Retrospective: Freedom Fighters
7th Apr 2012 | 13:00
Freedom Fighters was, in many ways, the right game at the wrong time.
Released today, it'd be a chart-storming hit: a third-person shooter set in a ruined New York City is pretty much a guaranteed unit-shifter. All you'd need to do is change a few minor details: the bad guys would more likely be alien than Russian, and the protagonist would be a huge chunk of all-American beef called something daft like Chip or Brick - a super-soldier with a dark past and a gun only exceeded in size by his forearms.
The year was 2000, and Danish developers Io Interactive, fresh from critical backslaps for their first game starring a certain chrome-domed assassin, conceived the idea of a new squad-based shooter for sixth-generation consoles. It posited an alternative future where Russia ends World War II by dropping a nuke on Hitler's head (that'll teach him to clog up YouTube with all those Downfall parody vids) before slowly converting the rest of the world to communism. Only the Russkies hadn't reckoned on the good old US of A resisting the inexorable westward swing of the Iron Curtain.
If the plot was a variation on a fairly well-worn theme, it represented a change of tack for Io. Lead designer Mads Prahm tells Nintendo Gamer: "We'd just finished Hitman and were looking to expand with a new IP, to do something different. The guys at Io had been playing a lot of squad shooters like Ghost Recon, and we wanted to do something especially for consoles that was a lot more intuitive and easy to play, that was less technical and more of an adventure where these squad elements became more naturally integrated into the action rather than the centre of attention."
Freedom Fighters' strategic side is one of its most successful elements, the game combining a squad mentality with solid and weighty third-person shooting. You play as Chris Stone, an NY plumber caught up in the mayhem of the Russian invasion, tasked initially with rescuing his brother before leading the fightback against the Soviet forces.
The sense of panic is brilliantly rendered, capturing the feeling of being a small part of something much bigger. Right from the outset, you find yourself running through city streets cluttered with debris
as choking dust clouds shroud entire blocks (it's not just a draw-distance thing, honest) and things constantly explode on the periphery of the screen. Meanwhile, dozens of NPCs sprint, scream and cower in terror as New York burns. The screenshots scattered across these pages show a game whose visuals have aged, but it remains hugely evocative.
Ahead of the game
Third-person shooters might be ten a penny these days, but they weren't quite so common back in the early noughties. Freedom Fighters stemmed from Io's simple desire to make a good, accessible shooter for console gamers. "These were the early days of the generation and there were a lot of people trying to translate the shooter genre from PCs onto consoles," Prahm recalls.
"There was a [PlayStation 2] game called Oni where they had both close combat and shooting from a third-person viewpoint, and while that game had lots of shortcomings, I think that was part of a concerted movement in the games industry towards [console shooters]. I remember a lot of people said back then that it's never going to be as fun as playing on a PC, that joysticks weren't the same as a mouse and keyboard. But nowadays there are a lot of people playing shooters on consoles - which proves we were right [in saying] it could work."
Considering it was such a departure for Io, coming off the back of a game where guns are a last resort, the developer took to this hectic, action-packed approach like a duck to water. The squad dynamic is simple, but offers the player a variety of approaches to a given scenario. You can ask your buddies to provide covering fire while you flank a group of enemies, stay in cover and send them out to do your dirty work, or lead by example and charge with a small army as backup.
Recruiting citizens to your cause is as simple as increasing your charisma rating, which is given a boost for every completed mission and other optional good deeds. You might be reluctant to waste your valuable health packs on civilians, but do so and you might just be able to hire a couple more soldiers who'll provide the kind of protection that reduces your need to heal up.
Issuing commands is a doddle, a single button press sending one fighter towards the target area, while holding it a second longer sees an entire group head that way. It's an elegant system designed to make things much easier for console audiences unfamiliar with more tactical shooters, though if it seems effortless in play, it was a challenge to implement.
"We had to try lots of different things to make it work," says Prahm. "We had multiple iterations, and [ended up with] the fourth or fifth version of the squad control. Earlier, we had systems that were a lot more complex, where you could pick individual guys and give them different orders."
In fact, an early prototype that the team experimented with could have turned it into a very different game indeed. "There was even a sort of real-time strategy mode where the camera would elevate to a higher position, so it almost turned into this 2D RTS game where you could move your guys around from above," Prahm explains. "In the end the one where you basically just point and click was the one that survived."
If getting the controls right was a test, it proved even trickier when porting the game to the GameCube, with a pad layout very different from that of the PS2, the lead development platform. "Creatively, the biggest challenge was to get all those buttons and stick controls from the PS2 controller down onto the GameCube controller," Prahm says, which explains why the pad's little-used Z button gets to do an uncommon amount of work, here accessing the radial menu for item selection. Still, working with the Cube had its benefits for Io's future work. "One interesting thing is that porting to GameCube helped us port the engine eventually to Xbox 360. Some of the technical details are very similar, believe it or not!"
The controls were one thing, but the game's entire conceit would have fallen apart without Io getting the artificial intelligence right. Thankfully, they did. Rare pathfinding issues and the occasional suicidal tendencies of squad mates - who seem blissfully unaware of the concept of a 'blast radius' when C4 is planted nearby - detract little from some remarkably smart AI.
Your brothers in arms take up positions well, and can certainly handle themselves in a firefight. Rarely do they need nannying, and even if you simply want to get on with the business of shooting up the Russian invaders yourself, you can happily charge in and let them follow in your wake.
You'd certainly never think that implementing the artificial intelligence was a bit of a rush job, but as Prahm reveals, "it was something that we started working on relatively late in production. We had a lot of levels built before the AI worked well and that wasn't so good for the whole development process." Yet a bit of friendly in-house competition may have made the crucial difference. "One funny thing is that the two sides of the AI - in other words, the Russian soldiers and the freedom fighters - were developed by two different programmers that actually didn't work very closely together in the beginning. In a sense, you could say it was a fight for real between the Russian AI and the freedom fighter AI."
