Eighteen: that age when you’re not a kid anymore, but you’re still not quite ready to face life as an adult. N64 Jamesy talks through the long, hard road to becoming a grown-up, and how a chance discovery of a brand-new game led to an experience that placed Freedom Fighters among his all-time favourites.
A few weeks before my GCSEs in 2002, my parents decided we were going to move away from my childhood home, to somewhere far enough away that I thought I’d never see any of my school friends once my exams were over. I scraped enough good passes from those exams to qualify for a BTEC in Health Studies in college, so the September brought about the next stage of life’s journey.
I took on a part-time, after-college job at a big-name fast-food restaurant, and with my first wage packet, I treated myself to a new GameCube and a couple of games. As the months went by, I felt more and more like a whipping boy at work; mopping the toilet and dining area floors wasn’t what I had in mind. But I had my own money coming in, I was 17, and ‘pocket money’ was long confined to the history books.
One day, my manager decided to ‘promote’ me to chips, giving me a right-handed scoop to get chips into bags. I was struggling to do this wrong handed and under pressure from said manager, who kept calling me out to hurry up.
“I’m trying my best, this scoop’s only right-handed and I’m left-handed.” I protested. His response to that? “Oh, don’t worry, you’re not doing bad for someone who’s disabled.” And that was coming from a senior manager!
“Disabled? For being FUCKING left-handed?!” I started to rant. Needless to say, I was soon no longer an employee there.
Meanwhile, I’d been skipping college lessons, spending more and more time in the pub playing pool with my friend Adam. I fell further and further behind and eventually gave up on the course in July 2003, after my first year. With no job and no prospects, I wasn’t feeling good about the future.
Around about this time, my sister had finished with her then fella and moved back home. She was a fully-fledged goth – something that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the local yobs at the new estate. What followed were varying levels of graffiti, eggs pelted at the windows on a regular basis, and our car’s lights were even smashed up. The girls were as bad as the lads, and the parents couldn’t have cared less.
The police weren’t much of a deterrent for this lot, so we decided to move again to somewhere better, away from the White Lightning-fuelled bullshit and not a million miles away from my old friends.
Love at first sight
It was during one of these afternoons playing pool I first learned of this game that truly made its mark on me. I’d taken a detour to the Co-op on the way to the Mitre Vaults pub because I fancied some Fruit Pastilles, and spotted the latest issue of CUBE Magazine. I’d never read one before, so on impulse, I picked that up too.
When we reached the pub, Adam and his friend Fran played pool first, so they asked me to stick some coins in the jukebox. Someone had left money in there and it already displayed Texas’ Summer Son – apt for the time of year – so I played that first. Adam lit up a cigarette – these were the days before smoking was banned in public places – while I shared the sweets out and flicked through the magazine.
It was then that a specific game that caught my eye: a strategic shooting game from the developers of the critically acclaimed Hitman series, called Freedom Fighters. It looked like it played similar to a previous favourite of mine, Body Harvest, but I’d be shooting soldiers rather than aliens.
The title Freedom Fighters also evoked memories of reading Sonic the Comic and watching the cartoons, where I vaguely remembered the heroes referring to themselves as “freedom fighters” against Dr Robotnik, which really struck a chord. I knew already I was going to love this game and it hadn’t even been released.
Freedom Fighters had initially been unveiled at E3 2002 as a turn-based strategy game with the same story, but later down the line its developers added an action shooting mode, which was finally kept at the expense of the turn-based model when it was released in late September 2003, a few weeks before my 18th.
Before I knew it, it was November 2003. Having been out of work and higher education for some time, and clueless about what I wanted to do with my life, I was on a careers skills course known as Youth Gateway. Soon, my 18th birthday came around. I’d been given £50 from my parents that morning, so when my dinner hour arrived, I was straight off to Game, where I forked over my cash on the game I’d been excited about for months. I finally had Freedom Fighters, and I couldn’t wait to get home to play it.
