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.