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RPG Codex Retrospective Review: Freedom Force

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RPG Codex Retrospective Review: Freedom Force

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 1 April 2023, 21:09:52

Tags: Freedom Force; Irrational Games

[Review by Mr. Magniloquent]


It’s 2002. Comics and superheroes are still the province of nerds and neck-beards. It will be nearly an entire decade before Marvel reshapes popular culture. Despite that, Irrational Games of System Shock 2 fame would give us one of the best CRPGs you’ve never played. Freedom Force isn’t just a love letter to 1960 silver age comics, it’s a tactical masterpiece.

Gameplay Overview

You will command one to four amusingly themed super heroes on missions spanning nine loosely related chapters that are more or less self-contained. The perfectly thin plot is an excuse to trek through tropes and Freedom Force makes no fuss about it. Don’t ask questions, Storyfags. Just rise to the call of duty and enjoy the ride. This game exudes charm, waxing authentic camp and cliché every step of the way. You’ll guard against greedy gangsters, stop sinister Soviets, battle reprobate robots, and even have close encounters with space aliens and dinosaurs. Just another day in the life of a super hero, chum.


The highly episodic nature is refreshing. It acts not only as a platform for a wide variety of environments, enemies, and encounters—but helped me fit in gaming sessions throughout my week. Most of those missions are “seek and destroy”, but they often come with nuance attached. Many objectives are timed and have consequences for slow action. Splitting your team is frequently necessary, so be sure to assemble a capable cast. There are many (skippable) in-engine cut-scenes and most characters are introduced with a vignette panel origin story that is very satisfying. Beyond that, it’s mostly battle. Glorious real-time with pause battle. I’mma let you finish Pillars of Eternity, but Freedom Force is the best example of RTwP in a CRPG. More on that later. Like any proper RPG, it all begins with the characters.

Characters & Development


Many heroes will join your team throughout the campaign, but some will have to be purchased using Prestige. Prestige is earned by accomplishing mission objectives and defeating villains. It is lost through public harm. Your heroes have preset stats, attributes, powers, resistances, and shticks. While in campaign mode, character features are unlocked and upgraded using experience points earned on missions. The system is technically classless but this won’t matter because each hero is almost entirely unique. The stats:
  • Strength: Melee attack potency, jump height, throwing ability, and what objects you can lift/carry.
  • Speed: Rate of movement. Speed also influences the execution duration of powers.
  • Agility: Attack accuracy and chance to dodge enemy attacks.
  • Endurance: Hit-points, ability to resist trauma (like explosions or stun), and passive defenses.
  • Energy: Determines maximum Action Points and their regeneration rate.
Stats are set and cannot be increased. Attributes are like Perks in Fallout, and have various effects and costs. Some might give you improved damage resistance or the ability to fly. Powers are the actions your character can perform. They are divided into two lists that emphasize different aspects of the character’s theme. The top list holds the less elaborate core functions, while the lower list generally has more complex and nuanced powers. Powers have 5 levels of advancement with costs that increase for each point. You'll notice the absence of non-combat skills on each character. Freedom Force doesn't negotiate with terrorists!


All attributes and powers are gated until the preceding one is unlocked. Powers must also be upgraded to Level 3 before the next is available. Furthermore, the costs of attributes are also hidden. This is easily my most severe criticism of Freedom Force. You’ll incur sunk costs and have no latitude for experimentation without creating multiple save files. This method of development is one of Freedom Force’s very rare mistakes. Finally, characters earn experience only when on missions. Keeping a consistent crew will be vital if you wish to see your favorites fully developed. Certain chapters will impose or deprive you of specific characters, but you’ll still be able to mostly maintain your party of choice. Don't be discouraged by the preset characters. Each is highly unique and plays very differently based on how you advance them. Trying different approaches and team compositions is engaging and makes replays interesting and worthwhile.

There is also a highly intuitive and powerful custom character creator. Everything has full customization. You can choose your own model, voice-set, stats, body material type, attributes, and powers. Powers themselves have a bevy of parameters to manipulate. The player can even create entirely new powers, complete with their own visuals and name. Furthermore, the modding scene is well supported with high quality community made models. Custom characters can be used in the campaign, but it’s inadvisable. They are better suited to the Danger Room mode, which is a stand-alone mode brawl mode not connected to the main campaign.

Combat

Did I mention this game is true real-time with pause? There are no hidden pseudo-rounds. Timing is everything. From how fast you move to how fast you can act. The real-time action makes it possible to micro your character to dodge attacks--it’s often vital to do so. Hustling your hero behind a car for cover from a gangster robot raking his Tommy Gun across the avenue will feel genuinely cinematic. The duration of the execution and action point costs is correlated with how potent a power is. In true comic fashion, ultimate attacks are flashy and highly telegraphed, giving you time to respond by marshaling your defenses, fleeing for cover, or attempting to interrupt them. Interruption is an important tactic, and made the Alchemiss character’s quick and inexpensive Repulsion ability invaluable.


