The first impression that an experienced video game consumer would get from this game is that it would not have much to offer. Launching the game would not improve that image either; the game has two unskippable videos that can only be prevented from playing by messing with the installation directory, and it also has a game-loading process that is quite slow by the standards of its days.
The next thing to (perhaps) disappoint the player is its graphics. The game is built using the aging Glacier engine, which was the same one used to power the first two Hitman games (that were released by the same developer, Io Interactive, a couple of years before this one). The engine appears to have been modified to accommodate the levels and the increased number of models in this game, but it has no improvements to texturing, bump-mapping and lighting, which in turn makes for just average, if not dull, cinematic quality. Unfortunately, the developers appear to have ignored this fact, and created quite a lot of in-game cutscenes for this game anyway; this pretty much puts the aging graphics of the engine in the spotlight, and not in a way that would impress many, if any, experienced game consumers.
The intro cutscenes, which are intended to lay out the story, would compound the disappointment further. The story is, at best, told in a ham-fisted manner, as well as acted out by characters with amusingly laughable voice-acting prowess. In fact, a consumer who has played earlier Io Interactive games, namely the first few Hitman games (which presented their stories in manners that did not take full advantage of the otherwise unique plotlines that the Hitman franchise has), can see that Io Interactive hasn't improved its skills at narrative and story-telling by much. Furthermore, the story in this game can be considered more straight-forward than the more labyrinthine one for the Hitman franchise.
In order to describe the rather simple story, it should suffice for this review to state that the game is set in a fictional alternate history where the Soviet Union (and thus the Communist bloc) is the ascendant super-power instead of the United States of America. The Soviet Union has decided to bring revolution to its arch-enemy once and for all, and has invaded New York, which apparently is woefully under-protected by the USA military which practically has no presence in the game.
The player is placed in the role of an everyday Joe, whose peaceful life has been ruined by the overbearing iron-fisted rule of the Soviet occupiers. He inadvertently joins a resistance movement, and becomes a hero of sorts by executing covert missions to surgically hamstring the Soviet occupiers.
Perhaps the only aspect of the plot development which is at least entertaining (to this reviewer) is its utilization of the theme of propaganda. For the first two-thirds of the story, it is unfolded via TV news broadcasts by the Soviet mouthpiece, which publish many dictates that would have been amusing if they were not so preposterously tyrannical at the same time.
With the unremarkable story aside, this review would move on to aspects of the game that hold its true value: its gameplay.
The PC version of the game is wholly dedicated to only single-player gameplay. This can be a bit of a disappointment, considering that the core gameplay to be had with the single-player campaign could have been implemented in multiplayer with some more thought on the part of the developers. Nevertheless, the single-player gameplay, with its key qualities, is enough to make this version worth playing anyway.
(Even though the other versions of the game has multiplayer, their multiplayer modes do not make use of the key features of the single-player gameplay, as will be described shortly.)
Freedom Fighters belongs to the modern military shooter genre, so the player can expect the protagonist to have not much in the way of equipment-carrying capacity and have weapons based on real-world ones. As said earlier, the USA military does not have a presence in this game, so weapon designs are only limited to those associated with nations in the Communist bloc. Also, as the Soviet military is involved, the player can expect certain weapons that are mass-manufactured to arm the conscripts of the vast Soviet army to be more pervasively available for scavenging than other hardware.
In fact, there are not a lot of weapons to be had in this game. There are a couple of side-arms, a trio of assault-oriented guns, a few situational weapons and some explosives and incendiaries. None of them is particularly remarkable, i.e. they work a lot like their counterparts in other shooter games, as befitting the very common archetypes of shooter-game weapons that they can be categorized under.
The player character has a health bar of sorts, and can replenish this with one of the health kits that he can carry around in limited numbers. There is no animation whatsoever for its use, but this was likely so to make its use convenient and expedient.
The controls of the game are to be expected from a third-person shooter. The player character can jump, vault over obstacles, climb ladders and perform other things necessary to navigate through the levels in the game. He can also go into aimed-shot mode, which brings the camera over his right shoulder. (This was perhaps among the earliest cases of known usage of such a camera perspective, before the Splinter Cell games popularized it.) Other humanoid models can also do the same things.
On its own, the gameplay with just the military modern shooter themes would have made for an unremarkable shooter/action game with little competitive qualities. The game gives this impression early on in the campaign, when the player character has to fight on his own before he eventually gains followers.
His followers represent the greatest strength of this game. To gain them, the player has to have the protagonist completing objectives such as bombing Soviet military assets and healing wounded civilians. Doing so will grant him 'charisma'; when enough of is accumulated, he gains the capacity to recruit another follower, up to a maximum of a dozen.
These followers generally can be recruited from locations in the level. Resistance fighters will huddle around a campfire (of sorts) in secluded alleys and other nooks and crannies in levels out of the sight of Soviet forces. There are also injured Soviet soldiers, who appear to have been left for dead by their erstwhile comrades (or may have been deliberately wounded by the latter for all sorts of reasons). The former can be simply walked up to and recruited (if there is still space left in the roster); the latter has to be healed first before they are convinced that they have been fighting for the wrong side.
Either way, the player adds one more body to the squad. When the squad goes into battle, the game feature that they are associated with shows its shine.
Squad members will automatically fan out to any nearby cover, distributing themselves throughout the area depending on the density of available cover. They have animations and poses that put them quite securely behind cover such that they are difficult to shoot at, and they will pop out from behind said cover to shoot. They are also smart enough to advance from cover to cover while making any shots of opportunity (that is, firing from their hips).
