elements.  If you can imagine picking four unique DotA heroes, throwing them side-by-side in a strategy game level, and commanding them to steamroll the non-player characters between you and your objective, you have a pretty good idea of how the game plays.  Between missions, you get the opportunity to upgrade the passive and active skills of these heroes with the experience you earned in the prior outing, allowing you to tailor these characters to match your playstyle.  You will not want to always rely on the same heroes for every mission though, as your choice of squad members is very important.  While you have characters that specialize in tanking, damage dealing, and crowd control as you would find in an MMO, you also have to worry about diversifying your damage and armor types.  There is a very strong rock-paper-scissors component to the game in that your heroes all have their strengths and weaknesses.  As an example, robotic heroes like Man-Bot and Microwave are very strong against physical damage, but are heavily susceptible to electrical damage. 

While this decision making could have been a great strength of Freedom Force, it is ultimately a liability due to poor follow-through.  A mission is typically comprised of three to four levels, but you only get to pick your squad prior to the first level within a mission and without much intelligence on what you will be fighting.  Unless you are willing to reload to an earlier save point, it is very easy to make an unanticipated mistake in your squad selection that will haunt you for the next few levels.  It seems like there should have be some kind of consideration in place to swap your heroes out on the fly; even if only once or twice during a mission to keep it from being abused.

Equally frustrating is the objective and map design.  While there are around 40 levels in Freedom Force, the only goal in most of them is to get from point A to B and destroy the bad guys in between.  Once you get about half-way through the game, the fantastic production value can no longer hide the fact that you are essentially doing the same thing over and over again.  This is really unfortunate considering the diversity of the title’s characters.  It would have been great to see some puzzle elements introduced that made use of the wide array of superpowers at your disposal.  A couple of levels doing this would have gone a long way towards reducing the monotony felt in the latter part of the game.

These items pale in comparison to the single biggest problem for Freedom Force, which is trying to micromanage four different superheroes while avoiding enemy attacks and friendly fire.  On any difficulty above easy, where you have leeway to make mistakes, it is near impossible to command your squad in real time.  The developers foresaw this problem and allow players to queue up a command for each hero while the game is paused.  Unfortunately, the complexity of combat means that this feature becomes a crutch and the ‘action’ in the game devolves into a repetitive pattern of pausing, queuing orders, unpausing, watching five seconds of combat, and then pausing again to repeat the process.  This destroys any sense of immersion that the game is capable of creating and also turns very large fights into chores to be slogged through instead of challenges to be overcome.

These three strikes do not completely destroy Freedom Force, but they take it a long way down that road.  Truth be told, there are a handful of extremely brilliant level designs that show what the game could have been.  My favorite sees Patriot City being attacked by a giant robot while the Freedom Fortress is attacked by smaller robots.  You are forced to split up your team into pairs to handle each task simultaneously, but there are enough natural breaks in the action that you do not have to resort to excessive pausing.  Unfortunately, a level like this is the exception to the rule, which leaves the game ultimately in a state of monotonous grind.  Unless you are a big enough fan of the superhero theme to overlook this title’s major flaws, I would suggest staying far away from Freedom Force.

Verdict:  Not Recommended