It must take a lot of work to make a squad-based action game. On top of having to deliver all the core aspects that any shooter should have--things like responsive gameplay and great graphics and sound--a game designer working with squad-style gameplay also has to worry a lot about artificial intelligence. All it takes is a smattering of instances where a player's AI squadmates get stuck on a wall or take an inefficient path around a few obstacles to really shatter the illusion of working with a team and turn the game into a drone-babysitting simulation. Freedom Fighters, the new game from the developers of last year's great Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, deftly avoids the many pitfalls of AI squad tactics, and this, combined with great control, mission design, and presentation, makes for a truly fantastic game.
Freedom Fighters takes place in an alternate reality that never saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Instead, the Red threat has continued to grow since the end of World War II, taking hold in countries as close to home as Cuba and Mexico. The game opens with the plumbing team of Chris and Troy Stone paying a visit to the clogged sink of Isabella Angelina, who also happens to be a vocal member of a watchdog organization devoted to informing the American public about the evils of the Soviet Union. The duo enters her apartment to find that it has been hastily evacuated, and soon after, Soviet troops bust in to try to find her, only to capture Troy instead. The Soviet invasion of the US has begun.
After that brief setup, you're thrust into the role of Chris Stone, and you hook up with Isabella's resistance movement almost immediately. Operating from the sewers beneath New York City, the movement aims to overthrow the invaders and drive the communists out of the country. You'll start as a lowly member of the team, but you grow in popularity and influence as the game goes on, and Chris will slowly transform from an average 32-year-old plumber into a battle-hardened leader.
The game isn't terribly long-winded in its storytelling. Most of the game's plot is advanced by a series of humorous Soviet-run newscasts, which cover your actions as terrorist activities. Your missions are laid out in the rebel base, and the briefings are great at explaining the strategic significance of, say, reclaiming a high school building for the red, white, and blue. Though the story is told well and works great in the context of the game, it's pretty short on substance. Aside from a foreshadowed plot twist that you can see coming from a mile away, not a whole lot happens in the game. It must also be said that the game doesn't provide much closure at the end, simultaneously setting up for a sequel while not really leaving you with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. A more climactic final mission would have gone a long way. These things hardly affect the incredible quality of the game's action, though.
At the outset, Freedom Fighters plays like a rock-solid third-person shooter, with smooth and responsive controls. You can shoot from the hip or raise your weapon for precision firing, which causes the camera to zoom in slightly for a cool over-the-shoulder view. You have an inventory of items and the ability to carry a pistol and one primary weapon, such as a shotgun, an assault rifle, a sniper rifle, a machine gun, a rocket launcher, or a submachine gun. You'll also be able to carry grenades, Molotov cocktails, high explosives, binoculars, and health packs that restore your health when used, though they can also be used to heal wounded civilians or other freedom fighters.
Once you've operated on your own for a little while and have gotten used to the control, thanks to some well-placed training messages, the game gives you the ability to command up to two other squad mates. By increasing your charisma rating--which goes up as you complete missions and can also be given optional boosts if you rescue prisoners or heal civilians--you can eventually control up to 12 soldiers simultaneously. Running with a crowd definitely makes Freedom Fighters feel like a much larger game, and the late-game firefights that erupt when you have a larger squad are extremely impressive and, more importantly, a lot of fun.
Squad control is both simple and effective in Freedom Fighters. You need only three buttons to command your troops on the battlefield. The recall button forces troops to fall in behind you. The attack button can be used to send troops after a specific soldier, or you can target a general area to get troops to cover specific locations. Finally, the defend button is used to get troops to hold their position. Tapping the buttons will assign commands to one member of your squad, but holding the button down for a split-second longer assigns the command to your entire squad, which is usually more effective.
The squad AI isn't perfect--we saw our troops get hung up when attempting to climb down onto some train tracks, and we saw one instance of a squad member not taking the most efficient path to its destination--but its rare problems are easily overlooked because the rest of the time they work very well, and using your team effectively is really satisfying. Squadmates support each other and naturally use the urban terrain for cover. You can effectively lead their charge, or you can let them do a lot of the work themselves and support them with covering fire. The squad dynamic lends the action a great deal of variety, ensuring that no two skirmishes will play out in quite the same fashion.
