In the early 2000s superheroes and comic books were an almost unexplored genre for computer games. There had been a few lackluster releases, but they had failed to impress. All this changed with the release of Freedom Force.
Published by Electronic Arts and Crave Entertainments, it was developed by Irrational Games, the team behind System Shock 2, featuring veterans of Looking Glass Studios, as well as the Australian side of the team who would co-develop it. The game would be a moderate success in terms of sales but break the “super-hero game curse” and pave the way for much more successful ventures in the field.
A blatant homage and love letter to the Silver Age of comic books Freedom Force featured a vibrant, colorful and extremely ambitious engine, and a storyline that trod the well traveled paths of comic book conventions. The characters introduced were based on classic archetypes from both the Marvel and DC universes, simple heroes acting out heroic fantasies where the good guys and the bad guys were clearly defined and there were no blurred lines.
The storyline introduction will be familiar to anyone who has watched Flash Gordon: the evil alien emperor Lord Dominion contaminates Earth with Energy X, a power source that grants amazing superhuman abilities to anyone who is exposed to its radiation. As Energy X canisters fall over Patriot City, an age of superheroes and villains is born.
In terms of gameplay Freedom Force features an intuitive and accessible real time with pause system, with a variety of powers at the players disposal: one can use basic melee attacks, area effects, projectiles and beam attacks, as well as a number of special powers. Each of these came with its own animations and effect bubbles – POW, WHACK, WHOOSH, etc – making combat a colorful, exciting and instantly gratifying experience.
More than just perform fancy attacks, heroes can also fly, levitate, teleport, jump into roofs, lift cars and throw them at enemies, etc. “Do whatever a superhero can do” kind of sums up the gameplay.
The game is further enhanced by the addition of the prestige mechanic – a simple system where doing good deeds and side objectives like protecting citizens and bringing the guilty to justice earns favor with fellow heroes, allowing the player to recruit a larger roster of superheroes, each with their own unique abilities and uses. There are many little instances of these objectives hidden away on every map, and they add life and depth to the gameplay.
The imperative to protect the city and its inhabitants while pursuing the villains and main objectives also adds a pleasing level of complication and difficulty to the game, with the player having to split up their teams of heroes and oversee different events on different parts of the maps, as well as find the canisters of Energy X that litters the city.
Included with the game was an intuitive tool for creating custom superheroes, that could be used in the main campaign, taken online or used in the games challenge maps. The game also released with a suite of robust modding tools, leading to a massive frenzy of content creation by the dedicated fans of the comic book genre. Hundreds of Marvel and DC superheroes were brought to life, and ambitious projects began to appear on numerous fan-sites, featuring custom animations, original maps, complete modifications and entirely new campaigns.
The future seemed assured for the franchise, however as so often happens in this industry legal complications arose as to who owned the rights of the intellectual property, the publishers or the developers, and there was a delay with the release of the sequel.
In the meantime City of Heroes was released, a game covering much of the ground Freedom Force had trail-blazed and stealing some of its glory.
In 2005 the legal disputes were finally settled and Freedom Force vs the Third Reich was released. A homage to the Golden Age of comics books, it featured a time traveling plot where the heroes of the first game had to face the villains of the Axis powers. The game was self-published by Irrational themselves, but unfortunately failed to sell well, reputedly moving only about 40.000 copies.
Who can say why sales were so disappointing? The game improved on many aspects of the original, but a lot of the difficulty and little charming touches were lost. Maps became less interesting and objectives not so punishing or complicated, while combat played a much larger role and heroics less of one.
While the second game ended on an intriguing cliffhanger and concept art was made for a possible third game set in a more complex Bronze or Iron Age setting, to this day we still eagerly await the return of Patriot City’s mightiest heroes. Neanderthal