This article is part of VICE Gaming's Comic Connections week – find more here.
I just turned 33 years old and can't tell you where most of the time has gone. Some of it was lost to graduate school, a sufficient amount went to Final Fantasy VI, and more than I'd like to admit was devoted to powerlifting and e-wrestling (I succeeded at neither). But much of my time, certainly the bare majority of it, got dumped into short-term ventures like the mostly great but almost instantly forgettable video game Freedom Force, which was developed by Irrational Games (of System Shock and BioShock fame) and published in early 2002 by Electronic Arts (of Madden 2000 fame, in the sense that there have been 2,000 Maddens).
Freedom Force arrived at that moment in my post-adolescent life when everything was kinda blah and nothing really hurt or helped. Romantic partners and jobs washed over me like tides across the seashore, and one day could be distinguished from the next only by whether I needed to put gas in my car or felt up to eating six Big Macs for lunch instead of the customary four. The games I played during this period were a mixture of good and bad, but today they all run together in my selective memory: had I really liked Commandos 2 as much as Europa Universalis II? I invested countless hours in both, so I undoubtedly had a preference, but neither seems to have made much of a lasting impact.
Gameplay from the original 'Freedom Force'
And there was Freedom Force. This comic book-inspired tactical role-playing game dropped in 2002, when I and the other marginalised beta males in my social circle were still comics-crazy and there weren't yet all these sanitized Marvel Universe films to stoke widespread consumer demand. As of '02, we fanboys had only Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man to wet our cinematic whistles, and those stories, unconnected from one another as well as the box office feeding frenzy that consumed the latter half of the decade, now appear more like examples of auteur theory in action than soulless blockbusters. Despite the best efforts of The Onion's AV Club and Harry Knowles, the disparate nerd fiefdoms – sci fi! Comics! Anime! Fantasy! – hadn't yet merged into the single corporate pre-packaged entity now on annual display at the "so crowded nobody goes there anymore" Comic-Con in San Diego.
So when I first encountered Freedom Force, which offered the possibility of controlling 16 Jack Kirby-derived superheroes over the course of a campy 1960s-style campaign, I gambled forty bucks at the Electronics Boutique and hoped for the best. And what I got wasn't exactly the best – concept artist Robb Waters had struck paydirt with Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock, two games that changed the game, but here he and his developer friends seemed more intent on having a laugh.
It was only after I replayed Freedom Force and its Nazi-smashing sequel Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich (2005), available together on Steam for less than cost of a large latte, that I recognised why I liked this game but had failed to fall in love with it. Which is perfectly okay, this liking but not loving: the unfortunates I dated during this period, if forced to recall my simian countenance and obsession with devouring mass quantities of Big Macs, would surely say something similar about me.
As I progressed through the first mission of the first game, I kept thinking, as my 2002 self must have, that this was exactly the game I'd been waiting for! They (meaning video game developers) had finally done right by the funnybooks! And it wasn't some by-the-numbers franchise property; no, it was completely original! I mean, except for the fact that Marvel Comics itself boasted a Freedom Force, in that case a government-sponsored team of reformed supervillains who crushed banana republics and fought the X-Men. Yeah, except for that.
A trailer for 'Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich'
Yet here's the thing: as with the various iterations of the equally good but equally mind-numbing Commandos, there's a certain tediousness to Freedom Force that makes you feel like breaking periodically to take a snooze. Yes, there are a myriad of tactical challenges, but most usually just consist of pausing and hovering your cursor over targets to check how many HPs they have, then configuring long-range attacks to improve your odds once melee combat commences. The heroes are colourful and distinctive, and you have to use their powers properly, but a few of them, such as Sea Urchin and Mentor, flat-out stink. And of the enemies, who are repetitive even by the standards of the 1960s Batman TV show in which the titular hero fought henchmen wearing identical "GOON" shirts, the less that's said, the better.
