Publisher: VU Games/Digital Jesters
Developer: Irrational Games
Release Date: March 8, 2005
Buy 'FREEDOM FORCE VS. THE THIRD REICH': PC
A few years back, it seemed as if there were some sort of curse on superhero games. (Those of you who've heard this before can skip on down a couple of paragraphs, I'm just gonna set up some backstory and drop a couple of names.) There was a time when it seemed like every superhero game coming out was an awful unplayable brick, destined to sink to the bottom of the gaming ocean and stay there. Long-forgotten company Paragon Software was tossing out bombs based on Marvel properties left and right, somehow Acclaim had gotten their hands on otherwise promising licenses like Iron Man, and games like the PC version of the popular pen-and-paper RPG Champions rolled over and died in the water. Dark days for superhero fans, indeed.
We don't even need to mention Superman 64, do we? Good. Leave it buried in sand where it belongs.
Nowadays, though, you can find a small but thriving bundle of games out there for comic book lovers. From City of Heroes and the coming expansion pack to big-name action titles like Spiderman 2 and X-Men Legends, to games based on obscurities like XIII and 100 Bullets, you can snag yourself a comic book title to match pretty much any gaming taste. Even 400-pound gorilla EA is moving in that direction with an upcoming title that pits original heroes from them against classic Marvel creations. It's a big step forward for superhero gaming.
So what broke the curse? What happened?
Freedom Force happened.
Irrational Games put out the original Freedom Force. While its 2002 release cracked a barrier for superhero games, it came through with surprising strength for any genre. A micromanagement heavy RPG/RTS hybrid, the game felt sort of hard to classify really. Freedom Force let you control a team of four heroes on the streets of Patriot City (and surroundings), fighting evil, righting wrongs, and hitting people with cars. (I really like doing that.) The entire city is destructible, but if you do too much of that, you'll lose Prestige, which is valuable for convincing other heroes to join up with you. Much like actual comic books, you can trace clear story arcs between connected episodes. Of course, there's an ample selection of heroes to choose from as well. Occasionally, the game gets too bogged down in micromanagement, and the difficulty level gets rather questionable, but on the whole, Freedom Force is a fantastic game.
Now we have Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich, which functions kind of like a concentrated version of the original. How much like the original? Read the above paragraph and replace "the streets of Patriot City" with "war-torn Germany in WW2" and you've got it, except for one more thing: read the negative points, wave your hand vaguely in the air, and toss off a casual, "but they fixed that." Congratulations, you've just reviewed FFvsTTR, and I can go back to playing it.
In fact, I owe all of you and several other people in my life an apology. Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich is such a fantastic game that I've missed sleep, meals, outings, and very nearly missed writing this review by the deadline all so I could keep "testing" it.
"Perhaps today I shall review Freedom Force," I would say, and then realize, "But lo! I have yet to play more than a few games of the excellent multiplayer option! With its new focus on team-based gameplay, it feels different from the older game, perhaps I shall test it more."
Or I'd sit down to start to write and realize that, gosh, I completely forgot to spend hours building heroes in the included hero creator. If you have any 3D modeling experience, this thing will let you extend the life of FFvsTTR indefinitely. If you don't have 3D modeling experience, not only has Irrational (again) expanded the workings of the hero creator options, but they've also made it mostly compatible with downloadable models for the first game. A little something for everyone there, and these are both options to which one can lose embarrassing amounts of time fiddling with. Either way, the important thing is I kept making up new excuses and finding new reasons to keep playing this game.
What really kept me coming back, though, was the campaign mode. Starting up just a little while after the conclusion of the original game's plotline, the team is still reeling from the loss of one of their comrades. There's no time to sit about and grieve however, as a pair of their old villains have escaped and stolen nuclear launch codes to boot! After a prelude "missile crisis" story arc set in the orange-colored heat of Cuba, our triumphant heroic team takes the Freedom Flyer home, only to be shot down by biplanes.
German biplanes. World War 2-era German biplanes, to be exact. This doesn't surprise those of us who read the title of the game, but for the Freedom Force, it's a pretty big shock. Thus they get together, work out a plan to travel to the past using the awesome comic book ability to make stuff up, and we start in on the Nazi-bashing.
Through about 15 missions, you battle everything the Third Reich can throw your way, from Nazi foot soldiers to super villains to tanks, and you have pretty much an open road as to how to do it. You can either send in flying heroes, blasting from the air with bursts of fire and magic and colored light, or you can sweep in with melee combat masters. You can stun the enemies with flashbombs and tactical maneuvers and make this a bastardized take on X-Com, or you can wander through the game scooping up anything that's not nailed down to bash people over the head and finish them off by knocking them through a wall or two. (Anything can be used for this, as long as you can pick it up. Anything. Expensive lab equipment breaks so nicely.) There's a nice variety of mission types too, as you go from defusing nuclear missiles to protecting other heroes while they work on repairs to protecting the Gutenberg Bible from being burned. All of this comes with an adjustable difficulty level, so fans who found the first game a little overwhelming can jump straight into this one.