First impressions count
Freedom Fighters was introduced with a text description of major events in history, from the Second World War to the time of the story, against the background of an unidentified underwater landscape with a submarine passing through, followed by another, then more, then the unmistakable red star on the front as they rose out of the water to reveal where they were: the Statue of Liberty. Two jets flew by and the tone of the game was set, just as the title screen presented itself.
The story was played out in the streets and alleys of what was, at the time, present-day New York. The story was set in an alternative reality where the Soviets had won the Cold War, turned Europe, South and Central America – pretty much the whole world – red, and now had their sights set on taking over America. They had more than enough manpower and artillery to do so, too.
It placed you in the summer of 2003, where two brothers by the name of Chris and Troy – ordinary plumbers during an ordinary day in Manhattan – were completely unaware that the next leaky garbage disposal they took care of would change their lives forever. This job was at the home of Isabella, the leader of the anti-Soviet movement in the district, who wasn’t home. Her apartment door was wide open, which was in no way suspicious at all. Just as the two plumbers were discussing why they were there, a mob of unwanted guests arrived.
Soviet soldiers, led by the hypermasculine General Vasilij Tatarin, arrived to capture the apartment’s occupant. Tatarin wasn’t the kind of general who ordered his troops into battle to kill indiscriminately; he preferred to go with them as their leader, because he got off on it, like a real sadist.
As Isabella wasn’t home, it was Troy, the younger of the Stone brothers who copped it – mistaken for Isabella’s partner – and he was hauled off before Tatarin ordered the bombing of the apartment block. You therefore took the role of Chris, who’d been hiding in another room, as you fought to escape the apartment’s destruction. Armed with only a monkey wrench to defend yourself against the Soviets that could be heard outside, suddenly it had all gotten real, it wasn’t “conspiracy crap” anymore. What a start!
Finding a safe place
Freedom Fighters had you pick a difficulty level from the following four:
- Demonstrator: A Walk in the Park
- Rebel: Have a Blast
- Freedom Fighter: You Got What It Takes?
- Revolutionary: Against all Odds
To this day I’m yet to see more interesting descriptions for video game difficulty levels, and these alone set the tone of the game wonderfully. I knew it would probably be a struggle to play, much like the struggle depicted in the game’s story. There was an offer on when I got Freedom Fighters: I also grabbed the official strategy guide for half price by buying it alongside the game. At the time, decent broadband internet was “the next big thing” just out of our family’s budget, and I couldn’t very well pull up an online strategy guide on the WAP of my Nokia 5210 on limited pay-as-you-go credit.
The gameplay started off simple enough: I had a wrench, so it wasn’t too difficult to discreetly whack the soldier guarding a group of hostages out in the corridor. Then it was out into the big wide world, or rather, the Big Apple. It was incredible; the details of the backstreet vibe were portrayed perfectly, and this gritty New York felt a million miles from the glitz and glamour of the touristy New York we’ve all seen in the films and heard about in real life.
One of the people I’d rescued from the apartment block was a former soldier, and after a bit of handgun training from him, using unwitting Soviet troops for target practice, it was time to head to the safest place in the whole city: the sewers. It was a great metaphor for the real-life situation my family had been put during the months beforehand.
A new experience
From the safety of the sewers it was clear that down here was the centre of the resistance movement, only there was no leader in the form of Isabella, so we had to rescue her. She was being held in the police station, which I couldn’t access because there were snipers on the roof of a nearby petrol station. We had to head there.
Climbing out of the sewers near this petrol station, I bumped into one of the major Freedom Fighters NPCs. Known only as “The Kid”, this 15-year-old, who’d clearly had a tough upbringing, loved nothing more than having a good old spray of graffiti on the walls. Under normal circumstances, he’d have probably been frowned upon as some sort of menace to society, like that bunch of tossers we’d recently moved away from.
But this was the middle of a full-scale Soviet invasion, and his knowledge of every dodgy alley in Brooklyn and Manhattan proved invaluable. He was friendly enough, for someone who’d never had it much better. His first advice was that if we were going to take out said snipers, we’d need to blow up the petrol station. Who doesn’t love blowing things up in video games? The C4 I needed for this was… back at the police station.