But none of that detracts from the fact that Freedom Force was a totally fresh take on superheroics, arriving with exactly zero baggage and trying to jumpstart the "comic book tactics" genre in much the same way that Thief: The Dark Project gave a boost to stealth games. (Speaking of which.) Parts of the game, like the epic final battle against the Timemaster – who resembles a fusion of Marvel villains Kang, Immortus, and Rama-Tut, a sensible choice given that all three are Nathaniel Richards – deliver the goods on every conceivable level, forcing you to coordinate your heroes' powers precisely so, or at least watch a YouTube walkthrough (I opted for the latter).
Given that I recall Freedom Force hitting the ElBo bargain bins somewhat quickly after its release, the decision to produce a sequel appears puzzling in retrospect. But the period before gaming went from big to REALLYBIG, with releases like Grand Theft Auto V out-earning entire movie studios, was one of trial and error. Almost everything warranted a sequel, sometimes for good (those Elder Scrolls people kept on trucking!) and sometimes for ill (King's Quest: Mask of Eternity hasn't aged like a fine wine).
For Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich, Irrational and EA had even higher hopes. They partnered with Image Comics and released an accompanying six-issue miniseries, hiring Eric Dieter to write the scripts and Tom Scioli to illustrate them. Scioli, who is on the very short list of "people who draw Jack Kirby (almost) better than Jack Kirby", talked to me about his involvement with the project, in the process nailing why Freedom Force both peaked and vanished in 2005. "[While working on the comic] I learned how hard it is drawing a team book with characters you didn't grow up with," he explained. "There's a learning curve. I was just getting comfortable with the characters as the series ended."
So, I imagine, were the Freedom Force players. Whenever some cultural product appears for the first time, whether it's Street Fighter or Warcraft or whatever, there's a rather lengthy period before it becomes institutionalised. On top of that, there's usually a particular event that hammers it home, pushes it over the top – after which M. Bison and Uther the Lightbringer, while not exactly household names, become firmly suspended in the amber of shared cultural memory.
But Freedom Force, even through a way-less-clunky sequel with a slightly stronger storyline, couldn't "tip" in the Gladwellian sense. There certainly wasn't as much money behind the project as there should have been – Scioli was paid peanuts for his work on the comic series, for example – and maybe there couldn't have been, given the circumstances. Irrational, which later became part of Take-Two Interactive, eventually created its masterpiece, the gorgeously illustrated BioShock trilogy that, in its final Infinite version, managed to tell one of the great alternative history sci-fi stories this side of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Here, however, their development team merely accomplished something that was pretty good, and then they moved on.
A year later, with the release of Raven Software's Marvel Ultimate Alliance (2006), it was all over save the shouting for the Freedom Force franchise. Compared to Ultimate Alliance's fast-paced chopsocky action, which wowed many but struck me as a lot of tedious button-mashing, Force's pause-and-configure model seemed woefully out of date. Certain games in this style, such as the better offerings in the X-COM series, will always find an audience. But Freedom Force, this mid-level studio game with a modest budget and modest hopes of a modest return on investment – will we ever see its like again?
"It was a very different world [in the early 2000s]; it seems like a million years ago," Scioli remarks. Today's world of huge-budget gaming is surely too risk averse for a large-scale project that is neither a licensed property nor a potential "next big thing". Scioli himself notes: "As a creative person you have the choice of working on your own ideas or somebody else's ideas, and back then, I didn't have enough confidence in my own ideas, so I'd just as soon work on somebody else's, whether or not it was for pay." The game done changed, perhaps for the best: Scioli and other creative people now have alternative avenues for marketing their wares, and the work continues.
Were it to appear in 2015, a game like Freedom Force would most likely be produced as a scaled-down, Kickstarted indie development passion project in the of Darkest Dungeon or The Binding of Isaac. An accompanying comic, if needed, could be released directly over the web. But such a game wouldn't live or die based on the whims of distant businessmen in charge of sales and distribution; no, the game itself would be the business, man. And, fates allowing, it might occasion far more soulful "in memoriam" pieces than Freedom Force ever did.
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