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.
Most of the game's plot is advanced by a series of humorous Soviet-run newscasts, which cover your actions as terrorist activities.
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.
Players looking for thrilling action with refined control and an excellent premise need look no further than Freedom Fighters.
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.