Sunday, March 20, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich

It’s my Spring Break this week, but I’ve hardly gotten a chance to “break”. Every class I’m taking requires a group project with other students and every leader of said projects had deadlines set for this week. Thankfully, I was able to get most everything finished early and freed up some time to do some writing for myself. At least, that was the plan before I got a package in the mail from Irrational Games.

Irrational Games? When did I order anything from them? And then I remembered that a few months ago I pre-ordered a copy of Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich on-line. Sure enough, that’s what was in the package. Good bye free time. Hello nostalgia!

The original Freedom Force game was an instant classic. It was the first successful superhero game made for the Personal Computer that wasn’t an adaptation of a console game based on a comic-book character. With a plot taken straight from the Silver Age of comic books and Kirby-esque artwork, the game drew upon the fine tapestry that is the American comic book and created a game that would go on to win numerous “Game of the Year” awards.

As such, Freedom Force vs The Third Reich has a high standard to live up to. Thankfully, the game appears to have met all expectations. More, it has created the rarest of all things; a sequel that can be enjoyed independent of the original work. Indeed, the game does open up with a movie retelling the origin the original game, for those who did not play the original Freedom Force.

The plot is worthy of Simon, Lee and Kirby. An alien overlord, intent on ruling Earth but bored with just sending in an invading army, comes up with an evil plan. Having observed humanity’s ability to devour itself, he decides to infect the most base and evil of them with Energy X – a potent force that enhances and bonds the natural properties of living beings to other substances. Another alien, who goes by the unlikely name of Mentor, learns of the plan and decides to counter it by introducing Energy X to the good and the virtuous. Though his ship is shot down and the Energy X scattered randomly (though most seems to land in Patriot City), a few of the beams do hit good people who are forever transformed into gaudy-costumed avengers of justice! And for those who missed the first game, the origin movies for all the original heroes can be viewed in the character profiles you can view between missions.

As the game opens, everyone is still mourning the loss of a teammate who sacrificed himself to save the universe. Much of the team has gone into semi-active duty, with only four members on permanent duty. They are quickly called into action by the CIA, as the super-powered Russian spy Nuclear Winter escapes from prison and steals the comatose body of The Timemaster; the time-traveling villain who was the major villain of the first game. After an active alert is put out to the rest of the team, Freedom Force heads to Cuba where Nuclear Winter plans to start WWIII with some stolen missiles. From there, we spin off into an adventure of epic proportions as Timemaster’s body is stolen again, by Nazis who send the power of Energy X into the past, where a trio of unsung mystery men fight against the newly super-powered ubermensch of the Third Reich.

Everyone from the original game is here and intact. The super-patriot Minute Man! The sea-dog superhero Man-O-War! The somehow-not-yet-inspiring-protests-by-the League of United Latin American Citizens El Diablo! But what about new characters? Oh, they are here. And every bit as gloriously stereotyped as before.

On the modern side, we have Green Genie, whose origin involving a young girl nearly forced into marriage by her father the Sheik, will likely inspire a letter writing campaign by the same people who found Aladdin offensive. Tombstone, who gained a variety of death-themed powers after being wrongly executed for the murder of his wife. Quetzalcotal, who manages the feat of being the first Mexican-American hero to make El Dorado from the Superfriends seem like a snappy dresser. And then there is The Bard; a scholar turned street-fighter empowered by the spirit of Shakespeare.

For the villains, the old-school axis of evil is represented by the telepathic Blitzkrieg; the fire-elemental controlling Japanese swordsmen known as The Red Sons; and the biggest villain ever… the opera-singing, pasta-pounding flying fatman known as Fortissimo!

On the side of the heroes in the past, we have Black Jack, a trick-card-carrying Brit; Tricolour, a rapier-wielding French woman; and Sky King, an American screen action-hero turned real-life Rocketeer.

Yes, this is all rather silly. But then again, anyone who complains about this game being silly is missing the point. The new characters don’t offer much in the way of serious attack-power and those who play to win will likely find themselves falling back on the old powerhouses from before But for those of us who can just have fun playing a girl whizzing around on a flying carpet, turning Nazis into vases of flowers, there’s a lot to be offered by the new characters.

The gameplay is largely unchanged from the first game, so old-pros will be able to jump right into the action again. For the newbies, prompting during the first few levels will get them up to speed quickly. The graphics are improved somewhat, but more in smoothness than in terms of quality. The game looks exactly the same as it did three years ago but doesn’t feel the least bit dated.

This is not to say that the game is not without its flaws. One downside is that the game does seem to have been rushed in some respects. Some of the characters (the “specials” from the original game and, for some reason, new hero “The Bard”) do not have origin movies, leaving us without the connection to our characters that a role-playing game such as this requires. There is also a lot of level-copying, with three instances where you control the same team replaying the same level under different circumstances due to a time warp.

Also, the game does suffer a bit from being a little flighty and ill-focused. Plot-threads are dropped involving the future marriage of two of the characters, a romance between Tricolour and the speedster Bullet and the trio of Golden Age heroes come forward in time, only to be ignored totally unless the player chooses to use them in the final battle. (Which, having just beaten the game this morning, I will tell you is a bad idea.)

Still, taken as a tribute to the days when such plot-threads were put forth and then quickly forgotten by writers rushing to meet a deadline and when one could put forth a character who drew power from the works of Shakespeare without being ironic, Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich succeeds spectacularly.

I rate it an 8 out of 10 stars.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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