I am, and hope I always will be, a boy at heart. I love toys, and one of the best things about being a geek is that my computer is pretty much every single toy I ever wanted, wrapped up into one pretty CPU. I make art with it, I write with it, listen to music and watch DVD movies with it. I read with it, converse with others through it, learn from others while using it, and teach others how to use it.

But there's one toy that has really been somewhat underrepresented in the computer world. Comic books. Oh, sure, we geeks have our Penny Arcades and our User Friendlys, but nothing online or in a game or one of them new-fangled "mult-eye-media" CD-ROM thingies has really captured the fun, the joy, of superheroics ... until now.

Freedom Force is a tactical strategy game (with some fairly beefy RPG elements to it) developed by Irrational Games. And it is one terrific game.

As you begin the game, you notice the interface first. Using a style that completely and utterly replicates the bold outlines and stark color scheme of great Silver Age comic book artist Jack Kirby, the interface makes it seem as if you're working with a comic book that's interactive. The game loading screens show you a old-style comic book cover featuring scenes of the titular super-heroing group in action, and they, too, are incredibly wonderful in the nostalgia they evoke (yes, there's even a cover that boldly states: "In this issue ... everyone DIES!!!!")

Once you actually get into the game, you're treated to a wonderful secret origin story of the leader of Freedom Force, Minuteman. Mild-mannered nuclear physicist Frank Stiles, once a member of The Manhattan Project and now an old man, runs into an old nemesis selling nuclear secrets to the Russians. He is caught and seemingly killed by his old enemy, but instead, Stiles is bathed with the rays of the mysterious ENERGY-X emanating from a capsule inside a statue of a Revolutionary war hero. The mysterious radiation rejuvenates Stiles, and gives him super strength and endurance. Realizing, as all super-heroes do, that with great power comes great responsibility, Stiles decides to don a mask and become Minuteman!

The game then begins, with Minuteman's very first mission to track down his old foe and the Russian agent who tried to kill him. But, unbeknownst to Minuteman, the Russian agent was also exposed to the mysterious purple rays of Energy-X and has now become the super-villian Nuclear Winter!

The gameplay itself is surprisingly simple to learn, and a thorough tutorial walks you through the basics during your first mission. Each mission allows you to take from between one and four superheroes into battle against various super- and non-super-powered enemies, in settings such as downtown Patriot City, a snowy wasteland, and other garish backdrops, into which your squad does battle using their various powers. Minuteman, for example, is a good melee fighter, while El Diablo with his flame powers makes for a good ranged fighter. Your heroes can attack the bad guys directly, or if you're strong enough, you can even do wild things like pick up cars and boulders (or even a fighter jet) and toss them as if they were pebbles at your enemies. Watch out, though, because if you cause too much destruction or harm any civilians, you'll lose prestige.

After you successfully complete each mission, you earn a number of both experience points, used to improve your existing team of heroes, and prestige points, which are used to recruit new heroes into Freedom Force. As mentioned above, if you wreak too much havoc, you'll lose some prestige, making it more difficult to recruit more powerful heroes.

In addition to recruiting new pre-made heroes (all of whom have their own animated secret origin scene, and whose origins all tie into the main plot), you can also build your own super-hero and recruit him or her into the group. You can build them from the ground up, giving them a wide range of abilities and superpowers, and the number of prestige points that hero will cost to recruit will rise accordingly. You can even customize your own mesh and then skin it, making your superhero totally your own. These meshes and skins can then be shared online, and in fact there's already a wide range of them for download. I've seen everything from Superman to Jason Biggs from American Pie.

The game's plot progresses as you succeed in your missions, and each individual mission is usually broken up into several chapters. Sort of like a comic book. In fact, each mission has a typically bombastic name, such as "Came A HERO!". Each mission has its own super powered baddie as its final boss, each one getting progessively more powerful, more megalomaniacal, and more hammy, and more pure-dee evil than the one before.

The graphics are 3-D and crisp and bright, as a comic book come to life should be. The voice acting is bad and hammy, as comic book dialogue when spoken should be. The animations when you attack are accompanied by bright, large, stylized two-color gradient words such as FWOOSH! and SMOP! The squabbles amongst the heroes are just as funny to witness as are the incredibly horrible motives behind the ultimate villian's dastardly plan.

It's a wonderful, pretty, (from what I've seen so far) bug-free game and if you like comics, but especially if you loved the Fantastic Four as written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, you want, no, you need this game.

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