Thursday, December 18, 2014

Monster Hunter With a Grappling Hook, And It's Fantastic - The Freedom Wars Take Your Time Review

Quick Note: With a faster battle system and a unique thorn-grappling hook system, the game play in Freedom Wars is rock solid. It will take a few hours for the game to click and the story can be disjointed, but taking down abductors, whether with friends or alone, feels so damn good. A must buy for Vita owners everywhere.

Years ago I picked up my first Monster Hunter game on PSP. I had heard so many great things about the game, and who doesn't like fighting dinosaur like monsters? After my first hour with the game I was done. From the slow paced combat system to the non-existent story, the game was just not for me. I tried over and over again with different 'hunting' games, including the recent Soul Sacrifice, and repeatedly failed to get into the games. 

So when Freedom Wars was announced, I was less than thrilled. Sure, the style of the game looked cool, but did I really want to put money into another game that I would play for two hours and put down? After rolling the dice and taking the gamble, I'm glad to report that it was well worth it. Not only is Freedom Wars a fantastic take on the 'hunting' style game that I hope is repeated, it is also one of the best online experiences this holiday and probably the best online experience for PS Vita period.

Freedom Wars takes place in a future where resources are scarce. As a matter of fact, resources are so scarce that if you do not contribute in a meaningful way to society, you are thrown in jail. And not just a minor jail sentence. We're talking hundreds of thousands of years, which is where you find yourself at the start of the game. After the epic opening movie, you wake up to find out that you have forgotten everything, including all of your combat training. Your panapticon (translation: home town) is not very happy that all of the resources used to train you have now been wasted, so you're slapped with a million year sentence that must be worked off. That's right: 1 000 000 years. 

After a few training missions you are introduced to your Accessory, an AI partner who not only accompanies you in combat, but enforces the law upon you while wondering around the panapticon. Before you know it, you are given missions to gather resources and whittle down your sentence while working for the greater good.

Save your panapticon from the nightmarish Abductors. For the greater good!
This may all sound overwhelming at first, but that's one of the beautiful things about Freedom Wars. It's built around a dense world, and the game is constantly reminding you that you are a living part of this world. Because you are a prisoner, you are limited in what you can do. For instance, at the beginning of the game, you can not run for more than 5 seconds. If you break these rules, more years are added to your sentence. 

Now before you get upset, it's important to note that other than lowering to specific numbers to rank up (more on ranks in a bit) and trophy collecting, your sentence doesn't get in your way. Really, it exists to add to the overall world building, and it works surprisingly well. So if you're not going for that Platinum, don't get too bogged down when you're slapped with sentences. It's all apart of the game world.

So, as I was saying, because you are a prisoner in this world, you are limited to what you can do. However, you can purchase privileges for yourself to obtain some of these rights back, such as being able to talk with citizens and run up to ten seconds. These privileges, or entitlements as they are called in the game, are purchased using entitlement points, which are earned by taking on missions for your panapticon. This system, along with the other game play systems, is a great example of how Freedom Wars incorporates game play into the world building to create a nice, neat package that is fun and makes sense in the world.

The entitlements and missions available to you are based upon your Rank. You start at Rank 1 and make your way up to Rank 8. To move up to the next Rank, you'll take on a special mission that will allow you to progress forward, which can only be accessed once you have completed a set of objectives. These objectives include things such as lowering your prison sentence to a specific number of years and obtaining certain entitlements. If you play through every mission given to you, including the optional ones, it shouldn't be too hard to fly through the Ranks. You can look at the Ranks as progression marks for your story progress as well as a gauge for how difficult missions will be for you.

Now back to the story. Yes, there is a story, and it starts to fall into place once the world has been established for you. There are quite a few mysteries surrounding your panapticon, including a ghost girl who seems to be trapped on your cell floor. I won't dive in too far, but I will say that I found the story enjoyable, building up to a climactic ending. However, this is where the narrative fails to follow through, coming to a halt out of nowhere and left completely on a cliffhanger, setting up for the sequel. This isn't terrible, but any story that just stops abruptly and has me questioning why the hell the credits are rolling when nothing was truly resolved is frustrating. 

The enemy variety, especially among the larger enemies, is perfect for creating some interesting match ups during missions. 
Despite the somewhat flawed narrative, the real reason to purchase Freedom Wars is the satisfying game play. The monster battling is the main draw here, and it feels so good. Missions are taken on in short spurts and last anywhere from a couple of minutes to roughly half an hour. The longest mission I ever took on was about 40 minutes total, and that was when I was playing by myself. 

Each mission tasks you with a different objective, from rescuing citizens, whom are typically trapped in the giant Abductor enemies, to eliminating all bad guys you come across. The variety in mission style and the different maps that are available keep everything feeling fresh. This is a hunting game, so there is some repeating enemies and enemy types, but that isn't a problem when each enemy type feels different and each mission pairs different types together on various maps. 

