How did I get here from the review of "The Witcher?" The two games seem completely unrelated to one another.
Freedom Force Review
Even with its minor problems, Freedom Force is very easy to recommend--it's a superhero game that gets everything right.
Freedom Force isn't the first eagerly awaited superhero game, but it is the first to actually be released. With the cancellation of Hero Games' Champions, Bullfrog's The Indestructibles, and MicroProse's Agents of Justice in previous years, it seemed as if there would never be a decent superhero game for the PC, or any superhero game for that matter. But Freedom Force saves the day. Irrational Games has combined the surface elements of a role-playing game with a tactical combat engine, creating a hybrid that isn't very deep but is totally satisfying in its breadth. And, perhaps more importantly, Freedom Force has a winning personality and a developed style that's as good as PC gaming has ever offered--it joins the ranks of games like Interstate '76 and Grim Fandango.
Immediately upon starting the campaign, it's apparent that Irrational Games took its inspiration from the silver age of comics. The game opens with the origin of Minuteman, the patriotic leader of Freedom Force. The first thing you see is an elderly man's face, all Jack Kirby-style black lines and wrinkles, surrounded by bright secondary colors. The narrator explains the game's events in a bombastic voice that owes more to Adam West's version of Batman than Tim Burton's. The heroes of Freedom Force don't have time to brood in dark corners; they're too busy returning stolen purses, fighting the communists, and protecting Patriot City from dinosaurs and aliens. It's a spot-on homage to the era that may seem like a parody only because it gets almost every detail, from the dialogue to the enemies, exactly right.
Freedom Force is primarily a squad-based tactical game. At the beginning of each mission, you choose a squad of up to four heroes from the available roster. You enter the map, fight some enemies, occasionally fight a boss, return to base, and repeat. The combat system is similar in some respects to that in Baldur's Gate, in that it seems like a turn-based system but it plays in real time. You can pause the game whenever you like to issue orders, and you can also slow things down and speed them up at your discretion. Your heroes have a wide variety of attacks and defenses, including melee, projectile attacks, and area-effect attacks. Attacks do different types of damage, such as fire, cold, crushing, mental, magic, and so forth. Defensive powers will generally help against only a particular type of damage, and certain heroes and enemies are particularly vulnerable or immune to certain types.
The best thing about the combat system is that the streets of Patriot City aren't just a backdrop. The environments play an important part in any battle. Strong heroes can pick up cars and throw them. You can wrench stoplights out of the ground and bat thugs around with them. You can jump, climb, or fly to the tops of buildings and rain energy beams down on your foes. The physics are great--you'll learn to use them to your advantage, knocking foes off of buildings and batting them into oncoming cars. You can turn whole buildings to rubble in a matter of moments. You'll want to be careful, because causing too much havoc can take away from your prestige--you gain prestige points at the end of each mission, which are used for recruiting new heroes. But in the best combat missions, you'll be out of the confines of the city and free to wreak destruction as needed. The combat system includes everything you'd want in a superhero game--some characters can fly, some can climb walls, and some can leap tall buildings. It's almost perfect.
There are only two problems with the combat. The first is that the game doesn't allow for automatic pausing at regular intervals. Stopping to issue orders must be done manually, which is strange considering that it would be impossible to play Freedom Force as a real-time game. Missions often require you to split your squad, so keeping track of everything that's going on becomes impossible without stopping and surveying the situation. The system works as is, but an automatic pause would be more than welcome. What's more of an issue is the complete lack of a minimap. Except in rare cases, there's no indication of offscreen enemies, even if they are within the view of your squad. Enemies can also be hidden under trees and other objects, and when your squad is divided it's easy to overlook someone getting clobbered by a villain that's not visible for one reason or another.
In theory, the problem with superhero games is that superheroes are traditionally static characters: They have their powers and that's that. Irrational has broken with tradition here, and it was a wise decision. As you complete missions, your heroes gain experience. Every one of your heroes gains experience for every mission, though the four who directly participate get slightly more. When a hero gains a level, he or she gets points that can be used to buy new powers or to improve existing powers. Deciding when to improve and when to expand a particular hero's powers is one of the more interesting elements of the game, allowing you to create heroes that are relatively weak yet versatile or heroes with devastating yet very specific abilities. Should El Diablo specialize in his missile attacks, which do a good deal of damage but are hazardous in populated areas? Should the strong but slow Man-Bot work on his ranged attacks to make up for his speed deficiency?