Wednesday, May 1, 2002

The Mount - Freedom Force Game Review

Freedom ForceThe city trembles in fear. A gang of bank robbers have held the city in their grip for weeks and the latest robbery has just taken place. The police are pinned down by gunfire at the front of the bank as the back of the building explodes! The crooks are escaping out the newly opened exit running through the dark alleys behind the bank.

Minutes later they emerge, thick moneybags slung over their shoulders. They laugh at the helpless police, dreaming of the island paradises and hedonistic lives that await them as soon as they get to the airport.

Suddenly there is a great SWOOMP noise and one of their number is struggling to take off his jacket, which has mysteriously burst into flame. As one they look up and see a grinning masked man standing on midair, his feet on fire as he blows smoke off his hand.

"Hot stuff, coming through" he laughs, easily flying away from the hail of bullets which the robbers release into the sky he once occupied. So focused are they on this man that some of them don't see the other man: the man who wears a flag.

With a mighty tug and barely a wince, the flag man rips a lamp-post from the ground. The thieves who see him run. Those who don't are informed of his arrival as he bellows "For Justice!" and swings the lamp-post like a bat. Holding back his colossal strength, the flag-wearing man knocks three of the thugs unconscious with his blow.

Stopping his swing, he looks after the three fleeing thugs, ready to give chase. His chase doesn't last long as two of the crooks get odd expressions on their faces, angry expressions, as if they had become consumed by anger. Before he can get to them, one lies on the ground, knocked out by his own partner in crime.

It is a simple matter for the flag wearer to stop and deliver a knock-out punch of his own as he looks to the alleys and sees his companion; a telepath from another world who gives him a nod in return.

This leaves one thug who is still running, a sack of his ill-gotten loot over his shoulder. The flag-wearing man looks up and sees the flying man moving after him. But the final blow of the fight is to go to the last of their number, who is always slow in showing up- but more than makes up for his lack of speed with a power unmatched by any. The thug is so scared of the men behind them he runs right into the armored man before him. Knocked to the ground by one punch of his gauntleted hand, the thug is knocked to the ground. The armored man sighs stoically. "Sorry, I had to do that."

Now where did this come from, you might wonder. What new comic is this? Or is this an old one, a rehash of some classic Jack Kirby or Gardner Fox book? Not quite, though in spirit it is very much like that.

The above scene was played out by me during a fruitful hour of playing "Freedom Force," a new PC game which has wowed critics and fans alike. At the time of this writing, Freedom Force is the best selling computer game in the country... that isn't set in the Star Wars universe.

The plot of the game is classic Silver Age material and fans who hate the Dark Age of comics will be glad to know that the game perfectly fits the tone of the Silver Age. The darkest moment in the entire game is in the origin of the armored Man-Bot, who turns to heroism after his powers kill a loved one.

It is 1962. An evil alien warlord has conquered most of the galaxy but spared the planet Earth as being too primitive to be worth the effort.... Until one day.

In a fit of boredom, he decides to destroy the Earth for the pure sake of it. But rather than send his armies to do it, he proposes to find beings on Earth whose capacity for committing acts of evil is greater than average (he gleefully notes that Earthlings are much more predisposed to causing trouble than not).

These "evil" people will then be exposed to Energy X; a deus ex machina chemical, which causes any sentient life form near it to undergo genetic mutation based on what was on their mind at the time of infection, their predominant personality trait, or some object that was near them at the time.

In other words, you get blasted with the stuff, you get powers.

The plan is to find these evil people, give them these powers and watch and laugh as the dregs of humanity kill themselves, and the planet, off. But the plans are changed quickly, thanks to a telepathic alien and member of the slim resistance fighting the warlord. Stealing some Energy X, he sets out to Earth to find good people and create a group capable of fighting this soon to be approaching army of evil. Shot down by the warlord's troops, this freedom fighter (who later adopts the name of Mentor) scatters his Energy X at random across a metropolis with the unlikely name of Patriot City.

You begin the game as Frank Stiles, a 73 year old nuclear scientist and former researcher for The Manhattan Project, which he was forced out of after he accused a coworker of being a communist spy. As he sits in the park feeling depressed, Frank sees that same coworker moving under a shady tree with a man who "looks suspicious". (Probably the fact that he's wearing a fur coat and fur hat with a red star on it in the middle of summer).

Hiding in the bushes, he hears enough to confirm his suspicions and prove himself right about his coworker. But Frank slips, his cane breaking and his presence revealed. The two spies shoot him in the chest and run off, leaving Frank for dead.