So basically, I was going to have to keep going back and forth, doing all this backtracking to get anywhere. Normally, I would have found this frustrating – even now, fetch quests are rightly criticised in gaming. However, the need to do this was clearly explained in the sewers. This was where Freedom Fighters set itself apart from other third-person shooters, and what makes it so memorable 15 years on: the critical thinking; the planning of objectives to execute missions properly.
I tried heading straight to the police station and got my arse handed to me by those snipers; there was no way through. I had to think ahead. The main routes were nearly always manned by Soviet checkpoints with mounted machine guns, so finding side streets, alleys and buildings to bypass these became critical, especially on harder difficulties. Even in the early stages, Freedom Fighters really made me think outside the box, while staying aware of my surroundings and the possibilities available to help me progress through the missions.
When in the game, it initially seemed like there was no music while exploring, but it was subtly there, matching the stillness of back-alley Brooklyn well. Once I’d unleashed the explosives, a chorus boomed out, similar to the orchestral ‘Russian’ music I’d been treated to in the opening sequences, which did what it set out to do bloody phenomenally.
The decision to use top Danish composer, Jesper Kyd – along with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, and the Hungarian Voice Choir supporting the vocals – really paid off from the very start of Freedom Fighters. From the subtlety of exploring the quieter parts of the city to the truly intense sounds that went hand-in-hand with the more intense firefights and explosions, it perfectly captured the alternate reality I was experiencing. It still has to be up there as one of the most underrated soundtracks of its time, and that’s saying something, given the same gaming generation gave us the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtrack, among many other greats.
Like it or not, you have a new profession now…
Rescuing Isabella revealed the second big difference between Freedom Fighters and other third-person shooters: the ability to recruit and command a team of fighters in battle with the Soviets. Modern tactical shooters were nothing new, of course – the late 90s gave us Rainbow Six – but this was the first of its kind I’d played.
These fighters were mainly just waiting around to be called up; there weren’t many shootouts unless I was in the area. They had no stats, no strengths and weaknesses so I could just pick whoever was around. The game started you with two, but this number increased as you progressed. Giving orders was as simple as tapping X to defend an area or Y to attack an enemy position, and pressing A would recall a fighter to the group. Holding any one of these buttons would issue its associated command to all recruited fighters.
It was a simple yet impressive concept – how a typical blue-collar worker suddenly had street-hardened guerrillas at his beck and call. Coincidentally, around this time, I’d secured a temporary Christmas job working in a local plumber’s merchants. I didn’t have to contend with a Communist invasion; instead, I was in a typically alpha-male environment where being the youngest worker and generally quiet – the runt of the litter, so to speak – left me somewhat at the mercy of the clientele and the guys that worked there.
It was all good-natured fun, in the beginning. There were jokes about how much of my money I spent at the butty van that pulled up every day (to be fair, it WAS considerable), alongside the completely predictable prank phone calls from “customers”. I even fell for the old “long wait” trick.
I was a long way from being the charismatic leader that Chris was in Freedom Fighters, and it felt like the place was doing nothing for the personal growth I was looking for. In the end, I just couldn’t be bothered with the downward spiral of crap I was receiving off these fellas. It was a blessing in disguise when things went quiet in January and the temporary contract was terminated.
As soon as I’d completed the missions of Freedom Fighters’ opening chapter, a news interlude broke out on screen. Well, I say news; in this alternate reality, the Soviets controlled the US TV networks, and had their own news channel, complete with mid-20s female newscaster, pretty face, innocent smile and flawless blonde hair. I saw how they were trying to portray her but honestly, I instantly thought she looked pure evil. But how else would they win over millions of citizens so easily? It was obvious this news was filtering in straight from the Kremlin.
The spin on the news was how it was the American citizens who were the oppressed ones, portraying Tatarin as a hero and a great leader. Sounds familiar? This was a real eye-opener and something I’d never really thought much of to that point. Long before phrases like “fake news” and “media manipulation” became part of our everyday vocabulary, here it was, blaringly obvious.