Each mission in the game has one main goal, but that goal is usually impossible to attain without performing a collection of secondary tasks. For example, you'll never be able to blow up a supply bridge while attack choppers are covering it, so you'll have to acquire some C4 and take out a nearby helipad to remove all choppers from the area. And you can't make your way into the police station while snipers are covering it from the roof of a nearby gas station. So you'll have to get behind the station and blow it up. Each mission usually has multiple locations, and you can move freely from one area to another via manholes found throughout the city.
Manholes also serve as the game's save system. The game is saved automatically whenever you move from one location to another, and you can also make quick saves there. There are enough save points to keep things fair, but not so many that you can remove the game's challenge by saving every few seconds. It's a good balance.
While the enemy AI doesn't seem to be quite as smart as your team, the Soviet troops are good at taking cover and using nearby gun turrets to ensure that your advance is a difficult one. They'll also use cover and will take advantage of their superior numbers, making them a consistently challenging foe. In all, Freedom Fighters' friendly and enemy artificial intelligence is easily some of the best to date in a shooter. The game has four difficulty levels, and the increase in challenge from one level to the next is noticeable. You'll definitely be taking more damaging fire as you slide up the difficulty scale. Additionally, the game is good at getting more difficult as you move through the missions. Near the beginning, you'll be facing basic troops with pistols and other light weapons. But you'll start to see larger troops with flak jackets and shotguns and heavily armored machine gunners, and later in the game you'll even face off against a tank.
The only real problem with Freedom Fighters is that there simply isn't enough of it. While the game does a good job of making you think you're nearly finished, only to toss another set of missions at you, veteran action gamers should be able to get through the game on the second or third difficulty setting in eight to 12 hours. However, unlike other action games of similar length--Max Payne, for example--the game doesn't really give you much reason to go back through and play a second time. Rather than giving you access to special features or alternate modes, completing the game simply gives you the ability to go back and play any mission at will, though with the entire squad you've amassed.
Freedom Fighters is simultaneously appearing on the PC and all three major consoles. While each version of the game is about as equally impressive on its respective platform, there are definitely some differences in control. The PC version of the game makes great use of the same mouse-and-keyboard control you'd expect from most first- or third-person action games. It also offers more-precise aiming control. The console versions understandably rely on auto-aim to make up for a gamepad's relative lack of precision, though you can still aim manually in the console versions of the game, which is required for doing things like blowing up explosive barrels to take out a cluster of troops at once.
The console versions of the game all contain a four-player multiplayer mode. Though it isn't really a main focus of the game, the multiplayer mode is basically a version of king of the hill, where one team must hoist their flag and hold the position until a time limit has been reached. The PC version doesn't have this mode, but it isn't strong enough to really be missed. The ability to play the game's outstanding single-player campaign cooperatively, online or off, would have been a much more meaningful multiplayer addition.
Graphics is another area that varies from platform to platform, but again, each version looks pretty fantastic when compared to other similar titles on each system. The models look and move well, the game keeps a pretty solid frame rate throughout, and the environments are realistically urban, giving the game a nice New York City feel. Weapon fire, lighting, and most other effects look appropriately dramatic. As you'd expect, the PC version offers the greatest graphical performance, especially when running at 1600x1200 or higher with the draw distance set as far as it will go. By comparison, the console versions aren't quite as sharp, though the Xbox version's visuals outpace the GameCube and PS2 equivalents. The GameCube version also occasionally shows seams between its polygons, which makes it look slightly worse than the others, though still great in its own right. The graphics do have a bit of an impact on gameplay--it's more difficult to see troops at a distance on the console versions than it is on the PC. When you're trying to gun down an entire squad from a machine gun turret, you can't do any zooming in, so it's easier to miss a target or two.
The sound in Freedom Fighters is really terrific. With only a couple of exceptions, the voice work is well done. The Russian soldiers sound appropriately menacing and communicate with each other in their native language. The sounds of combat, especially when you're working with a large squad, are of particular note, as they really make you feel like you're on a battlefield. The game's music, filled with choral vocals reminiscent of the Soviet national anthem, is also a stellar high point, and it adds a perfect level of drama to the proceedings.
While the game could have been lengthier, Freedom Fighters is still just an outstanding blend of pure action and tactical squad combat. The squad control works incredibly well, making it easy even if you haven't had much experience with squad-based games in the past. Anyone looking for thrilling action with refined control and a great premise need look no further than Freedom Fighters.