In places absent of cover, the entire squad would resort to aimed shots, though such occurrences are rare due to tight level design that would be described later.
Outside of battle, the squad uses surprisingly fluid path-finding scripts. Squad models will flow around each other to give themselves space to fan out when they have to enter battle. The game also uses efficient animation scripts so that these models do not affect the frame rate too much when they are on-screen. However, they do have issues with their models colliding with level geometries – narrow staircases and doorways in particular – and these cause their AI scripts to freeze, at least until the player character approaches and summons them back. Fortunately, this flaw is quite minor, as confined conditions are quite few in the game.
If there is any major flaw with the squad-leading feature, it is that squad members cannot have their default weapons swapped out for others; fighters who can be recruited will be armed with a weapon each, but can never have any other. This means that those who are armed with weak weapons, such as side-arms, will serve no better role than as another target for enemy forces to shoot at.
Enemies in the game are very limited in variety; there are the ubiquitous Soviet grunts, the fewer Soviet officers who would raise the awareness of any nearby Soviet troops when alerted to the presence of resistance fighters and a rare few special troopers, such as an athletic commando (which is really quite a forgettable enemy) and a heavily armored brute (which is not as forgettable and can be quite frustrating to deal with). There are also vehicular enemies, but these are very rare and function very much like turrets or mobile sentries instead of behaving like they have been modeled with military vehicle doctrines in mind.
However, enemies on foot do have redeeming qualities, which are their AI scripts. Enemies in this game are surprisingly smart, even for shooter games at the time. Their AI scripts were likely evolutions of the ones in the Hitman games, due to certain behaviors such as scouting around for any threats and fanning out to flank enemies which were also present in the Hitman games. They are made deadlier with the inclusion of the scripts used to control the behaviors of squad members, as in they have the same approach to battles taking place in locations with cover.
Smart enemies like these serve to make engaging in battles quite a satisfying activity in this game.
However, another aspect of the game makes fighting these enemies even more fulfilling. Taking a leaf from the Hitman games, many levels tend to have at least more than one avenue of approach to the objective. One will always be heavily fortified and have Soviet troops who have dug themselves in, while the rest would allow the player to circumvent their positions by making use of the high-density development of the city of New York; there are many side alleys that the player character and his team can take, ventilation systems that can be scaled up to access the upper floors of buildings next to objectives and tunnels and bridges that go under or over (respectively) enemy outposts.
Successful flanking attacks can be satisfying, particularly when the player gets to appropriate enemy weapon emplacements and use them on any Soviet counter-attack.
Unfortunately, the game developers do not appear to notice that they have really great game designs that they should mainly build their game around with. To illustrate, the game has a few scenarios where the protagonist is left on his lonesome, likely in an apparent attempt by the developers to diversify the tempo of the campaign. Instead of breaking up the otherwise great pace of leading freedom fighters into missions, these segments of the game would only serve to emphasize that without the squad-leading game mechanic, there is nothing else to differentiate this game from its many, many competitors.
There are also a few missions where the player is only given a handful of followers that is hardly enough to fill out the roster. These deliberate attempts to limit the squad-leading feature in order to adhere to the thematic constraints of the scenario at hand may result in reinforcing the impression that the developers had not realized the worth of the very impressive features that they have created, and instead attempted to have the game focus on the unremarkable story.
There are also a few levels, especially the ones around the end-game, where the path of advancement through the level is very linear. For example, one of them is practically a dungeon romp, going from one chamber to the next clearing everything out in uncomfortably close-range firefights.
Considering that the gameplay of the PC version only comprise of the single-player campaign, these divergences from the best designs of the game would damage the overall quality of the game.
As mentioned earlier, the game does not have much in the way of snazzy, state-of-the-art graphical flare. However, it somewhat compensates for this by having surprisingly good animations for humanoid models. There is a lot of motion capture; there are animations for climbing obstacles, shooting and reloading weapons, jumping, cowering behind cover and other sorts of movement that do not cause disbelief in the least (unless the models get caught in a collision bug, that is).
Non-humanoid models, especially those for vehicles, are animated quite sparsely, on the other hand. Many vehicles appear to simply slide across the surface or medium that they are on, including helicopters. There are no secondary animations whatsoever that would have made their movements more impressive. Considering too that vehicles are only used for special scenarios, vehicle models and their presence in this game would come across to the player as woefully underdeveloped.
The modified Glacier engine can handle a lot more models and environmental frames in this game. There can be plenty of humanoid models on-screen fighting each other amidst plenty of polygons that represent cover. The modified engine also allows the developers to create levels that do resemble a city under siege and foreign occupation; there are no graphical blemishes or drawbacks that would severely damage the thematic designs of these levels. A decent enough machine at the time would have no problem processing battles in these maps.
While the game has rather laughable voice-acting, the other aspects of the audio department are more well-done. As this is after all a modern military shooter, believable noises for gunfire and explosions are expected, and this game does not disappoint in this matter. There are plenty of gunfire, explosions and infernos to listen to in this game.
All those noises would not drown out the musical soundtracks for the game, however. These are mostly Russian orchestras, which fit the theme of attempted cultural subjugation by occupying powers quite well in this game. A game consumer who had experienced the Hitman games would notice some influence of those games here, namely the dramatic flair in the composition of these soundtracks.
In conclusion, at first glance, Freedom Fighters seemed like it had nothing new and different to offer above its competitors in the modern military shooter genre. However, its squad-based gameplay is a great surprise, as do designs for (some) levels that accommodate this gameplay. This game could have been considered the benchmark for the designs of AI-driven squads for games that have these from 2003 until the next game to raise the par.