A few months ago I reacquired my boxed copy of IO Interactive’s Freedom Fighters, which had been languishing at my mother’s for close to a decade. The game had a huge impact on me back in 2003 (inspiring the game idea that eventually became A Place in the West, which is a Half-Life comic I write for) and I longed to revisit it. Unfortunately, but also predictably, Freedom Fighters was no longer compatible with my machine.
So it was something of a delight when IO unexpectedly dropped the game on digital stores last week. I had a bunch of other titles lined up to play, but I just couldn’t stop myself from diving back in to see if the game I’d fell so in love with as a kid was just as I remembered it.
For the most part the answer is a pretty decisive “yes”.
Freedom Fighters is now considered something a cult classic, although everyone and their mother seems to know about it (take my mother, for instance—she sent the article in question down to me).* It’s a third-person squad game with a pulp premise: an ascendant Russia—who had beat the world to the atomic bomb, bringing an end to WWII on their terms—invades the United States and imposes an authoritarian regime on its populace.
*Except our editor-in-chief, apparently.
Silly IO Interactive. Didn’t they know all it took was massive amounts of disinformation, a crooked real estate developer and “Hillary’s emails” to bring the US to heel?
Hindsight is 20/20.
As New Yawk plumber Chris Stone you are thrust into the heart of the invasion and given a key role in a burgeoning resistance movement. Your audacity escalates with each successful attack on Soviet strongholds throughout the city, and that movement quickly morphs into a city-wide revolution.
The first thing you notice in Freedom Fighters is its world. There’s an authenticity to the individual districts, with their requisitioned police stations and movie theatres, which really do feel like an occupied and downtrodden slice of Americana.
The seasons change as you progress, roughly tracking summer through to winter. The tonal shifts elicited by the game’s scripted weather patterns do so much of the heavy lifting in terms of immersion. Summer is a resplendent golden sheen, autumn dreary browns sodden with rain, and winter buries the city in a blanket of blue-white snowfall. Crunch, crunch, crunch goes the snow beneath your feet, which seems to fall eternal from the cloud-laden skies. It’s hard to overestimate how vital the weather is to Freedom Fighters’ notion of “place”.
That and Jesper Kyd’s phenomenal score, that is.
The levels are broken into sections: in each district you’re given a choice of neighbourhoods to conquer (ultimately by raising the stars and stripes on a designated building), with the rub being that they’re all interconnected.
So, if in one neighbourhood your progress is blocked by an attack helicopter, you’re going to have to travel to an adjacent neighbourhood where the helipad is located and take it out before you can make any headway. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful piece of design that helps Freedom Fighters feel like it’s unfolding at an organic pace.
You won’t be making that progress alone. As your charisma and fame increases, more rebels will join your side in the fight against the Soviets. In something of a miracle for 2003, these squad members are not only useful to the player but essential to their success.
The squad mechanics are simple and intuitive: you can direct them to follow, attack or defend, and they will do so effectively. It allows for a strategic mindset to flourish on the field, tasking you with deciding how best to utilise your allies; will you have them bunker down and provide covering fire for you, or will you send them headlong into the enemy as you take up a sniping position across the street?
If there’s a downside to all this it’s that Freedom Fighters is noticeably weaker when you’re completing that rare mission spent alone. The third person combat is fine—save an awkward inventory wheel that doesn’t let you reach medkits quickly enough—but it’s that much better when you’re commanding a small army and using them to overrun enemy positions. You’ll notice the absence of your friends and resent it, even if it’s understandable that the game must indulge the occasional solo mission.
It’s also short—probably too short. The final section is the game at its boldest, with a unique set of challenges spread across multiple maps. It’s thoroughly inspired but bittersweet because you know the whole thing is winding down—just as it really started to get going.
Freedom Fighters had such promise as a potential franchise, and the idea that future games could take place in different cities across the States is baked into its premise. Unfortunately it never came to pass; IO moved on to other things, and although a sequel was dangled in front of fans many times it never materialised.
Perhaps now, some 17 years on and with an unexpected digital debut, something is finally happening behind the scenes. But the world has changed.
Russian domination of the United States was not a plausible scenario in a relatively placid 2003; it was (and still is) a successful pulp premise to explore squad-based gameplay in the third-person shooter. But in 2020, where Russian interference in democratic elections is an indisputable fact and the US President acts less like the leader of the free world and more a puppet to a corrupt kleptocracy he’s all too eager to imitate, it’s interesting to think about what a Freedom Fighters 2 would look like.
IO are pretty cognizant of that; there’s a reason the Steam store page omits any reference to the game’s Soviet villains, generically labelling them a ‘foreign superpower’. Suddenly the brand has taken on a fresh importance, and I for one would welcome a sequel that not only developed the original game’s engaging squad mechanics, but interrogated 2020’s bizarre, messed-up geopolitics in that forthright, absurd way only genre pulp can.