It taught me another lesson, one that’s helped me massively even now: being wary of filters, using my own mind to make judgments rather than just blindly accept what the TV, papers and random social media channels say. It’s a lesson an increasing number of people could benefit from today.
Traits of a true great
From a visual standpoint, Freedom Fighters was one of the better-looking games back in 2003, but playing it recently for the purposes of this retrospective it looks like a game that was released over a decade ago. However, it’s aged gracefully; it still looks great, despite the New York setting looking and feeling more like something from the late 80s than the early 2000s.
Maybe they were trying to portray how they imagined America would have gone in this timeline, when the nation needed a hero. With heroes clearly in mind during development, IO Interactive introduced a charisma element to tie into the figurehead you portrayed. The game played on this well; a charisma bar went alongside the life bar, which would reward you every time it filled by adding the ability to recruit another fighter, up to a maximum of 12.
To do this, you had to do things for the greater cause. From disrupting Soviet plots and leading attacks to releasing POWs, to delivering medical aid to wounded civilians and completing a mission by reclaiming the area, you were encouraged to do things that reflected greater ethics of the real world. Obviously, I’m not suggesting blowing up stuff to get anywhere in life, but like a lot of video games in a roundabout way, doing good for yourself and others pays off. Karma is real. And they say violent video games make people bad…
A lonely place
Mature games wouldn’t be mature games if a major NPC didn’t end up dying, and Freedom Fighters was no exception. There was a section further into the game that involved a revenge mission; no fighters accompanied me, as this was a strictly solo gig, in what must have been a pretty lonely place for the main character. It rang so true with me.
By the time I reached this point, I’d been playing on and off for a long while, and this was around the time a lot of my old friends were getting offers for universities in far-flung parts of the country. Comparing it to a video-game death is probably a bit dramatic, but I’d known these guys and girls anywhere between seven and 15 years, we’d bonded through good times and bad – no mean feat considering I always had a hard time making and keeping friends. I didn’t want to lose them.
I’d felt sad on my final days of school for a similar reason, but then it didn’t take much more than a phone call to arrange a kick-about or a gaming session fuelled by cans of cheap Carlsberg in rooms that quickly filled up with cigarette smoke (I tried to avoid the latter; to this day I’ve never smoked a fag in my life), but that was soon to be over. At the time it felt like it was going to be forever – that it was just another one of those things that sucked about growing up and becoming an adult.
In time, a few of them came back home, and for those who resettled elsewhere, the boom of internet and social media became a big part of everyday life, and Facebook was a way to reach out to my distant friends, before it turned sour. It wasn’t the same, but we weren’t completely losing touch forever after all.
Even though I was in a lonely place both in-game and in real life, I still had to complete Freedom Fighters. Going back to the sewers, I found that my team had been overrun by enemy soldiers – one of our team had, in fact, secretly been a high-ranking Soviet colonel. What Cold War thriller would be complete without a massive betrayal?
It was here I realised how massive the sewer network underneath New York was, fighting through wave after wave of the Red Army’s finest while taunts from the Soviet traitor echoed throughout. One particularly tough, armed-to-the-teeth enemy waited further up, and after a long battle, he gave up the big machine gun – arguably the best weapon in Freedom Fighters. The underground trek continued and took us all the way back to Manhattan, and one of The Kid’s old haunts, from where my battered and bruised resistance movement would continue their struggle.
Time and seasons had moved on, from summer to fall, and now we were reaching the winter of this campaign. Freedom Fighters transitioned from the hazy summer days of the early chapters and rainy autumn nights with damp leaves on the ground to the harsh winter of the final stages. The cold, hard snow on the ground crunched underfoot, resistance fighters huddled around makeshift oil drum fire-pits, and howling wintry winds worked into the VGM – the game did an amazing job of using atmosphere to up the ante as the struggle got tougher.
