If you've spent any time on the Internet at all, you've probably come across the meme of Godwin's Law. Godwin's Law states that if any argument on an Internet forum goes on for long enough, someone will inevitably bring up Hitler or the Nazis, thereby forfeiting the argument. Well, the same applies to videogames. Create enough titles in a particular genre, and eventually someone will base it around Nazis. The First Person Shooter got it out of the way nice and early with Wolfenstein 3D, but the tricky subject of Nazis has not really been explored by the RPG, expect by a couple of little known (and frankly sub-par) titles, such as Another War. Thankfully, by throwing in the counter-clichè of Superheroes into the mix, Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich manages to skilfully avoid forfeiting its claim to excellence.
I say RPG, though that's a little bit misleading. The box proclaims the game to actually be an "RPG Strategy", for which you should actually read "RTS with only a few units", because that's what it plays like. Twiddling a few stats on characters here and there does not an RPG make... There's no role play at all, as you don't get to choose any dialogue, and your interaction with the vast majority of the game world is via the medium of destruction. However, this is a minor quibble; whether you're an RTS or RPG fan, you'll find something of interest here.
Irrational have built upon the success of the original Freedom Force admirably, improving the graphics engine and providing a plethora of new powers and characters to choose from. The flexibility of the character creation system is astonishing. With a vast array of damage types, direct or area effects, and dozens of special effects and character animations, you can manufacture as many heroes as your mind can muster. Whether it's a Tyrannosaurus Rex that hexes its enemies, or a reformed Mafia mobster who dispatches the bad guys with a quick Bada-Bing! - the character creation system can cater for your every whim.
This isn't to say that the pre-generated characters lack imagination. Okay, they might plumb every single superhero clichè in the book, but that's part of the charm. In fact, it's a vital part of the game's appeal. Personally, I don't think that Irrational could have nailed the game's presentation any better. Brilliantly, loading screens are replaced with mock comic covers foreshadowing the events in the mission to come, the game menus all have a comic panel style and the script is as cringingly cheesy as a '60's comic. This is a game that oozes character and isn't afraid to mock itself. The character design in general is first rate. None of the characters would look out of place in a Marvel series, and all the main pre-generated playable characters have accompanying introductory movies (viewable either as an inter-mission cutscene, or from the character training menu) which allow you an insight into how they became superheroes. With an overly dramatic score, suitably melodramatic voiceovers and a plot that roars along like a nuclear-powered train, it's hard to see how Irrational could have set the scene and the player's expectations more perfectly.
The core mechanics of the game don't quite manage to cut the same depth of mustard, but not by much. If there are any flaws to speak of, it's primarily that the learning curve is a tad too steep. The step up in difficulty between the tutorial and the first campaign mission is particularly cavernous, so new players to the franchise will probably find the early going a bit tough, until they get used to the character AI, which to be honest, can be a bit erratic.
Superheroes, it would seem, suffer from short-term memory loss. Well, you'd be forgiven for thinking that given the frequency of which you need to keep reminding them of their orders. Unlike most RTS or RPG games, where units/characters will repeat the last order you gave them until you tell them otherwise, the characters in Freedom Force need to be told what to do every few seconds. This may be due to the dependence of the attack powers on their reserves of Energy X, but it can be a bit frustrating to have to tell a hero to hit the enemy trying to introduce the floor to their entrails, rather than just stand there and take damage... Thankfully, you can pause the game at any time to give characters attack or movement orders (much like in Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights), so you can circumvent too much avoidable punishment with a little bit of eagle-eyed vigilance. Unfortunately, the necessity of pausing every few seconds does disrupt any feeling of continuity in the combat, which is a problem, given that the game is so fracas-focussed. You can't help but feel that since there is no facility to stack combat orders (like in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) the game may have been better going for an all-out turn-based approach, rather than having pretensions of real-time combat.
However, once you get used to managing battles, these concerns are quickly forgotten - it's only ever a serious issue during the bedding in period as you start playing the game. A longer lasting annoyance is the 3D camera. With the improvements to the graphics engine, it's a shame that the camera setup rarely allows you to get in close to the action. It keeps enough of an awareness of the big picture to prevent your heroes from getting a painful, premature pasting and allows you to enjoy the sometimes spectacular special effects (Note to self: abandon the allegoric alliteration, already!), but it could have been so much better. It's a cruel choice: you can either get in close, enjoy the special effects, but need to pause even more often to direct the combat, or take a wider view, let the game flow more, but miss the intricacies of the superbly well observed character animation (for example, the wonderful insect-like hand twitching of The Ant).
Inevitably, you will find your own preferred balance between the two, and this negligible nitpick will be quickly quashed, thanks to the solid mission design and the incalculable replay value provided by the menagerie of superheroes you are able to choose from and create. Extra mileage is provided by the online multiplayer mode (which wisely prevents you from taking too powerful a character into combat) and the "Rumble Room" skirmish mode, which allows you to pit any set of characters available to the main campaign against each other.
So whilst Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich may contain more clichès than a Premiership manager's press conference, and a script that has a penchant for abominable alliteration, if you're after a game that blends strategy with story, with the added bonus of comic book superheroes thrown in for good measure, you won't find a better title than this.