One school of thought says that videogames are pure entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. Taking a different view, some suggest that the power of a well-crafted interactive experience can be more significant than an afternoon of frivolous distraction. The answer likely lies somewhere in between, but for any game, it's important to consider the content and the context in which it is couched. An adventure featuring an acrobatic plumber bopping winged turtles might have no problem avoiding social commentary, but not all games fit that lighthearted mold. Spanning a vast range of genres, styles, and degrees of realism, some efforts are much closer to issues that have an impact on the people playing them. Take, for example, the premise behind Io Interactive's Freedom Fighters. Set in an alternate United States invaded and "liberated" by the Soviet Union, the game is bursting with untapped potential for both socio-political commentary and the structure needed to satisfy players at the same time.
To help illustrate this potential, I think it's useful to first look at one dictionary's definition of the term Terrorist. It reads: "A person using terror to intimidate or subjugate, especially as a political weapon." This covers the concept on a very basic level, but it lacks perspective. I recently heard that missing perspective in the phrase "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." The person quoted was an official from a country accused of harboring terrorists. He did not deny the presence of the soldiers, but instead made the case that the men were not inspiring terror, but fighting for that country's liberty. In listening to the well-spoken, articulate speech, it became clear that the line separating a good soldier from an evil anarchist can be a very thin one, indeed.
Although Io's Freedom Fighter scenario is painted in broad, almost parodic strokes by comparison, it gave me immediate pause. Why? Because contrary to practically all other videogames, in this instance I am the terrorist. If my character wasn't wrapped in the stars and stripes while fighting the sickle and hammer, how differently would the project have been received? For example, if my avatar was an Irish Catholic gunning down Protestants, would it still be acceptable to view him (and by extension, myself) as a clear-cut hero? What about the role of a Palestinian taking on the Israeli army, or even a slave rising up against the old South?
Freedom Fighters clearly motivates players to root for "our side". Some might discourage questioning the patriotic content, but denying the opportunity for discussion would be selling the medium short. A hard look at the bigger picture and one-sided depiction of the situation is necessary, specifically whether reinforcement and endorsement of horse-blinder nationalism is really possible without total hypocrisy, even in a videogame. Similar to the issues raised in Gene Park's Socom: U.S. Navy Seals review, the material has the potential to be quite profound.
The most striking example was a cutscene early in the game. In it, a Russian commander gives a press conference explicitly calling your characters "terrorists" while referring to his forces as "liberators". His slanted recount of your actions from the previous level make your character appear to be a vicious malcontent rather than the heroic soldier the player must believe he is. Coming from a villain, such rhetoric is displayed as an evil twisting of the facts, typical of a tyrannical regime and further proof that your cause is just. However, these comments possessed unusual weight because the message could also be seen from outside the context of the game. Eerily prescient, that cutscene could easily have been extracted word-for-word from any number of speeches given recently by the current Bush administration. The part about American terrorists sabotaging efforts to restore power and food supplies gave me chills.
By turning the tables and placing players in the shoes of people experiencing massive political and military oppression, the scene (as well as the entire game) was ripe for exploring issues that could easily extend far beyond the television screen. Unfortunately, the developers don't cover the topic or extrapolate the issues with any depth, thereby missing a tremendous opportunity to help push videogames past simple entertainment and into a new form of commentary. It's understandable from a sales perspective, but still very disappointing.
All parallels to current world events aside, Freedom Fighters has much to offer in the way of gameplay, though it also falls as short as the intellectual content does. Neither aspect is taken to full fruition, reducing what could have been a revolutionary, landmark title to the status of "action game."
Featuring squad-based military combat, Freedom Fighters employs a third-person perspective using controls similar to what you'd expect of a First-Person Shooter. The left stick handles movement, the right your viewpoint and aiming. The shoulder buttons trigger jumping, ducking, and firing, but the most interesting part of the system are the team commands mapped to the DualShock 2's face buttons.
