Doing Comics Justice: Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich

Superheroes are, my dear mole cave people recently thawed following a decades-long slumber, very much in vogue right now. Films about whiny teenagers with the least interesting powers of an arachnid are ten a penny, but video games of this kind have been oddly lacking. The superhero games we do have – for example, the Arkham series – are mainly about specific superheroes, not about the idea or the spirit of their original format, the comic book.

I have a strange bias here, as I’m one of the fifty people on earth who loves games but never cared about comics or superheroes. So I say this without exaggerating or clutching at straws: Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich [Wikipedia page], a real-time, squad-based tactical beat ‘em up from 2005, is the only game that truly shows why people love comics.

Specifically, the Silver Age of comic books – a period roughly spanning the 1950s and 1960s, when heroes were Heroes and space robots from Neptune were Space Robots From Neptune. It was an age of sincere and vibrant characters, with clear battle lines between good and evil, and themes that reflected the politics and society of the time so openly that it almost seems naive. The titular Freedom Force (and doesn’t even the name evoke that unabashedly American self-confidence?) are unequivocally good, united, devoted to fisty justice. And what else could such people do but fight Nazis? And how could those Nazis not deploy gun-toting gorillas and robots with human brains, masterminded by a grotesquely craniumed psionic?

As befits a superhero ensemble, the story rolls through several subplots, rolling up communists, goosesteppers and demigods in an escalating crisis eventually threatening all of existence, bringing several villains into focus and only revealing the next puppetmaster when the last is vanquished.

To meet these challenges, you select a team from a roster of heroes, each with unique abilities, and set them loose on a linear series of 3D maps. Everyone can run up to a crook and hit him, but some launch ranged attacks, or fight indirectly with status effects. Some can fly or leap onto buildings, while others are better at bringing them down, or whalloping henchmen with uprooted lamp posts. Some attacks do little damage but fling enemies about, off buildings or into the sky, where a teammate can hit them with a horizontal attack.

Main characters come to you between missions, with others recruited by spending XP. With enough screen time they’ll earn points to directly upgrade or acquire attacks, in a refreshingly transparent and satisfying system. They vary massively in their usefulness, and plot critical heroes are mandatory on some missions, so developing a capable bench is important.

Orders are issued from above in real time, and its pace is comfortable as characters repeat orders until they run out of (ever-recharging) juice, and defend themselves as necessary. There’s a fully active pause ensuring you’re free to focus on decisions, and no equipment or statistics to complicate matters. Biffing villains is the order of the day, not fiddling about with numbers, but that’s not to say it’s mindless clicking.

Most characters are resistant or vulnerable to particular types of attack, in keeping with their theme. Robots resist pummelling but take extra damage from electricity, while the Imperial Japanese fire villain Red Sun is vulnerable to radiation. Using characters’ abilities and mitigating their weaknesses thus become the core of the gameplay. El Diablo’s good against those ice soldiers, but vulnerable to their attacks, so he should have back and launch projectiles while Supercollider soaks up their shots, and Alchemiss keeps any stragglers away with her kinetic beams.

Here’s where one of its few flaws show, as several levels veer closely to trial and error, giving too little indication of what you’ll be fighting, or leaving you with few viable options, so that your favourites don’t get a look in. But how’s that for criticism? “There are too many great characters, I don’t get to use them enough”. What’s the inversion of “damning with faint praise”?

Those characters are the heart of the game, due to both its structure and the sheer quality of its writing and acting. Not just their powers, but everything about their design is spot on. As a very visual medium, yet to fully master their literary side, comics had to be economical, and FFVTTR understood this. One look at most characters tells you what they can do and how they behave, from the spaced out, leaf-clad nature hero Eve to the completely useless, prancing Shakespeare-themed superpoet, The Bard. This is why you lose little by starting with the sequel – like Thief 2, FFVTTR is an enjoyable entry point, and doesn’t suffer from a lack of familiarity with the first game. If anything, it gives the story a great springboard, allowing an introduction that’s almost in media res, mirroring its inspiration with their ongoing serials where there’s always some adventure happening, often overlapping with the last.

