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Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5463)
Written on  :  Apr 08, 2005
Rating  :  4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars
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Great sequel lacks original's punch.

The Good

The Story
Energy X, a strange substance from the depths of space, has found its way to Earth. Meant only to supercharge Earth’s most villainous characters, this miraculous material empowers the good and righteous as well, lifting them above normal humans and giving them the strength to protect the weak and defeat evil. Last issue we saw the birth of Freedom Force, proud defenders of Patriot City. Led by Minuteman, these guardians of justice brought an end to the machinations of the Time Master and the alien Lord Dominion. We find them now after a year has passed.

Patriot City, 1963. With the defeat of the Time Master and Manbot’s sad sacrifice, Freedom Force finds itself in a lull. The team’s roster has been reduced to the core members and the active members aren’t at the top of their game. Alchemiss is tormented by the loss of Manbot and stubbornly refuses to believe that the team is powerless to deliver him from his time prison. A much needed diversion takes the team to Cuba, where the sudden appearance of snow can only be explained by the reappearance of Nuclear Winter. Together with Red Oktober, Nuclear Winter attempts a desperate gambit to unleash nuclear annihilation, but his master plan causes a time crisis, creating a world where the Axis won World War II.

With the Freedom Fortress acting as a hub in the Third Reich World, Mentor finds a way to send members of Freedom Force back to the 1940s. Taking the fight to the original Axis of Evil: Fortissimo, Red Sun, and Blitzkrieg, the heroes of the Silver Age join the heroes of the Golden Age in an effort to save not only the world, but reality itself!

The Game
Like its 2002 predecessor, FFv3R is a self-described “tactical RPG.” Controlling up to four superheroes on a large (and mostly deformable) map, the player issues orders in real time with mouse clicks and a few keyboard commands—like hitting the spacebar to issue commands while paused. The player moves the superhero units around the map, engaging enemies, and completing primary and secondary objectives.

FFv3R retains the user-friendly interface of the original game. Left-clicking performs a default action. If you left-click on an enemy, the hero performs his or her default attack. Left-clicking on objects lets the character interact with them: flicking switches, picking up power-ups, or lifting something. Left-clicking on an empty space moves the character to that location. Right-clicking automatically pauses the game, bringing up an option screen and giving the player access to a wider array of attacks or more options with items.

So let’s say you have El Diablo, Minuteman, Alchemiss, and Tombstone in your party. It is night in Patriot City and evil is on the prowl. Suddenly the team finds itself beset by thugs wielding guns. El Diablo and Alchemiss take to the air. Minuteman wrenches a lamppost from the ground and Tombstone charges at the enemy opening fire with his pistols Wrath and Vengeance. As the thugs get closer, El Diablo torches one with a bolt of fire and Alchemiss uses magic to repel another one, flinging him against a nearby building. Minuteman begins smacking down a thug of his own with the lamppost, but misjudges his proximity to a nearby car. After pummeling the thug and the auto, the car explodes finishing off the bad guy and taking out a chunk of building.

But not all enemies will be this easy. Nazi doctors have manufactured human/gorilla hybrids and armed them with whips and guns. Eyes of the Reich float around targeting do-gooders with their death rays. Chaos Wraiths, drawn by the distortion of time, prey on those in their way. Centurions pledged to Fortissimo are ready with sword and shield. Luckily there are more heroes, too: Sky King, Blackjack, TriColour, and others, ready to give all for their countries.

While most missions involve clearing a map of all opponents (or at least taking out major enemy targets), FFv3R puts the pressure on the player with a handful of timed missions. In one notable sequence, players must override a nuclear missile’s control, which means finding the soldier with the code, beating him into submission, and then racing to the launch pad. Other mission sequences involve Freedom Forces defense of an area against overwhelming waves of enemy troops, a race through Nazi headquarters to free a captured teammate, and a race to prevent the Nazis from tossing Shakespeare’s First Folio into a pile of burning books.

After the mission, the RPG element kicks in. The player gets a report showing how much experience party members earned and whether or not they leveled up. Characters who have leveled up can spend character points on new abilities or strengthen existing ones. Also, Freedom Force earns prestige points by completing mission objectives and protecting innocents. These prestige points can be spent on new heroes, either premade ones that come with the game or player-created ones.

Comparing FFv3R to its predecessor, the graphics are much sharper. El Diablo’s flame effects look more like fire than just a reddish orange glow. Characters show more detail, especially Manbot who now has a glossy finish enhancing his armored appearance. Aside from characters, the landscapes have a stronger sense of cel-shading. This is especially noticeable with buildings. Sound has likewise been kicked up a few notches. Getting back to El Diablo’s flames, they now crackle in a realistic fashion.

The AI has also been strengthened. Team members show a higher level of self-preservation, engaging enemies who get close even without input from the player. The enemy AI also has more choices, arming some opponents with multiple weapons depending on their range and letting some units, like the Nazi General, empower their comrades. Traffic in the cities also seems smarter, with cars being more inclined to break for superheroes rather than mowing them down.

Aside from the main game, FFv3R offers a few more options. Players can create custom made characters, choosing from the game’s templates or importing ones of their own. The game also offers a multiplayer experience including a story-mode. Also, players can head straight to combat in the Rumble Room. Here players can pick one to four heroes and put them up against up to twenty-four villains (pulled from both games), or choose other modes like survival or timed missions.

The Bad

Technically, FFv3R is a better game than the original, but fundamentally, I prefer the first game. Not to be a spoiler, but the Third Reich premise is more of a gimmick. It’s a good gimmick, but expect to jaunt back in time and skirmish with the Third Reich rather than face a series of epic battles ala early Captain America. Speaking of Captain America, you’d expect from the premise and the packaging that Minuteman would play a lead role, but the story focuses more on Alchemiss and others.

And here’s another meaningless quibble, the game seems more interested in re-covering issues from the last game, than in covering new ground. Not that this impacts the wonderful gameplay, but in terms of originality, the game suffers somewhat. Remember, the original Freedom Force won two awards for its debut at the 2001 E3. In the previous game, it seemed like every level offered something new and different: monster robots marching down Main St, raptors loose in Franklin Park, and The Great God Pan transforming women into nymphs. This time… well… everything seems familiar.

The Bottom Line

In 1972, Umberto Eco made an interesting observation in his essay “The Myth of Superman.” Noting that Superman had the means to end world hunger, significantly advance every human endeavor, and easily liberate the citizens of China from Mao’s oppression, Superman spent a lot of time going after common criminals. Eco wrote, “the only visible form that evil assumes [in the Superman stories] is an attempt on private property.”

So here’s what really struck me regarding FFv3R. The game begins in 1963 so later that year, Freedom Force will have to deal with the fact that even though they’ve saved the city from Time Master and the Dominion (plus the enemies in this game), they aren’t ready for Dealey Plaza. The team travels back to the 1940s to take on the Third Reich, but they fight supervillains, not the men behind them.

Of course the Holocaust is not mentioned and the Nazi Swastika is nowhere to be seen, but the game also makes uncomfortable concessions to Silver and Golden Age sensibilities. The Japanese supervillain, Red Sun, speaks with an accent more Charlie Chan than Hirohito and has an attack suggestive of the kamikaze. Jani Al-Hajani, an 18-year old Muslim girl living with her overbearing and powerful father escapes an arranged marriage when Energy X turns her into the Green Genie and she soars away on her flying carpet.