Over thirteen years since its 2002 release, Freedom Force shows the same exceptional resilience and vigor you might expect of any Silver Age superhero story.
And indeed: it’s the heroes—along with the nostalgic sci-fi universe they inhabit—that are chiefly to thank for the game’s remarkable staying power. Mechanically, Freedom Force is an imperfect game. Frustrating pathing issues, quirky AI, and occasionally drastic character imbalance afflict Freedom Force with its signature super-weakness. But rest assured, dear citizens, for as in so many Silver Age stories, the good guys inevitably beat the bad guys, the planet earth is saved from total annihilation, and Freedom Force is still a damn fine game.
If Freedom Force has a singular superpower, it’s mimicry, and it’s wielded mightily. From the opening origin story—that of Minuteman, bellower of patriotic catchphrases and leader of our merry band—the game makes it immediately understood that this is a deliberate, lovingly crafted homage to classic comics. Along with Minuteman, the proud Patriot City plays host to a slew of colorful heroes and villains who run the gambit of now-traditional character archetypes. To name a few: there’s the mysterious, alien psychic (Mentor), the hulking metal suit (Man-Bot), and the dweeb high schooler bitten by radioactive, power-imparting insect (The Ant)—all of whom can trace clear, unquestionable lineage to some legend of comic book lore.
But this not-so-subtle resonance is far from any affront. Quite the contrary: Freedom Force’s familiar show of hokey tights and spandex comprise a form of worship, not theft, as do the boldly penned menus and cutscenes that might as well be Jack Kirby tear-outs. Mix in a script of hilariously corny, exaggerated dialogue, a healthy sprinkling of Biffs!, Pows!, and Ka-Blams!, and just a bit of good old-fashioned Red Dread (laments one fallen communist foe: Costumed do-goodnicks!),and you have what comic book fans will surely find a pitch-perfect, thoroughly endearing tribute to one of the art form’s most important eras.
Truthfully, this authenticity, polish, and enthusiasm might alone make Freedom Force a worthy adventure—even for those less familiar with classic comic lore. But luckily for the latter group, the strategic party-based gameplay and light RPG mechanics here are compelling enough in their own right to keep players engaged through the lengthy campaign. Veterans of isometric RPGs like Baldur’s Gate will find themselves on familiar ground as they command a group of four heroes against hordes of burglars, frozen commies, and dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs). Heroes are each equipped with unique powers, resistances, and weaknesses that make party composition a more interesting task: Minuteman’s hardiness and melee prowess, for instance, are generally useful attributes, but these might be diminished or even negated against a group of nimbler foes. Unfortunately, this system also highlights the occasionally unfair imbalance between Freedom Force’s heroes, as missions will periodically require (or ban) the inclusion of certain teammates. In the most frustrating cases, an undertrained or downright disadvantaged character might offer little more than dead weight, resulting in a challenge that feels less rewarding than it does unnecessary or unintended.
Combat itself takes place in real time amidst an entertaining display of microwave beams, pistol shots, and psychic explosions, all of which players can pause at any moment to assess the battlefield or issue commands. For the most part the action feels fast paced and responsive, despite a strange tendency I noticed among ranged attacks—even those of the “accurate” category—to miss inexplicably often. Meanwhile the various cityscapes, underground lairs, and interstellar domains where battle is waged offer more than simple backdrop. Depending on a hero’s abilities, players can hurl a nearby car at a cluster of bank robbers, trigger a tank of explosives with a well-placed fire beam, or scale a skyscraper with one impressive jump (or by simply flying). Such interactivity adds a fun—and often invaluable— layer of strategic depth and possibility, while giving your superheroes more opportunity to do cool, classic superhero stuff.
If it weren’t for a persistent rash of pathing and AI quirks, immersion in this otherwise captivating experience might go on uninterrupted. Though less noticeable in the early stages (before, in other words, you’ve assembled your first four-man party), these issues became more and more prevalent as mission difficulty escalated: for instance, heroes issued to attack the same target would often attempt to approach from the same angle or location, which would then result in one hero successfully carrying out the order while the other stands and stares blankly. Meanwhile the game offers no control over passive party AI, which precludes relatively simple instructions like automatic retaliation in case of enemy attack. The cumulative result of these issues is a peeving necessity to pause more frequently and repeatedly reissue the same orders over and over again, leading in turn to gratuitous breaks in the otherwise glorious superhero carnage. Perhaps these are the complaints of a contemporary tactical RPG fan—one whose grown used to such a degree of control—but these frustrations are glaring and consistent enough to where it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t detract from the experience just as much in 2002 as they do today.
And though they are indeed a formidable foe, fret not: Freedom Force proves decidedly victorious by the end of its challenging, humorous campaign. If for any reason you’ve missed this fantastic tale of catastrophically bored martian overlords, magically enhanced freedom fighters, and gigantic mutant ants, I beseech you, dear citizens, to experience (or revisit) it now. At a measly $7.49 on Steam for the original game and the standalone expansion (Freedom Force Vs. the Third Reich), this story’s an easy recommendation for any fan of Silver Age glories.