It doesn’t waste half its run time establishing characters in exhaustive detail, as it allows them to speak for themselves, and relies on context and the urgency of melodrama to convey what’s going on. This is something, incidentally, that most superhero films get so wrong (and which Mad Max Fury Road gets right, but that’s a whole other thing). And Freedom Force takes full advantage of the tradition of the origin story, presenting these as unlockable cut scene rewards (and contrasted to the modern habit of reluctantly scattering a few crumbs from your miserly Skinner box, it does so generously and regularly) for progressing through the plot. And my word, they’re good. Forget Max Payne and XIII: these things are pitch perfect, each one fully grasping the essence of such a misunderstood medium. The stories are at once familiar and original, wielding the video format to enhance, not merely copy their inspiration. The tone is phenomenally well judged, always having fun and exposing the absurdity of the superhero, but never resorting to mockery. The perpetually gloomy, spectral avenger Tombstone sits comfortably alongside Microwave, a half-naked android with a microwave for a head.

Just have a look at The Secret Origin of Tricolour. A French fencing champion at the 1936 Olympic games (in reality won by Hungarian Ilona Elek, and unmatched by France until 1980), she falls prey to Nazi mind control, until a condemned Resistance fighter defiantly sings the Marseillaise, breaking her free and embarking her on a life of redemptive heroism. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, stirring treatment of a national hero character set in a time when the nation was suffering a crisis most of us will never understand. And all this just to introduce a character who could have easily been The Frog, with the power of farming subsidies and a weakness for burgundy.

The term “affectionate parody” seldom does justice to the greatest of works it’s applied to, and FFVTTR is one of the best. A truly excellent parody isn’t a witty heckler throwing observations – it’s someone who climbs up on stage right alongside its target, makes it clear how ridiculous all this is, and then makes sure everyone has a damn good time doing it anyway.

Black Dynamite wouldn’t have worked if its action scenes weren’t exciting. Tremors would need only a cursory rewrite to be a straight up horror flick. Freedom Force would be entirely forgettable if its plot and characters weren’t every bit as memorable and charming as the ones it pokes fun at. Each of these works was created to parody something as an act of love. It’s arch self-awareness that isn’t smug or cynical, and it’s deep adoration that isn’t unexamined, secretly insecure fanboyism. And crucially, these are inclusive. They don’t demand familiarity with horror or blaxploitation flicks or comics, and they’re not just in-joke vehicles for genre nerds.

An affectionate parody tells the outside world that this thing, with all its flaws and problems, is worthy of your love. Because it’s so effective at doing this, Freedom Force Vs the Third Reich is a better ambassador for comic books than anything Hollywood or the games industry has produced.

You should play it whatever you think of comics. And then you should demand the Bronze Age sequel it deserves.

Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich is currently available on Steam here (£4.99 / $7.50 / €6.49). The original Freedom Force is also available on Steam, but reports that it is unplayable on Windows 7 are common.

41 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    artrexdenthur says:

    Nice review!
    One quibble though: as you mention at the very end, Third Reich is a sequel. The original is in my opinion a markedly (but not overwhelmingly) better game, both mechanically and story-wise. The sequel had less interesting villains to my taste, and also needlessly simplified the energy mechanic, making it impossible to have fine-grained control over the heroes’ superpowers.
    So I would say, given the existence of refunds on Steam, buy the original first, give it a whirl, and if it does indeed break get a refund and grab the sequel.

    • Sin Vega says:

      A lot of people prefer the simplified energy system of the sequel, and I personally prefer its narrative hook. But they are both great.

      It appears that they’re bundled together on Steam now, which sort of solves the problem of the first one being broken for a lot of people on there. The second was available on gog and (I think) gamersgate for a while too, but they no longer are.

  2. MrBillwulf says:

    Great game, but the campaign in the first Freedom Force is better and plays out like a silver-age story arc. Fortunately, I haven’t run into any problems running it in Windows 7, on two computers.