The average gamer will likely start playing using traditional "lone hero saves the day" tactics, standard in the action genre since its inception, but this doesn't work. Since each level is rife with Russians who overpower and outnumber you, successfully completing missions on your own is impossible. Instead of being quick with a trigger, the most important skill to master is knowing when and how to employ the loyal troops you'll recruit.
By gaining experience points (called Fame), the hero can command a group of up to twelve soldiers. Not at all gimmicky or frivolous, Io Interactive has created a dynamic that can only be described as a blend of Rainbow Six and Pikmin. This kind of scheme has been tried before, but what makes Freedom Fighters stand out is its absolute simplicity and ease of use. It's similar in concept to the Xbox's Brute Force, but surpasses it by being both wonderfully elegant and far more effective. With a single button press you can send one soldier or an entire mob to roust hidden enemies, secure an area, or rush a pillbox against suicidal odds. It may take a while before not acting like a one-man army feels natural, but it's extremely vital, and makes up the addictive core of the game.
The wonderful levels give you ample opportunity to use this ability, as well. Your hands will always be busy giving orders and squeezing off rounds, but at no time will your brain be ignored. Each area features well-developed architecture, fast-paced design, and a fine attention to detail, meaning that the many nooks and crannies inherent to cities create possibilities to maximize your team while maintaining the feel of convincing environments. With this kind of level construction, it's easy to become immersed rushing through a bombed-out inner-city block, dodging enemies, and launching attacks amidst shattered buildings and sniper-filled high-rises. Taking back the streets with a small army is quite a feeling, and the amount of work that went into polishing the game's mechanics and presentation certainly paid off. Unfortunately, while I found the technical aspects to be a direct hit, there are several places that are in need of reinforcements.
Besides not tackling the political themes as mentioned in the first half of the review, both the story and characterizations are shallow sketches, never reaching a level of believability or fullness. For example, the main character discusses never discusses his feelings about becoming the leader of the resistance, the violent death of his brother, or his "love" of the disc's leading lady. He's basically a paper-thin placeholder waving a flag, and the rest of the cast are little better. This type of minimalist narrative was acceptable in Io's recent Hitman 2, starring a cold-blooded assassin, but it fails to satisfy in Freedom Fighters.
Furthermore, with its emphasis on squads, teammates, and group tactics, I was quite surprised to find that the soldiers under your command are nameless, disposable clones rather than real people struggling for their homeland. Every grunt is totally interchangeable, and it's rare to hear any of them say more than one line. There is no real penalty for losing recruits, and no bonus for saving their lives in the heat of battle. I would have loved to see clearly defined personalities join your army, with some sense of camaraderie and value given to their virtual lives. The ironic lack of the human element in a game that hinges on teamwork is a serious blow, and dilutes the potency of the concept.
The other substantial problem plaguing Freedom Fighters is that missions take on a cooling sameness before the halfway mark is reached. The logistics behind play are solid as a rock, but the developers ran out of tricks far too early for my liking. After mastering the use of your squad, the only thing that changes are the environments-- and regardless of what the levels look like, the same kind of tactics always work. Once the feeling of repetition set in and the plot failed to connect, I kept wondering what new twists or challenges the game was going to throw at me. Very few ever materialized.
While I greatly admire the core of play that Freedom Fighters brings to the table, I'm sad to see that it settles for being a good game instead of striving to be the great game it could have been. Commanding soldiers works exceptionally well, the environments look fabulous, and the entire project is built on a concept I can appreciate, but because the game runs out of ways to use your squad so early in the adventure, it feels all dressed up with no place to go. That feeling is only compounded by the featherweight plot and characterization, in addition to the failure to capitalize on the current state of political world events. Some might take me to task for viewing Freedom Fighters in such a highly idealized way, but the connections to real life circumstances are so obvious and glaring, it became a perfect example of how videogames can, and sometimes should, be more.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.