This is going to be long, so I’ll establish the subject matter and lay in a cut.
During Pizza Week (aka, while my wife was out of town) my son and I did quite a bit of video gaming. Generally, I played and he sat beside me telling me what he thought I should do. The best game we played, the most fun and the most enthralling, was Freedom Force.
I’m going to break this up into sections:
1. Why a long post about Freedom Force?
2. A perfect game? Um, no.
3. Why my son loved the game so much he wasn’t interested in the last couple of levels (hint: it’s not because he didn’t want it to end).
4. What about the sequel?
A video game? Since when do I write about video games?
So, let me be upfront: I think Freedom Force is a great game. I’m not what you’d call a big-time gamer. I rarely play, and usually I get bored partway through and quit before the end. Also, it seems that most games absolutely have to have some sort of “jump from ledge to ledge at the edge of a precipice” section. It always takes several attempts and there’s always falling onto sharp rocks below. Lots of falling.
Heights make me nauseous. Even badly-rendered heights on my computer screen. Not to mention, I too often find myself trying to solve some situation in a video game while thinking “Who would do this? Who would stand on a crumbling ledge, leap at a brick wall and hope you could break through it to land safely in the room inside?”
So, I don’t finish many video games. They’re often tedious, interesting visuals are used repetitively, and there’s no interesting narrative. I don’t play to “beat” the game; I play to see cool stuff and have fun. A story would be nice, too.
Why, then, Freedom Force?
Basics: It’s a superhero game released in 2002, and it’s the first one that really worked. It’s a tactical, squad-based game. You control up to 4 heroes with the mouse, each with different powers, and go on missions to defeat villains both super- and non-.
I found the game impossible to manage until I realized you could pause the action with the space bar and target enemies. At that point, the game became fun.
The cinematic that starts the game is a scene inside the throne room of “Lord Dominion, ruler of a thousand dimensions”. There’s only one world left for this big-headed gray alien to conquer (guess which) and he’s determined to have a little fun. He zooms his aliencam on a dude sitting on death row for killing someone over a couple dollars, and declares that he will cause the planet Earth to destroy itself! He’ll give Energy X–the secret of his terrible power–to a handful of criminals and watch them tear the world apart.
Unfortunately for him (not for us) a lone rebel is lurking in the throne room overhears the plan and steals the ship loaded with Energy X characters. The fleeing ship is shot down over Patriot City and the canisters fall randomly onto the populace below.
Cut to: (just watch the first two and a half minutes, until the actual game starts).
Captain America Minuteman!
That’s when you take over, fighting criminals and trying to track down the spy to find out what he’s up to.
The cinematics gave the flavor of those early silver age comics, where good guys are always good and bad guys twirl their mustaches. The voice acting is bombastic and declarative, and the art tries really damn hard to make readers think of Jack Kirby.
At the end of the second level, Minuteman teams up with the alien rebel. Soon they pick up a third hero, and then more. Eventually, you have a chance to choose which team mates you bring on each mission, which really helps break up the monotony of the game. It’s fun to find ways to make their powers complement each other. They also gain new powers as they level up, so game play keeps changing.
And the villains are fun, too. Well, not the commie spies, necessarily, but the ice-powered baddies they turn into, yeah. And the game wastes no time; in the first few levels, you fight dinosaurs! Giant, acid-spitting ants! Wrecking-ball robots! Shadowy underground cloak-type guys! Charging minotaurs!
Even better, the heroes get to fly over buildings, throw cars, and occasionally punch guys so hard they get knocked back a city block. You get to play a Spider-man analog, an Iron Man analog, a pseudo-Scarlet Witch, a pseudo-Vision, a pseudo Flash, etc. Not only that, but you can design your own heroes and slip them into the game.
The whole thing is bombastic, light-hearted, and fun. Remember when comics were fun? Now you don’t have to, because you can play this game. Me, I love it.
Hey, that sounds great! I’m sure there isn’t a thing wrong with it!
