This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
The Avengers' huge success in its first week of release may represent the pinnacle of the superhero takeover of mainstream culture. Superhero comics have long been comparable to video games' bigger brother, with many of the same criticisms and stereotypes and similar slow paths to respectability. There's always been a great deal of crossover between the two, especially in terms of games based on comics. Most of these were platformers or brawlers, and most, like licensed games generally, were mediocre at best – with a few exceptions.
Roleplaying games especially seemed to be a natural fit for superhero games. Both usually have origin stories, over-the-top villainy, straightforward morality and, most importantly, characters overcoming adversity by gaining more strength and greater power, with single characters or small party dynamics. There were a few attempts of varying success, like the simple RPG/adventure hybrid Superhero League Of Hoboken, but it still took until 2002 for a great superhero RPG to be released: Freedom Force.
Freedom Force isn't an official Marvel/DC game, but it may be the best Avengers (or Justice League of America) game of all time. Created by Irrational Games before they broke out with BioShock, Freedom Force doesn't have any license, but it does wear its influences proudly. The main character is Minuteman, a Captain America stand-in. There's also The Ant (Spider-Man), Man-Bot (Iron Man), Microwave (Vision), and so on. Not all the heroes are knock-offs, though. Some are twists of better-known forms, like Eve, who looks much like Poison Ivy, but works with the good guys. Others are creative new forms, like Law and Order, a fused hero who can change between forms of a strong fighter and a powerful healer.
Each hero is introduced through comic-style cutscenes, done in the style of 1960s-era "Silver Age" comics. An over-the-top voice delivers campy, Stan Lee-esque narration, and the hero's voices are all entertainingly overdone. Freedom Force feels silly, but in a way that's respectful of the playfulness of the source material.
Freedom Force is a top-down, party-based action/RPG, much like the later X-Men Legends and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance titles, but it plays quite differently. Freedom Force is slower-paced, less action-oriented, and built more for the indirect control of the mouse than the later Marvel games. Ultimate Alliance feels like Diablo mixed with Gauntlet, but Freedom Force is its own thing. In pace, it's closer to Baldur's Gate, but it's both less chaotic than the Infinity Engine games and more character skill-based.
The pacing and use of skills situate Freedom Force as an important game in the evolution of RPG combat. Seven years later, Dragon Age: Origins utilized a very similar combat system – four party members under various degrees of player control, with the ability to give direct orders. They also have similar speeds: fast enough to build tension, but slow enough to give you room to understand and deal with new situations. Freedom Force is a bit slower, while the party members in Dragon Age are slightly more autonomous, but they're still largely similar.
This isn't an accident: the manner of skill-based fighting both games use is well-served by this setup. With small parties, you can use a variety of different characters and skill-sets, but there aren't so many that it becomes difficult to control. The skills themselves are spaced out by time more than anything, which fits perfectly with the superhero theme and the logical consistencies between superhero and traditional roleplaying narratives. It just feels right to play a real-time RPG with this kind of engine.
That's not the only thing that Freedom Force gets right, though. One of its most impressive feats is its use of three dimensional, polygonal technology to create a superhero playground. Most every object within the game world can be interacted with: you can pick up rocks, trees, and cars. You can demolish every building in your way – though sometimes you have to protect buildings from attack as well. Putting a ranged character on a rooftop for a fight may be wise, but if one of your super-strong characters throws a car into the building, there may be trouble.
This use of technology is what made Freedom Force possible. It wouldn't be a superhero game without the potential or actuality of massive environmental destruction. The Avengers shows Manhattan laid waste due to the collateral damage of an alien invasion and superheroic defense – Freedom Force depicts that as a possibility. A game like Superhero League Of Hoboken with its menu-based combat can't even begin to make the attempt at environmental destruction. It may have taken a while for the technology to allow a game like Freedom Force, but it was worth the wait.
Freedom Force was well-received upon its release, but it has lost its place in the discussion of great roleplaying games. A sequel, Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich, was released a few years later, but by then Marvel's licensed games were proving to be crossover hits and may have overwhelmed Freedom Force. But it's a great and important game that deserves to be remembered and still played. Happily, it's fairly easy to acquire: GamersGate and Steam have both games, while GOG.com has the sequel. If The Avengers gave you an itch for some classic roleplaying superhero fun, this is a good way to scratch it.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.