  3. Urthman says:

    And if you can get the original working, the Strangers Mod is a complete campaign that adds so much new functionality to the game it seems more worthy of the name Sequel than FF vs 3rd Reich. The Strangers is equally, or more so, a love letter to everything good and beautiful about Silver Age Comics, and one of my favorite mods of any game ever. It looks like it’s still available here:

    link to mike.va.com.au

    • Urthman says:

      Or as I said in another RPS thread about the Strangers Mod:

      It has a great story that is crammed full of homages to classic Marvel and DC characters and storylines, yet with all original characters in a hugely fleshed-out world that feels as big and cosmic (and as small and streetwise) as Marvel or DC at their best. It reminds me of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City that way.

      It’s fun. Fantastic, inventive level design, powers, characters. Scary oh-shit-not-that-guy villains. Maybe the best boss battle in any video game ever.

      It starts a little slow. I found the art and costume design a little offputting, and it can be difficult (play it on easy if you haven’t played FF in a while). But if you liked Freedom Force and you like superhero comics, I swear on Alan Moore’s Supreme you’ll like the Strangers.

    • Soif says:

      Holy crap not only is there an article on one of the most awesome yet underrated/unknown games in my library (I must have bought 10 copies over the years to give to friends) but you also clue me in to a mod I never knew existed?! I love you guys…

      The only problem with starting with FFVTTR is you miss the very excellent origins of some of the best characters, Minute Man and Man-Bot to name a few. You also forgot to mention how great the music is, aaand now I have Nuclear Winter’s theme song stuck in my head. Time to go check out the mod.

    • malkav11 says:

      The link you want for The Strangers is http://www.fundamentzero.com
      It’s the current (or at least more current) webpage of the author and has The Strangers, The Amazanauts, and Tales of the Navigator (all for the first Freedom Force), as well as The Strangers 2 and Patriot City (for the sequel). And big expansion pack mods for both games that are incorporated in the TCs, for that matter.

      • malkav11 says:

        Actually, now that I click on “The Strangers 2” it’s just some “what would have been” content. They never actually made it.

      • Urthman says:

        Thanks. Yeah, Tales of the Navigator is pretty nifty too. If the Strangers Mod is like reading an epic two-year Avengers story arc, Tales of the Navigator is like reading a six-issue universe-wide crossover written by Grant Morrison with each chapter taking place in a different comic book starting with a typical Fantastic Four story, jumping ahead to it’s effects on the Legion of Superheroes a thousand years later, and ending with a weird abstract conflict between the Silver Surfer and The Living Tribunal.

  4. Ralek says:

    Just after the E3 gaming show, I said to my buddy: “You know what was really missing here? A new Freedom Force game being announced!” :-D
    Great article and great timing!

    • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

      It seems to be owned by 2K. Maybe they’ll let the XCOM team take a stab at a new one.

  5. Gordon Shock says:

    Right, makes might!

  6. OmNomNom says:

    The colours hurt my eyes

  7. natendi says:

    Hey! People who loves games but never read comics ain’t that rare :)! Only comic I have read is the dandy. Good article!

  8. malkav11 says:

    The Freedom Force games are so very very good, and I would love to have seen more of them, or other games that emulate what they were doing, but alas Irrational closed up shop and apparently everyone would rather invest themselves in embodying a single (often not particularly compelling) comic book hero (or in a few cases, superpowered villain) than control superteams. Ah well. I do enjoy many of those games, too.

    One nitpick: The original Freedom Force is a Silver Age game taking place in the 50s. The sequel that you are writing about takes place in the 40s, as one might expect from the “vs. the Third Reich” part, which is the “Golden Age”, and takes every cue it ought to from that.

    • Sin Vega says:

      It does both, really. The WW2 part only really occupies the middle act, and tonally I’d say it’s sort of like a GA story within a SA story, while the characters run the full gamut.

      I don’t get to say ‘gamut’ enough. Gamut gamut gamut.

      • Urthman says:

        Yeah, without spoiling things, FF vs. 3rd Reich has a chunk of Golden Age stuff, but also an homage to a classic comic story from the 1970’s-80’s era.

  9. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Great article! This is one of those games I’ve always meant to pick up but never have. Grabbing it now!

  10. dethtoll says:

    There’s a lot more people who like games than like comic books, bruv.

