It's a shame that one of the most important titles on Sony systems was also one of the least pronounced at E3 2014. Freedom Wars, an exclusive PlayStation Vita title, is arguably the biggest title headed to the portable platform and a potential significant player in boosting the system’s sales figures, yet it seemed to be merely presented as an afterthought during my time at E3. Even as someone who has highly anticipated its release since witnessing the very first trailer early last year, when the game was still Panopticon, the only reason I was even aware of its presence at this year’s show was that it showed up behind-closed-doors at PlayStation’s booth. After getting a chance to try it for myself, it became apparent that Freedom Wars, while fun, isn’t quite ready to join PS Vita’s best games.
Freedom Wars is a third-person action game with energetic combat and an interesting story premise. Your unnamed, customizable protagonist wakes up in a prison with a sentence of one million years. Your only chance at freedom is to whittle away at your sentence by fighting giant robotic enemies called Abductors and rescuing the civilians they often capture. It remains unclear how important the lore will be to Freedom Wars’ moment-to-moment gameplay, as the game emphasizes rapid entrance to cooperative missions with up to eight players, online or via local connection. I was able to play Freedom Wars in ad-hoc with two other human players--our particular mission’s fourth slot was occupied by a bot. There are competitive modes, as well, but the nature of these is a mystery, for now.
The action is primarily over-the-shoulder, and you have a few nifty tools--like the “Thorn,” a far-reaching grappling hook of sorts--to intensify combat and make things more visually interesting. What troubles me is that my demo had an extremely vanilla flavor to it. Environments were bland, enemies were defeated simply by button-mashing, and there was no interplay between characters during the mission. There very well could be more depth, variety, and content in the overall game, but what I played seemed repetitive and superficial. Having quick missions to complete is great for PS Vita’s portable nature, but at this time, the number of mission archetypes is unknown--our demo options were few, and I played a fairly standard “rescue the VIP” map. Exploration of the prison that houses you and (presumably) the game’s main cast would be fantastic as well, but the impression I got was that you simply start the game, enter a staging area where you and your friends can walk around, and stand in a blue light to signal that you’re ready to go.
What’s great about Freedom Wars, making the seemingly absent narrative and mission variety more frustrating, is that the controls work well and the feel of combat is satisfying. I can’t imagine it’s easy to pull off a third-person shooter with grappling-hook acrobatics on PS Vita, but SCE Japan Studio makes it work with a familiar button scheme and little-to-no reliance on the touch screen or touchpad. Locking on to specific weak points on the bodies of large, towering Abductors is fast and, thanks to being mapped to the triggers, never interrupts movement or dodging. Appropriately, picking up civilians (they must be carried to extraction pods) slows that character down considerably and limits their turning speed. This will demand cooperation from party members, who look to be outfitted with a host of weapons suiting different roles, like swords, spears, and different classes of firearms.
Despite the looming threat of huge Abductors and the civilian-carrying penalty, the demo was remarkably easy. Still, this doesn’t mean the game at large will never pose a challenge, and the possibility of deep RPG customization, with a wealth of equipment and accessory slots, exists, even if it’s only a promise for now.
If you opt for offline play, not only is your character fully customizable like he or she is in the online modes, but so are the rest of the characters in your party. This is done in an attempt to create a more personal experience, but the representative on hand was unclear about whether this customization was only for each character’s loadout or if appearances are customizable, as well. I tried to clarify this point by asking if there are important characters that have a fixed role and appearance, like in Final Fantasy games. The rep answered, “Yes,” and then pointed to the character I was controlling, saying he was one of the main characters of the game but the player can change his appearance. I’m worried that, if character customization is truly at the player’s whim, the “main campaign” will place even less emphasis on characters and storytelling than my demo suggested.
A game like Freedom Wars has great potential and it would be a shame to see it wasted, but without a better picture of gameplay variety and narrative importance, it’s difficult for me to maintain my excitement. Freedom Wars is as close to a blockbuster exclusive as PS Vita is going to get in the near future--for the platform's sake, here's hoping it delivers.