by Andrew Pam
I've been invited to write for RPG Review on the topic of strategic and roleplaying computer games, especially CRPGs. I have played tabletop RPGs since the early 1980s, including DMing 1st and 2nd edition AD&D and the original Traveller, but in recent years due to time restrictions I have switched to playing mostly CRPGs instead. I have a significant collection of PC RPGs from the 1980s to today, and continue to contribute to the crowdfunding of new CRPGs. I plan to review both older games (particularly where they suit the theme of an issue) and forthcoming games.
I'll start by briefly responding to last issue's article, Why Aren't Computer Games (Especially
MMOs) As Much Fun To Play As Old-time D&D? by Lewis Pulsipher. I agree that games that focus on “grinding” or “levelling” without other redeeming elements are not particularly interesting, and therefore I generally won't be discussing MMOs and will be focussing on games that have an interesting story, or perhaps appealing characters or enjoyable gameplay. Even games with a linear story can be worthwhile, not just “open world” games with a story heavily influenced or even entirely constructed by the player's actions.
In keeping with this issue's superhero theme, in this article I am reviewing Freedom Force (2002) and the sequel Freedom Force vs the Third Reich (2005).
These games are real-time tactical RPGs set in a comic book universe developed by Irrational Games, featuring original characters created by Robb Waters who also worked on classic computer games Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock. The original game is inspired by the “Silver Age” of comics (1950s to 1970s) and the sequel by the “Golden Age” (1930s to 1950s) with a WWII setting thanks to a time travel plot. The campaign characters parallel well-known Marvel and DC characters, but the game also permits you to design your own characters and there is a mod community called “Mod Force”.
The Irrational Games development team was based in Boston MA and Canberra, Australia until the Canberra office (renamed to 2K Australia in 2007) was closed in April 2015. The Freedom Force games were well received by both critics and players, with the first game winning two Game Developers Association of Australia awards in 2002 (Best Game Design and Best PC Game) as well as Best RPG of E3 from Gamespy in 2003. After Freedom Force they became even better known for their very successful Bioshock series.
The games are 3D overhead view with fully destructible environments – and you are penalised for collateral damage! The combat system was reportedly inspired by the legendary CRPG Baldur's Gate. The first game features nine core superheroes: Minuteman, Mentor, El Diablo, Manbot, Alche-miss, The Ant, Liberty Lad, Microwave and Eve; and a further seven you can optionally recruit: Man O'War, Sea Urchin, Blackbird, the inseparable duo of Law and Order, Bullet, Iron Ox and Supercollider. The second game adds seven more: The Bard, Black Jack, Green Genie, Quetzalcoatl, Sky King, Tombstone and Tricolour. Each hero comes with an origin story that is played when they first join your team. You can take up to a maximum of four of the characters in your team on each mission.
Each character has a basic body type selected from Flesh, Metal, Stone, Rubber, Fire, Energy, Wood or Frozen with differing resistances to the attack types: Piercing, Crushing, Heat, Cold, Mental, Electrical, Radiation, Energy, Acid and Mystical. Destructible objects in the game can be made from the same materials plus Air, Concrete and Cloth.
Characters also have five stats: Strength, Speed, Agility, Endurance and Energy (the rate at which their heroic abilities recharge). Finally they have special attributes and powers, not all of which will be unlocked when they start off at the beginning of the game. Attributes can be positive or negative allowing you to balance some disadvantages with additional benefits elsewhere.
The powers fall into eight categories: Melee attacks, Projectile attacks, Beam attacks (which cannot be dodged by the target), Area effects, Direct effects that immediately influence the target, Active defences, Passive defences, and Special powers that are custom-coded. When designing your own characters, all except the Special powers can be extensively customised with a range of properties such as the damage type and magnitude, the energy cost, range, accuracy and additional limitations or secondary effects. You can also select how long a power takes to go into effect with more immediate effects increasing the cost of the power.
Some Melee attacks have no energy cost (recommended to ensure your character can still attack when out of energy!) and some have a cone of effect beyond the initial impact. When using their superpowers, characters can choose to slightly or significantly overpower them or conversely to underpower them in order to use more or less energy than normal in exchange for a greater or lesser than normal effect.
Active and Passive defences that are effective against particular attack types can result in the attack being absorbed (the character gains energy!), blocked, deflected in a random direction, redirected back at a randomly chosen enemy or simply reflected back at the attacker. Some attacks can cause status effects: Enraged (the target goes beserk), temporarily Exiled from reality (unable to perform actions or take damage), Frozen (the ice can be damaged to free them), Hypnotised (they will swap sides), Mental Blank, Panicked (they will run away), Stasis (can be broken by damage), Stunned or Surrendered (they can be then interrogated by your heroes).
There are also secondary status effects: Acid Burnt and Irradiated (progressive damage until the effect wears off), Altered damage resistances, Blinded, Density Altered (slows them down and forces flyers to land), Image Displaced (cannot take damage but broken by attacking), Empathy (attackers share whatever damage they do to this target), Energised (energy recharge rate is increased, but may lead to dangerous instability), Hexed (moves slower and likely to stun themselves when attacking) or Nullified (a random superpower is temporarily disabled).
Characters can be knocked back and take collision damage proportional to their velocity when striking something solid, and can also take falling damage if they hit the ground. When hit points reach zero, characters are knocked out rather than dying. If your heroes are low on energy or hit points or otherwise in trouble, they may be able to perform a Heroic Deed (usually only once per mission) to fully restore their hit points or energy or to remove all negative status effects.
Characters taken on missions collect experience points which allow them to level up, at which time they earn character points used to enhance that character by upgrading their base stats or unlocking more super abilities. The team as a whole also collects “prestige points” which influence the public's perception of your team and are also used to purchase additional characters for your team. The more powerful the character, the more prestige points they cost. The same applies when designing your own character, so body types with more advantages and less disadvantages will increase the prestige cost, as will higher stats and greater abilities. If you design an overpowered character, they might not be affordable in the game!
During combat, characters with sufficient strength can pick up objects and wield them as weapons or throw them as missiles – for example lamp posts, vehicles or massive boulders! If they have sufficient speed, characters can run. If they have the appropriate abilities, they may also be able to leap tall buildings, fly, or teleport. Characters who can neither jump, fly nor teleport will not be able to collect bonuses on top of buildings so it's advisable to have at least one hero with one of those abilities on evrey mission.
Each game is stuctured as a series of “comic book issues” that tells a linear story. In addition to the primary objective of each mission and the overall goal of increasing prestige and avoiding collateral damage, missions have optional secondary objectives that provide the opportunity to earn more experience and prestige. There are more than twenty missions in each game, though some missions are broken into two or three acts.
The entire manual is printed in the notorious Comic Sans font, probably the only situation where that is actually thematically appropriate! The Freedom Force games use the programming language Python for all game scripting, which was an excellent choice as it continues to be a widely used and popular language and is both powerful and easy to learn.
The games have been available on Steam since 2009 and you can currently pick up both games as the Freedom Force: Freedom Pack for US$8 or you can get them individually on GOG.com for under AU$8 each. The story of the first game has also been published as a six-issue comic book miniseries from Image Comics. I bought both games and played them through to the end, and enjoyed both the style and the stories. Recommended. I hope this article encourages you to take a closer look!