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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.