War of words
Having mastered the art of urban conflict, Io wrap it in a narrative that, while fantastical, is smartly and efficiently told, rarely resorting to extensive cutscenes. Much of the detail comes in the form of wittily scripted Soviet newscasts, which paint your activities as nothing more than terrorism. It's a potentially serious idea handled with a deft touch, its slightly cartoonish approach proving more charming than the po-faced realism of its contemporary peers.
The inclusion of sibling plumbers as main characters (a very deliberate nod to Mario and Luigi, laughs Prahm) turns out to be a masterstroke. These are likeable, identifiable everyman heroes, even if they seem entirely incapable of starting a revolution. "It's the classic tale of the reluctant hero," says Prahm. "We wanted players to relate to this guy who's pulled into this situation against his will and has to become a freedom fighter to save his brother rather than some fanatic who's just doing it out of hatred."
With a duplicitous agent and a moustache-twirling baddie, it's the right kind of far-fetched, carrying the same appeal as a B-movie action-thriller, one that would perhaps star Chris Pine and Sean William Scott as the Stone brothers saving America from those evil Soviet scumbags, and would invariably have a scene where one of the brothers yells "let's kick some Commie ass!"
With that in mind, you'd probably expect a soundtrack of stirring, militaristic bombast to propel the action. Yet the music here tingles the spine in a very different way. The choral score from Jesper Kyd is outstanding, melding the voices of the Hungarian Radio Choir with contemporary beats and synths in a way that captures the human element of conflict and the adrenaline rush of the frenzied street battles. "Working with Jesper Kyd is always a great experience because he has worked with games for so long, and really understands the development process," enthuses Prahm. "He [was] a very integrated part of creating a game experience where music plays a major role. In my mind, the score for Freedom Fighters is some of Jesper's very best work."
Yet if getting the tone and the AI right were big enough challenges for a still fledgling developer, a real-world disaster would soon cast a long shadow over the project. "We started the project in 2000, and when 9/11 happened we were through pre-production at the time," explains Prahm. "So we had some levels in Manhattan that were designed but hadn't been built
yet, and in part of a later level we had a stage where you were fighting in the World Trade Center, with one tower in ruins and one tower still standing."
After the shock of the attacks themselves, Prahm admitted that he wondered whether it was game over for Freedom Fighters. "We thought: can we make a game about fighting in the ruins of Manhattan after this?" he says. Eventually, it was agreed that the project should continue, but with a few tactful adjustments. "We ended up actually taking out a few levels - the one with the World Trade Center, obviously, and another with a crashed plane in the middle of the street."
Despite these alterations, Io's game struggled at retail, and while some thought perhaps a game involving terrorism in a ruined Manhattan may have discouraged some players, Prahm doesn't think 9/11 had a significant impact on sales. "We've always had a lot of theories about why the game didn't sell," sighs Prahm, "because it was actually critically well received. But it didn't do so well, and that's down to a lot of different factors. It was definitely theorised about the impact of 9/11, but I'm not sure that's how gamers make up their minds to buy games. If they've heard a game is fun I think that's the main thing, not that it's set in a ruined Manhattan. I didn't hear many critical comments in that direction anyway."
Indeed, Freedom Fighters didn't see too many critical comments in any direction, with most reviewers rightly impressed with its skilful integration of simple squad mechanics in an already solid shooter. Yet Prahm is honest enough to admit that the balance was not all that it could have been, and suggests that time constraints were a factor in a home stretch that, while exciting in its escalation to ferocious, large-scale street battles, might not be quite as finely tuned as the early game.
"It was quite challenging to get the balance between the player and the freedom fighters versus the enemies," he admits. "That's because the fighters are as powerful as the player, and so if you're playing it one way, you might only have one or two followers, while someone else who has done everything perfectly could have 12 guys on their side. I don't think we had the right tools at the time to really look at what the player was doing and tailor the enemy [activity] towards that so that the players who were really good at the game would also get a lot of resistance."
Also cut for time was a planned two-player mode. "I'm really, really sorry that the campaign co-op mode didn't make it in there," says Prahm. "Just after the game released, we had a prototype of that up and running where you could play in split screen, so player one would be the main character and your friend would play one
of the freedom fighters. Either player could take control of the squad and play tactically - it was quite a lot of fun."
The development of a co-op prototype after the game's completion is clear evidence that Io had hoped to develop a sequel, which is borne out by the story letting the bad guy get away at the end. "Yes, there was definitely a lot of hope that we would do [a sequel]," admits Prahm, "and so we didn't want to kill off all our characters before we had a chance to see how we could use them in a possible sequel."
Little wonder, then, that Prahm would love to revisit the game he describes as "an early career peak", though he believes a new Freedom Fighters would need a fresh focus. "I think the big challenge now would be how to really make an online multiplayer out of it. Because I think the multiplayer modes that we had in Freedom Fighters were experimental at best. We had a lot of fun playing it in the office, but I don't think many people have played them that much, so getting that right would be the key with any sequel."
Play Freedom Fighters today and you might just be struck by how prescient it is. With last year's news frequently dominated by the Arab Spring uprisings, there's a sense of eerie familiarity about the scenes of carnage, even if they shy away from the full horrors of war. With that in mind, you sense that any potential follow-up would have to tread a very fine line. The original is, then, almost certainly destined to be a one-off. Its place in gaming history may be little more than a footnote, but like the revolutionaries it celebrates, its name shouldn't be forgotten.