On the verge of blacking out, Frank manages to pull himself up and staggers for help. Through increasing darkness, he sees a glow- the statue of a minuteman standing at attention that rests in the center of a park is glowing. Grabbing at the statue in desperation, Frank feels energy flowing into his body. His body heals and he feels himself become younger, stronger, and faster. Inspired by the image before him, he vows to fight the Red Menace that nearly killed him with his newfound strength, saying "They may have killed Frank Stiles, but they will find their defeat at the hands of... The Minuteman!" Donning a costume, he chases after the spies... and the adventure begins.

Spread across ten "issues" and dozens of levels, you will control a team of slightly over a dozen heroes by the games end and face one classic comic book crisis after another. From alien invasions to Communist spies, from building smashing monsters to dinosaur stampedes, and yes, even a battle against a rogue Greek God, you get everything from the Silver Age but a battle against super-intelligent gorillas.

The plot and characterization of the game is right on. The voice acting is perfect, with a booming-voiced narrator announcing everything ala Superfriends or Stan Lee from the old "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends" cartoons.

The characters are varied in powers and in personality. Some are not too subtle tributes to more famous heroes. The Ant, for example, is pure Peter Parker - acrobatic, super-strong with an acidic home-brewed weapon to offset his natural powers (acid bombs instead of web fluid) that matches his naturally acid tongue. (My favorite line in the whole game is his "I'd really like a girlfriend, but I'd really prefer she not be a psychotic maniac.")

Thankfully, the characters do feel like tributes made out of love and not rip-offs or parodies. Minuteman can easily stand along side Superman, Captain America and Fighting American and would be a perfect fit in the All Star Squadron. Some characters even manage to surpass their inspiration, with Minuteman's sidekick Liberty Lad being much more useful (and fun to play) than Bucky.

Graphics wise, the game is amazing. Everything looks as animated and fresh from the page as the Kirbyesque artwork on the game box. Big animated CRASH and POW balloons appear as you fight, with appropriate sounds that match the graphics in their skillful application. The games voice acting is also top-notch, with gleeful overacting as heroes shout fighting catch phrases heroically and villains cackle madly.

The game's interface takes a while to get used to, but is not difficult. Up to four team members can be controlled at one time, with the 1-4 keys used to switch between team members (a double tap sends your view to wherever they stand on the game grid) and 5 to move the team as one. The rest of the action is controlled with the mouse- with left clicks moving a character and right clicks setting up the various attacks and defensive maneuvers. Thankfully, the game can be paused in the heat of the battle so you can check up on each team member, see where they are, see what enemies are closest and then set up the next attack without fear of one hero getting teamed up on as you work elsewhere.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the game is the character creation. It is possible for you to create your own custom designed superhero. "Recipes" are traded about on the Internet, with some people having created Freedom Force equivalents for many popular comic characters. These custom characters can be recruited for play in the single player game or taken into the arena multiplayer mode.

With the right graphics program and a special "viewer" program available for download, you can even design your own custom "skins" (graphic files that determine character appearance). A large number of skins based upon the more popular superheroes of all gaming companies are available on many websites at this time, with nearly 50 new ones being created every day by one estimate. Expansion packs are planned for the current game, adding missions and new powers for the game.

This brings up one of the few problems with the game: for everything that it gets right and includes, there is much that it forgets. Now, obviously not every superpower cannot replicated in the game (Can you imagine the lag caused by Aquaman being able to summon a large school of fish?) But some powers, like shape shifting and stretching could easily be worked into the game engine. It wouldn't take much to create a new animation that stretches the arms of your character instead of just launching a continuous laser beam.

Another problem is that even with the ability to pause the action, it is easy to lose track of the team sometimes. This is a problem even when they are in a group and not split up into smaller teams. There are also some areas of the game where it is very hard to fight a villain unless you have one certain team member in your party. Thankfully this is usually prevented by you being required to put that person in your party, but not always. In fact, there is one boss who is near impossible to beat without one of the optional recruits that you might not have at that point.

Finally, the multiplayer mode seems to be included just for the sake of having it. There is no variety to the multiplayer levels- just simple brawling between your team of heroes verses another team of heroes. I'd like to see something more like the game itself, where you control just one hero, team up with other solo heroes and have to work together to fight against another team. It just seems to defeat the point of the game for heroes to fight one another.

Regardless, aside from some minor details, the game is perfect. Freedom Force is a fitting tribute to the Silver Age and certainly worthy of a place on your game shelf. In fact, the credits give a special thank you "to all the great minds of the Silver Age of comics".

That's all for now. Until next time, may your clerks be friendly and your comics unbent.

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