By Alex Connolly, Strategy gamer
I let the titular concept roll around my palate like a fine cognac. A strategic layer of force creation, base acquisition and development, massaged into a cross-country Full Spectrum Warrior and an engine that can deftly hold its own as a tactical FPS.
Surely, that sounds too good to be true? Going by part abortive attempts to bring back Jagged Alliance, I remain sceptical... but here it is, Freeman: Guerrilla Warfare, telling me to shut up and keep playing.
It's been a good few months for Early Access games. I've enjoyed a variety of rather fine, rather functional works-in-progress, and Freeman (henceforth pruned for brevity) continues this streak. It's an enticing twist on the Mount & Blade formula, and while the core conceits remain 'develop mercenary army, serve your allies, destroy your rivals, trade and prosper', Freeman impresses with a very strong tactical element.
At a glance, KK Game Studio's effort might be deemed a mis-matched, jumped-up Warband mod, and if we care to return to the paltry Fire & Sword expand-alone to illustrate, Mount & Blade's strength was never in firearms. It is pleasing to report there's sufficient and satisfying bang for buck in Freeman.
The game is split between a strategic overland map and the tactical combat module. The former will be familiar to any Mount & Blade-er; an undulating topography dotted with friendlies, enemies of various factions, and settlements. Players start with a very small clutch of squads, and must trade, recruit and encroach their way across the map to eventually hold ten towns and trigger a win state. Each town has a basic complement of services -- hospital, merchants, recruitment -- and when players take a town, there's an infrastructural element to consider. Build a police station, you've boosted garrison options. Build a farm, your daily income swells. It's simple, but effective and helps sell the Jagged Alliance aspirations.
There are several factions in the game, alongside unaffiliated trash mobs of looters and marauders. Each faction has strengths and weaknesses in combat, handily available at a tab's notice if you want to see what you're likely to face in the next combat encounter. There's also a light diplomacy injection, with the ability to order tributes and rustle alliances. A few nascent elements are going to be activated down the development line, such as karma -- related specifically to player choice -- but as Freeman stands right now, there's a lot to work with. I'd really appreciate a better menu system with tabulated sub-screens, but that overhaul will no doubt come when all the modules are in play.
The game's tactical combat element dumps players and as many of their active retinue as the command level allows into several sprawling outdoors maps. Or, in the case of assaulting a town, on the outskirts of a rural village, crawling with defenders. The tactical map lets players place and deploy squads, as well as delegate movement and stance via a simple node system. This map can be flipped to at a moment's notice and is where all the big decisions are made in terms of your squad's behaviour. Once you're made or adjusted your squad's orders, players then get their run and gun on. Or, crouch-walk and adjust for distance.
Freeman's gunplay is really exciting. Engagements are never close-quarters. It's about moving to higher or wooded ground, scanning the vales and making the most of your troops' strengths. Friendly AI squads can hold their own, and I'm consistently impressed how well they move and engage; they tend to gravitate towards trees and stumps for cover, and when starved of a place to hide, often go to ground and fire prone. Bullets whizz and crack, grenades pop and being in the thick of it is as exciting as any ArmA or Battlefield game. There are some current animation-related oddities, but Freeman conveys one hell of a scrap even at this early stage.
Much like Jagged Alliance, there's an experience-based upgrade system for both players and their squads. Squad upgrades lack a granular touch -- no individual arming as such -- but units can be upgraded with an eye towards specialties. Veteran militia could become a sniper unit, a rifle unit or as an MG support squad.
Perusing the roadmap, one might spot special companion units planned for an upcoming patch. These NPC companions are special units, mirroring the kind of detailed weapon and inventory customisation afforded to the player character.
Each unit demands an incremental pay upswing as they level and specialise. Moreover, troops are affected by morale. If they get chewed up in a firefight and lose squad mates, their morale decreases, as well as excessive deployment without rotation. This can be countered by rewarding squads atop their salary. On the flip-side, nothing is better than winning the day, and this also has the desired effect on morale.
The player character's upgrade system is much more nuanced and detailed, with every level gained providing a clutch of points to massage into proficiencies. Beyond the three governing branches -- vitality, dexterity and intelligence -- are finer upgrade options like increased squad deployment, better accuracy, more profitable trading and the like.
And, of course, Freeman has a comfortably Jagged Alliance-like inventory system, so scavenged and purchased loadouts can be equipped to a player's liking. The itemisation is getting more granular with every update, too. Scopes and silencers in addition to a plethora of armour across head, eyes, chest, hands, legs and so on. Some cosmetic, others with a sizeable armour or tactical value.
What we have at the time of writing is a game whose core combat is pretty much ideal. Tactical engagements only need small quality of life tweaking. Unit barks could do with more polishing. Weather and dynamic time of day would be nice. Certainly a few more assets like houses or roads or bunkers...
... and of course moments after I type this, I receive word that the latest patch includes dynamic weather, day/night cycles, buildings and roads... Touché
Freeman's surrounding strategic level is also coming along nicely, though does need some work. Currently, there's just enough friction in moving around the map -- the closer you are to enemy towns, the higher chance of being accosted-
Steam has snagged another Freeman update. Prisoners could now be taken, coerced via a variety of means to bolster a player's ranks as an active or garrisoned unit... and there's another update. Tweaks of acoustics to help pinpoint fire at range. Do these people not sleep!?
I could spit-ball for hours on the things I'd like to see in Freeman -- sabotage, spying, logistics networks, field bases and so on -- but the heartening truth is, the KK Game Studio guys are outdoing themselves with updates, and are very open about implementing community ideas.
Steam buzzes with updates anew. Activation of flashlights, binoculars and the promise of dynamic faction missions and companion units. Show offs.
That the game has its fundamentals in such good state is the reassuring bulwark against overload and feature creep. The developers have also stated they're supporting community mods, so anyone could conceivably insert their lofty vision down the line.
I haven't been this impressed with an Early Access title since City of Brass. In an age of ambition raking open projects and leaving them to founder in a sea of consumer indignation, Freeman just keeps on keeping on. It has already met my Mount & Blade expectations and is making ground towards Jagged Alliance in its own enthusiastic way. I pause and check Steam. Another update is ready. Once more into the breach...
Freeman: Guerrilla Warfare launched onto Steam Early Access on February 1st, 2018. At the time of writing, the plan was to remain in beta until the end of the year.