The Soviet propaganda machine had you believe the rebels had all been wiped out, but we weren’t done. This time, we were going for the TV studio. This was a hellishly difficult mission, not least because the bad guys had a tank to defend it with, as opposed to my team and I, who just had the weapons to hand. Persevering and following several attempts, I got the firepower needed to pass the tank, and headed into the news studio. After more intense fighting throughout, the TV studio was brought under our control. Being back in American hands meant Chris could get the truth out to the citizens of New York.
His speech wasn’t quite “I have a dream”, but this scene epitomised the way things had developed in the eight long months of the game’s story; the sacrifices made, the lives changed, how the struggle had made us stronger. And, of course, how an ordinary plumber from Manhattan had gone on to become his nation’s greatest hero in that moment. I can’t quite put my finger on why it struck a chord with me, but I found it to be pretty inspirational in its own way. It’s easily one of my all-time favourite cut-scenes in a video game, and I have to give a massive well done to the scriptwriters here. It was just brilliant.
Will they be back with bigger guns and more soldiers?
After another dramatic scene, the team made land on Governor’s Island, the heart of the Red Army’s operations. There were five different missions to complete here, with pretty much all kinds of objectives I’d seen throughout the game. At the start only one was available, and bad luck had left me without the necessary kit to complete it.
This had frustrated me for a while until I realised about accessing the sewers on the island – I knew that guide would finally come in handy. Once I was down there, all areas were available. This gave me a chance to look at all the objectives, and work out the order I needed execute my plans of action. After blowing up some helicopter pads, cutting off Soviet capabilities to finish us off, it was time for the final assault.
The main challenge here was to rescue Isabella again – no mean feat given the ridiculously high numbers of enemies we had to face. Then it was fighting off all the enemies and recapturing the heart of the area. Even with 12 fighters on my team, I was going through medic kits like toilet paper after a dodgy curry. Between healing myself and helping my injured men and women, it was easy to get caught out without any supplies.
Then, we recaptured this final Soviet stronghold and that was it. I’d completed Freedom Fighters. No grand finale. No cataclysmic showdown. The Reds were retreating. We’d won.
It was a bittersweet feeling; I was thrilled to have been able to play such an excellent game, but on the other hand, I’d gotten so invested in it. I felt I was in a void. I felt exactly like Chris in the ending scenes, who was not as happy as the rest of the team; just more reflective and concerned for the future. One line that stood out in the dialogue: “There’s nothing for me to celebrate – they’ll be back – with bigger guns and more soldiers.”
Was this an indication that I’d be seeing a sequel to this great game? In September of 2004 I started working night shifts in Asda, and with my first wage packet treated myself to a new PlayStation 2 and a couple of games. I’d been tempted to buy the PS2 version of Freedom Fighters to play it again, but at the time I didn’t see the point in having two copies of the same game. I moved on to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City among others, then went to every place in town to secure a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on its release day. I even managed to get hold of Manhunt after the ban on it was lifted.
Time moved on, and plans for a Freedom Fighters 2 had been scrapped in favour of another new franchise, a gritty gangland series called Kane & Lynch. I got an Xbox 360 in 2009, which I enjoyed before getting back into retro gaming. I picked up the PS2 copy of Freedom Fighters, and enjoyed it thoroughly from start to finish all over again. Even after getting a 3DS XL and Xbox One S, the nearest style of game I’ve played is that underwhelming first Kane & Lynch title.
With so many options for a sequel – given the direction the story could be taken, or a re-release on the handheld “new” 3DS, or a remake or remaster, 15 years on, I have to ask… will they be back with bigger guns and more soldiers?
- A perfect blend of third-person shooting with real-time strategy elements
- Great seasonal visuals and a phenomenal soundtrack provided by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra
- The team commanding mechanic was intuitive and worked brilliantly
- Could have been a bit longer
- The storyline could feel a bit too political given the current state of diplomatic relations with Russia
- The door was left wide open for a sequel, and we’re still waiting
N64 Jamesy’s take
Of all the great things about Freedom Fighters, there’s one thing that stands out: the personal growth. Not only of the main character throughout the game, but my own growth through the phase I was in playing it. I started it as a boy and finished it as a man. All in all, it will always rank among my personal favourites.