The game is meant to be a little silly. Notice the subject header up there? One of the Soviet “frost troopers” delivers that line while the heroes are sneaking up on his position. In fact, there’s a lot of humor in the game, and there’s a lot of fun poked at the conventions of the comics of the time.
For instance, as each hero executes an attack, they say one of their two or three catch phrases (“By the Goddess!” “Your evil is not wanted here!”). At first, it’s cute. By level six, it’s annoying. By level 16 you won’t even hear them anymore.
But Minuteman says “For Justice!” *whack!* or “For Freedom!” *whack!* or “Might makes right!” *whack!* The first time I heard that last one, I was all “WTF what that? Might makes who?” But yeah, Minuteman spends the whole game so utterly convinced of his own righteousness that he’s a caricature.
And mostly it works. The Soviet baddies don’t seem at all like real people, and the supervillain mobster Pinstripe is every Italian mobster cliche you can think of except the plate full of pasta.
Then there’s El Diablo. The third superhero the game drops on you is a “hot-tempered” Hispanic gang member (it’s a very Jets vs. Sharks look) who naturally has an eye for pretty ladies. He’s fun to play, but come on, guys; there’s a line between goofiness and dismaying, and El Diablo crosses it.
But! one of my wife’s books says that kids do not learn to treat people fairly when parents pretend racial/sexual/whatever differences don’t exist, and this was a chance to talk with my kid about a kind of prejudice he hadn’t really encountered before. So I took it.
As for the women characters, well, we’re talking fishnets, miniskirts and bikinis, but that’s pretty much what you’d expect at this point, yeah? And that has nothing to do with setting the series in the sixties, because that’s the state of the genre now.
Your son loved it but didn’t want to finish it, you say?
Yeah, funny thing, huh?
It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy the game. He did. A lot. Even better, the “Press pause and choose an action” gameplay meant he could play this game himself.
But what he really liked–really really liked–was the mod options.
Freedom Force not only allows you to create your own heroes, but they provide tools for creating your own “skins” and “meshes”, for developing landscapes to play in, and to create objectives for the characters to finish. In short, they let you create a game.
My son goes wild for this stuff. His favorite thing about Lego Indiana Jones was the create-a-level section–much more interesting than running through someone else’s games. He’s loved creating games as far back as the old Netshift community, which isn’t even online anymore. And that’s a big thing for him: he wants to be able to control the game. He wants to make his own.
The only problem is that “modding” for Freedom Force is too technical for us. I was reading through a couple of FAQs, and even making a functioning character required a spendy program and a degree of some sort. All the boy really wanted was a kid-sized hero figure that he could hang powers on, like Power Pack.
4. There’s a sequel, right? Where the Freedom Force heroes travel back in time to fight Nazi villains?
Yes! And I’ve ordered it. It came out in 2005, and looks to be a little more advanced than the original, but not too much. By all reports, it is very like the first game in tone, but didn’t break much new ground. I’ll be interested to see if the game has simpler mod components build in, as the packaging suggests.
Unfortunately, it didn’t sell very well, and the creators have moved on (to BioShock 2, actually)
Quote from one of the creators on why they think the game didn’t sell as well as it could have:
“I think the mistake we probably made, in retrospect, but I don’t think that it was a mistake creatively, is that it was definitely a love letter to the 60’s era Marvel comics. The Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko stuff. Sorry, probably Don Heck and Gene Colan as well. (Laughs) It was such a love letter, that for the modern audience, it may have been too weird and different, and not what they knew of comics than what Rob and I knew of comics growing up. “
You guys, I dream about this game (and having a “pause” button for my real life). The theme music is stuck in my head. I loved it, and if I had the background (or the time to invest) I’d be making adventures of my own.
And, if you’ve read this far, I’ll point out that both games are available on Steam for $7.50, or five bucks apiece. I’m a Mac person, so I can’t do Steam, but if you like it, I say check it out.