The most prominent sides of the war are represented by the local heroes and villains of the WW2 period. On the Axis side, Fortissimo the alarmingly rotund flying Italian opera singer, Red Sun the flaming (in a literal sense) and honor-obsessive Japanese samurai, and (taking the place of and resembling the big H himself) Blitzkrieg the German mind controller all stand ready to duke it out with your team. Toss in some returning enemies from the first game for the modern era battles, and you've got yourself a party.
It wouldn't be a proper trip back in time unless you got the chance to group with heroes from the past, though. The plot often hinges heavily on the actions of these new characters, which really helps work them into your heart and mind. Blackjack, the British hero, is one of those plucky "can do" types with a dependence on gadgets and spy powers over brute force. Tricolour, from France, is a national fencing champion seeking to redeem herself for past sins. Then there's Sky King, an American actor in a home-built suit of powered armor with a jetpack, who sounds something like Jimmy Stewart channeling Dekkard Cain. These three get some great interplay going in cut scenes and during missions, they're a welcome addition to the team.
(You've probably noticed that all of these characters are stamped out with the stereotype cookie cutter. It was a little distracting to me at first, but they really do fit the tone and theme of the game. Blitzkrieg is a cackling maniacal German seeking to bring back the Third Reich because you can pick up a six-pack of cackling maniacal Germans seeking to bring back the Third Reich down at the Comic Book Plot Store. Yet there's some genuine depth to the characters as well, and the game's dialogue and general writing is sharp enough to bring that out.)
There are a couple of other new heroes as well, new teammates who join up during the present day. Tombstone is what you might get if you crossed Ghost Rider with Spawn, The Bard is as powerful as you would expect a man in checkered tights to be... all right, that's a lie, he has great use as a D&D-styled walking power up. Quetzalcoatl, however, has no use other than as an example of how not to build an Aztec superhero. Can't all be high points, though. Aside from the new characters, everyone from the prior game returns with a graphical upgrade. You can see every minute detail, from the sculpting on Minuteman's staff to the beauty mark on Tricolour's cheek.
Speaking of graphics, Freedom Force got a graphical overhaul in a comfortably subtle way. The graphical improvement is mostly visible in the way everything looks brighter, sharper, and clearer, and the detail level got a hike upward, but it's hard to put my finger on exactly where. Just as an example, when you take a huge chunk out of a building with a thrown car, you can see a cross-section of the building's internals now. Everything seems to take damage in a more spectacular way, and the interface as well is a little less intrusive. Much like the rest of the game, graphics are streamlined and polished up but still stay reminiscent of the prior game. Sound effects sound, well, appropriate. "Twack!" and "Slam!" balloons pop up as you knock bad guys around the landscape. The music is good enough, with a thundering and proud main theme and incidental bits that you can hum for weeks afterward. Voice acting is deliciously cheeseball, with the properly overblown announcer thundering out absurd proclamations at a mile a minute.
Really, if there are any negatives, they come as mild speedbumps down the road of fun. The main campaign is about one-third as long as it should be, for example, and there are a couple of heroes who throw the game balance entirely out of whack. One in particular, Supercollider, doles out justice using only his forehead and can knock enemies up to a block and a half away, which – don't get me wrong, is a complete blast, but – it kinda breaks the game slightly. You can trash anything, up to and including Blitzkrieg himself this way. Additionally, while there are a lot of new mission types, there isn't as much to do in the missions. You find yourself focused on one or two intricate or major goals instead of accomplishing a number of tasks around the map. This is just a change of playstyle, and it's not too bad. Aside from that, the only problem that comes to mind is that you can't go back and play the original game with the improved graphics and character models, to make it one long campaign. This is a real shame, considering how far those improvements go to make the game even more fun.
Of course, if Irrational were to release some kind of tweak that would let us run the old game's data on this new engine... ahem, hint.
Actually, it wouldn't be a surprise if some dedicated fan took up that task. The engine is designed for modification, and if what we saw happen to the other game is any indication, there will be a good handful of excellent fan campaigns to play through in the future.
Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich is not just the best superhero game to date, but it defines what a fantastic superhero game should be. With a cliffhanger ending that'll leave you craving more and enough replay value in the different character combinations to keep you playing for weeks after you really should have stopped, we can only hope it doesn't take another three or four years for the hopefully inevitable sequel.
Now if you'll excuse me, Patriot City needs me.
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