  11. fuggles says:

    Eugh… Mentor.

  12. MartinWisse says:

    Specifically, what makes Freedom Force vs The Third Reich so good is that it’s not so much Silver Age based, but rather rooted in the seventies re-interpretation of the Golden Age, like Marvel’s Invaders comic or DC’s Freedom Fighters. There’s of course also a huge dollop of seventies Kirby in there, again as filtered through the sensibilities of Bronze Age artists like Ron Frenz. Which means you get all the good stuff from those earlier periods, without so much of the racism or sexism.

  13. FriendGaru says:

    I love the Freedom Force games. I just wish they weren’t so linear, it rather hurts the replay value. My sort of ideal sequel would be mixing in XCOM and having the heroes going out of missions while building up the Freedom Fortress to take on larger threats.

    • VladVoivode says:

      Actually, they aren’t linear. For FFvTTR there is an “open world” mod that is superb. Additionally, there have been user created campaigns in the DC and Marvel universes. A good place to look for mods and campaigns is Alex’s Freedom Fortress. The site has an insane amount of content plus bucket loads of links to other great sites.

      • VladVoivode says:

        Sorry, I should have said that these games have seen a bucketload of mods that greatly enhance replayability. I do hope that my use of the term bucketload does not initiate a lawsuit from the mighty barristers of RPS due to the facts that “bucketload” is not a word and the bucket itself is a trademark of RPS bargain columns and its subsidiaries. Void where prohibited though I must confess I have indeed voided where prohibited after drinking five pints of Guinness.

  14. Katar says:

    I somehow missed Freedom Force the first time around. Reading this I decided to try the demo of the first game to see if it worked on my PC and no such luck. Currently downloading the second game demo to see if that works.

    The games are 50% off in the Steam sale. They are only available as a pack with both games. I guess refunds are going to be a problem if you buy pack?

  15. Jackablade says:

    I remember loving the setting and stylings of Freedom Force but being put off with the game mechanics feeling a bit on the unwieldy side.

    I feel like maybe I should give it another try.

  16. melancholicthug says:

    I don’t particulary like superheroes, but these two games are some of the best gaming times to be had. Great story, mechanics and overall fun factor. Highly recomended.

  17. Winged Nazgul says:

    Okay, fine. I’ll re-install just to see if this will stick with me this time around.

  18. cpt_freakout says:

    I’ll always have a fondness for Freedom Force (both 1 and 2) that is hard to explain, but this is pretty much it. Great article!

  19. Conundrummer says:

    Not to be easily dissuaded, I took the “reports of being unplayable on Windows 7” as a challenge. I mean, it came out in one of the most easily-supported eras of DirectX and OpenGL, surely it must be a result of people having incorrect Steam settings and a basic misunderstanding of UAC!

    2 hours later, I stood there, $3.74 poorer and feeling very powerless. Apparently something about the way the game structurally loads the levels gets borked in x64 Windows, leaving your normal walking cursor as the combat cursor. Any attempt to walk sends Minute-Man marching valiantly off the edge of the map (occasionally stopping to beat up a commie lightpost or boulder). No amount of compatibility settings or in-depth google research helped. I did, however, stumble upon an unreasonable work-around:

    If you happen to still have a copy of XP x32 sitting around, install it into a copy of Oracle’s freely available Virtualbox VM software. Cram the included DirectX install in there, and within 20 minutes (plus the time to install Steam/Freedom Force) you’ll have it, 1920×1080, vanilla and ready to be modded, in a window or fullscreen. Sounds obnoxious, but I’m just blown away that it worked.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Hah, it’s been an hour for me and I haven’t even been able to get it start more than 5% of the time! I tried all the compatibilities and there’s just no method to this madness, it’ll suddenly start up and I’ll get really excited! And then close it down to check because I’m not about to play it in one sitting, and realize no matter what I try…then it’ll randomly start again when I add -window and 640×480! And then it won’t start again…

      I’d really like to start at the beginning, especially considering there are cool mods, so maybe I’ll go to the effort of virtualboxing it, bluh…

      • Conundrummer says:

        Even Virtualboxing it doesn’t fix all of the issues. I went to play last night and got the same “fist” bug. Still, doing a quick scan of the files via Steam fixed it lickety-split, which was never the case outside of virtualized XP. I am playing the game, I can play it in a neat little Windows 7 window most of the time, so I’m mostly happy…

        It’s just such a shame that it can’t run natively, because this game is damn solid 13 years later! I bought it when it came out, and remember playing a few levels in before realizing it wasn’t an ARPG with superheroes as much as it was a pauseable tactics game (which I wasn’t yet familiar with; hey, Ghost Recon had most of my attention that year).