Freedom Force makes full use of its 3D environment. Beyond your character’s own RNG, your attacks will have to contend with constant movement, line of sight, and range itself. It will be commonplace to miss your intended target or hit unintended ones. Collision is consequential, as both bystanders and environments are destructible. This isn’t pop-a-mole. Vantage points and cover will be destroyed, so don’t get too comfortable.

Prestige will be lost from harming innocents and destroying civilian infrastructure, no matter the perpetrator. Your priorities will be impacted by the nature of the enemies you face because of it. A grenade wielding maniac who demolishes a building because you’re atop it will still incur prestige loss. It is frequently necessary to put your heroes in danger for the greater good in true comic book fashion. Collateral damage also makes discretion the better part of valor. Large explosions and penetrating ray attacks are dangerous to more than the villains. Non-urban environments where you can let loose will become cathartic because of it. On the same note, environments are often usable. Freedom Force was tossing exploding barrels 10 years before Larian made it cool. You can also throw cars, mailboxes, and other objects if strong enough. In melee, wield traffic signals and streetlights for wide and satisfying swings.


No comic can be complete without rooftop action. Solasta made much ado about elevation, but this is another feature where Freedom Force was decades ahead. A higher position provides unimpeded line of sight, or can be a refuge from a blundering brute. Furthermore, fall damage is significant. Knocking a knucklehead from a lofty ledge or flying felon is often more damaging than a direct attack.

All powers cost Action Points. Even the lowliest of basic punches will cost a few AP. All powers can have their potency increased or decreased, which also modifies the AP cost. The savvy player can be economical by diminishing their powers against weak or vulnerable enemies. This can often be a crucial tactic for success on certain missions. Likewise, you can also elevate your powers when you need it to count, or overcome a powerful foe's defenses. Be fore-warned, if you use more AP than is currently available, there is a scaling risk that the action will both fail and stun that character. Gripping scenes emerge when you execute a double-empowered ultra-attack just in the nick of time to save the day. Everything about Freedom Force works to exude super heroic style. Play this game already!


Difficulty

For all of these reasons, combat is as difficult as it is joyous. The player must manage timing, position, collateral damage, health, and action points among both their team and their foes. Real-time is as thrilling as it is hectic. Pausing is a respite, but you will still have to remain un-paused for your commands to execute. Don’t be dismayed by the maximum party size of four. It’s a necessary ceiling on how much the player must observe and coordinate. Freedom Force demands fluid tactics as your best laid strategies will frequently go sideways. In the immutable words of champion boxer Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Indeed, you will get punched in the mouth. Some objectives can be ambitions with high difficulty spikes that players will struggle to get full marks on. Even among the campy tones, the sense of crisis and urgency are often real—particularly on defense missions. You will reload. Despite this, I never once felt cheated.

The AI is serviceable. It won’t be apparent early game, but it will keep you on your toes as more elaborate enemies appear. Punches are not pulled and the odds are frequently stacked against you. This is the fabric of heroism, and you will relish your tense victories. Freedom Force is a litany of action, but rarely is any of it dull. This game is for combatfags. Casuals will be immediately put off. Steel your hearts, heroes! The path of justice is fraught with glorious peril!



Aesthetics

Freedom Force was released in early 2002 and embraced the movement to full 3D. The game still looks great due to the artistic choices and the colorful comic aesthetics. Even zoomed in, character models are sharp and attractive. Most urban environments are lively and have reasonable detail for the era. Its age is only apparent when on winter or desert landscapes. Some parks can also be a bit plain. Any game should be so lucky to age this well though.

The camera can be fully rotated via the Alt key, but the viewing angle is less controllable. You can zoom in to be among the thick of it, but players will need to spend most of their time zoomed out. Sounds are crisp, if simple. Any fan of Adam West era Batman will appreciate audio and visual affects like POW!, ZAP!, and FWOOSH! that accompany a powerful hit. It’s all part of the delightful homage to silver age comics. Music also carries a lighter tone, with lots of 1960’s style guitar twang and frantic electric organs. The music is overall decent, but is mostly background to emphasize the crazy combat. Some tracks are more memorable than others, like the theme of notorious villain Nuclear Winter (oooh oooh oh!) The user interface is excellent despite occupying almost no screen space. Commands are driven through drop-down menus and information is conveyed through mouse-overs. The game is very easy to control and observe, allowing you to focus entirely on the action.



Technical

Freedom Force is old enough to drink. It will run smoothly on maximum settings even on the most haggard potato laptop. Its age shows in the settings menus, as many of the hardware references are outdated. It may not properly default to settings compatible with your hardware, so take a moment to configure it. The game runs flawlessly without glitch via WINE on my Solus 4 Linux distro.

:5/5: Summary :5/5:

Freedom Force is a true joy of a CRPG. It doesn’t merely know what it is—it loves what it is. The appreciation for the subject matter is palpable and is an example to the industry of what passion can accomplish. I am confident that the charm will be felt even by those who do not appreciate “capes”. Even if not, the campy comic combat is excellent and is laden with natural tactical nuances that will please any true gamer. This game is a master class in design and execution. Polish your monocles, Gentlemen. Freedom Force is a contender for any prestigious connoisseur's top 10 list.

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