You can take up to two weapons and four combat items into combat with you. Weapons are split up into two categories: melee and firearms. There are three types of each category, giving you access to six different styles of weapons. Melee includes short but quick short swords that can be used to sever enemy body parts off, slow but heavy hitting large weapons, and pole arms, which can be thrown for range. All melee weapons can be charged to deal larger damage, but take time to do so. Firearms are broken up into semi auto weapons, which fire quick but hit light, auto cannons, which are similar to Gatling guns and finally the cannons, which are basically rocket launchers. 

The variety in weapons is quite refreshing, and the ability to equipped any two weapons at a time means you can customize yourself however you want before entering combat. Prefer to be on the front lines? Give yourself a light and a heavy melee weapon. Like being long range? Take in two separate types of guns. Each melee weapon has a different charge attack as well, so feel free to experiment with them to find what you like best. 

The thorn really keeps game play interesting and helps make Freedom Wars feel different from other 'hunting' games.
Aside from your combat items and weapons, you are also given a Thorn. The thorn is what really makes Freedom Wars stick out. Your Thorn is like a grappling hook of sorts. It can be used to pull yourself forward, allowing you to cover long distances in a short amount of time. This means you can also pull yourself up onto enemies, allowing you to damage and even pull off parts of big baddies that are causing problems, such as rocket launchers or shields. This technique is key to taking down tough enemies fast, because severing parts also damages the enemy while taking away a big advantage from them.

The Thorn can also be used to pull down bad guys. Once attached, mashing the O button will fill a meter that, once full, topples the enemy down. The more team members who are pulling an enemy down, the faster the enemy will fall. Fallen enemies take considerably more damage than standing ones, and when the enemy is extremely fast, it's best to bring them to their knees to deal some heavy damage. 

Thorns also fall into three different types: Binding, Healing and Shielding. Binding Thorns can be used to lay traps for smaller enemies or even charged up to immobilize a large abductor. Healing Thorns can heal an individual team mate or  be charged up to plant a Healing patch that increases the healing speed of any team mate in it's vicinity. Shielding Thorns boost player defenses and can be charged to plant actual shields that block small firearms fire. As you can see there are a lot of choices for players, which is great for a game built around team play. 

Speaking of team play, let's talk about the online structure of the game. Like most 'hunting' games, Freedom Wars is set up to be played online with friends.  Up to four players can tackle missions together online or ad hoc. The game handles this in a unique way, allowing players to play any mission within or below his/her rank without having to go through the story. Every mission completed rewards each player with an item that allows the player to skip through the mission when going through it in the story mode by themselves. This means that if you are Rank 3, you can play all Rank 3 missions with friends online and then go back to the story and breeze through each mission to Rank 4. It's a perfect balance of allowing players to game together without requiring everyone to sit through the story they might have already played through. It also ensures that you do not have to be stuck playing by yourself at any time just to enjoy the story if you feel like playing together. 

Here's what the Online Lobby looks like. You can set minimum requirements for rooms to make sure only high or low level people can play with you.
If you'd rather play alone all the time, that is fine too. I played through every story and optional mission up to the final story mission without much difficulty by myself, which is a huge plus in my book. Despite some remarks from Japanese players when the game first launched, the game is really well balanced, with the exception of the final boss fight which is ridiculously hard. AI partners are smart enough to take on all of the story missions without too much hassle and are actually helpful in combat. This is important to note, as there are plenty of players (like myself) who prefer to game alone, and most 'hunting' games make this near impossible.

After each mission you complete you are given weapons and resources. These resources are yours to keep (if your Rank is high enough), though you can also donate them for the greater good. Donating will help lower your over all sentence and grant you entitlement points, but these items can also be used to craft new items and weapons through facility management. 

Facility management is a real-time management system that allows you to put resources in and get items back out. There are four types of facilities: weapons, medical, munitions and augmentations. Medical, munitions and augmentations are used to create items (based on the name sake of the facility) and are pretty straightforward. 

Managing the facilities seems trivial at first, but once you start getting higher ranked weapons with a lot of attribute slots, you'll spend plenty of time in this menu.
Weapons facilities are a little more important, as they not only allow you to craft new weapons, but level up and modify your current weapons. Leveling up weapons makes them more powerful and allows you to even transform them into more powerful versions of themselves. Modifying allows you to combine weapons to pass on attributes, such as dealing more damage or increasing movement speed. 

The facility management system is not without fault though, as each modification is not a guarantee. You basically gamble every time in the hopes of adding the attributes you want. There are items that can be used to help influence the outcome, but even then there is still no guarantee. I do recommend utilizing the PS Plus cloud storage to ensure you get what you want when you are dealing with the more powerful, rarer attributes, though that's no excuse for this system being annoying and frustrating rather than strategic. 

This is one of the few problems with the game. Aside from the frustration with the weapons facilities, the game can be kind of a grind. The tight, fun game play does elevate this, but it will annoy some people for sure when they have to play the same mission over and over again in the hopes of obtaining one item that will go into your weapon's next level up. 

But aside from that, Freedom Wars is an excellent game. Between facility management, mission completion and resource gathering, everything comes together in a nice, neat package. It's what is so engaging about the game. Everything has a purpose, both story wise and game play wise. This is a must play for any Vita owner, as it is not only the only AAA for Vita we may see in a while, but it is a great, well rounded game.

9.5 out of 10

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