  20. Scandalon says:

    Help me out fellow RPS folk: I downloaded and played the demo through to the Fortissimo boss encounter, and failed dramatically. I enjoyed almost everything – everything except the actual gameplay! I find myself either hammering the spacebar like a rat in a drug trial trying to nano-manage (like micro-managing, but worse) everything, or else I try and let things play out for more than 5 frames of animation and I can’t keep track of who’s doing what. Is it because I’m jumping into the middle? Is it because it really should have been designed as turn-based? Am I just getting old?

    Help me find the fun, so I can spend the (very little amount of money for the bundle on sale) and not just add to the pile-of-shame.

    • Zekiel says:

      As I recall (from playing a long time ago) Fortissimo is a bit of a bitch to beat. I seem to remember he flies (is that right?) and so having not one but two team members with only melee attacks made beating him rather tough. The general advice with Freedom Force (both games) is to work out what attacks an enemy is weak to (e.g. fire, radiation), and what type of attacks they use, then make sure you have a team line up for that mission that consists of people who do the damage that the enemy are weak to, and aren’t vulnerable to whatever damage type the enemy does. (Of course you generally need to actually attempt the mission first to find this out, which is quite frustrating.)

      • Scandalon says:

        Thanks Zekiel, I wasn’t worried about completing/winning, just that I wasn’t really enjoying the “mechanics” of it. (But was greatly enjoying the theme, OTT characters, goofy voice acting, etc.)

        You’re right about the elemental resistances and sometimes having to play a mission before knowing what you need, as was Mr. Vega. :)

        • Sin Vega says:

          Also worth noting: Tombstone’s ‘possession’ abiltiy, if you can unlock it, lets you force flying villains to land, and you can then have other heroes beat him up without fear. Tombstone is a really good character all round to be honest, with free cold and ranged electrical attacks out of the gate. I’m a bit biased because I really like him, but he’s pretty useful.

          Another thing you could do, which might seem a little cheap, is practice fighting Fortissimo in the Rumble Room. If nothing else, it should let you test out some lineups without having to fight through the whole level every time.

    • Urthman says:

      One of the things I love about Freedom Force is that space bar. Don’t try to play it as an RTS; think of it more like a turn-based game. Or like a comic book. Stop time, move the camera to get a perfect view of the action, issue orders, then watch the next comic book panel unfold.

  21. Dervrak says:

    I remember the joke at the time was that Freedom Force was the best Marvel Comic game ever made. It’s no secret that they “borrowed” heavily from the Marvel lineup (and by “borrowed” I mean shamelessly copied just about every Avenger with just a minor name change and costume altered enough to keep from getting sued). That being said, Freedom Force IS one of the best if not the best superhero game ever made.

  22. Rufust Firefly says:

    Freedom Force is a great game. Something quite satisfying about picking up a car and throwing it. FOR PATRIOT CITY.

  23. mposullivan says:

    Great, great article. I’d not had much of a chance to play this game when it first came around; this inspired me to pick up the Steam double pack.

    Unfortunately, I’m having some issues running the game and I can’t seem to find any answers. Vs. the Third Reich runs fine for me… except for the screen resolution. I’m playing on Windows 7 (x64) machine with a 1920×1080 monitor and everything looks compressed.

    I’ve checked my Nvidia control panel and, every time I try to set the scaling to “Aspect Ratio” it just doesn’t take. It will ask to verify my changes, but then it’ll just switch back to “full screen”.

    Anyone else run into this issue? Anyone with a suggestion?