When you say a videogame has a “good story”, it’s always within the confines of a very slim context - sure, Halo has a good story for a videogame, but it’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Condemned may tell a fine tale, but it’s hardly a Poe-esque piece of horror fiction. Frontlines is on the very highest end of the ‘good for a videogame’ scale. It spins an intriguing fictional history, drawing on real events and thoughtfully extrapolating the very worst possible outcome from our current oil-related problems to set up a backdrop for a good old war. It may just be an excuse to shoot more poor Russian types right in the stinking face, but it’s the first interesting excuse we’ve had in a while.
With oil rapidly drying up, the world goes into an economic meltdown, supply lines break down, the northern hemisphere takes on an African climate and even the richest nations feed their people from breadlines. With the world desperate to secure the remaining oil reserves, long-time allies China and Russia unite to form the Red Star Alliance, followed soon after by an alliance between Europe and the United States. After a gradual twenty-year-long global collapse, troops are deployed to secure oil fields and the Red Star nations decide they’d quite like those European and American oil fields, too. The rotters. So, the stage is set for the first wave of our war - a slow, ground-based push from Turkmenistan, northwards into Russia and a final mission on Moscow’s doorstep.
Every mission offers the freedom to tackle objectives as you please, setting the action in the middle of large battlefields where multiple objectives sit on the frontline; taking an objective pushes the frontline forward, opening up further tasks and more space to play with. Of course, as you drive into enemy territory, enemy forces fight back intelligently, retreating when necessary and fighting to the last man standing when you’ve forced them back to the very edge of the battlefield. Except… that entire last paragraph is a lie.
Freedom is an illusion. If Frontlines wants you in a tank it’ll give you a tank and make the proceeding section impossibly difficult without one; if it wants you to use drones, you’ll happen across a box of them and be faced with just the right kind of opposition for your scavenged equipment to deal with. In the dream, Frontlines is Call of Duty 4 with choices to make and multiple paths towards your goal; in reality it funnels you towards specific objectives and offers little more freedom than Halo 3. Sure, it’s no COD4 - which is practically a lightgun game in parts - but even when dropped into a large area, your objective is still very clear and the best approach is immediately obvious from all the gear you’re given to play about with for the next section.
While the objectives keep shifting and the frontline keeps moving forward, the way the game plays is very similar to any other post-Halo FPS. You’ll advance and engage in repeated small skirmishes against entrenched enemies, occasionally picking from several possible routes but ultimately ending up in the same location; you’ll use vehicles and a selection of weapons to your advantage and you’ll rely upon teammates to cover your back as you assault tough positions. Enemies are just smart enough to occasionally pull back, but for the most part they’ll prefer to fling themselves at you, more like skagged-up muggers than professional soldiers, and the only time they present a true threat is when they’re tooled up with rockets or entrenched in such numbers that you need to rely on your conveniently-placed gadgetry to get by.
The weapons are lightweight and floaty and enemies soak up bullets like a nuclear-powered Jesse Ventura, making shooting anything or anyone terminally unsatisfying... which should obviously be the death of the game - were it not for the brilliant, brilliant toys.
Yes. Toys. Online, Frontlines’ Role system means you can enter the battlefield with deployable weapons, remote drones, EMP weapons or air support; offline, you’ll find those same toys littering the battlefield as if some gun-toting Johnny Appleseed had seeded a year’s supply of futuristic firepower across the Middle East. Remote-controlled mayhem never gets old, and we don’t foresee many players opting for the duller roles. Air strikes are entirely underwhelming and pack all the explosive wallop of a well-shaken can of Coke; the gun emplacements are as powerful as you’d expect and a railgun can rip through a tank faster than any rocket launcher; EMP weapons are, like the air strikes, so unimpressive that you won’t even notice you’ve used one. Still, as guffo as the EMP is, it’s an essential piece of kit on the online battlefield.
And it’s lucky the online game is so strong since the Campaign is done and dusted in just five hours. And while it’s mostly a fun five hours, the lack of any longevity means any blind fool can see Frontlines is built as a multiplayer game. Thanks to the dedicated servers, Frontlines happily chucks 32 players about the place without even a hint of chug-o-vision. All the toys and tools available to you on the offline battlefield immediately make more sense in the online space - you’ll level up your character over the course of a game, unlocking three levels of your particular role’s ability so the early stages of the battle aren’t overwhelmed by every fool dropping an air strike on the battlefield at once.
The evolving frontline does exactly what Kaos promised it would, keeping skirmishes tightly focused and ensuring nobody gets stuck in the middle of nowhere without a clue of what to do. The evolving frontline also means bedroom Rambos can’t sneak deep behind enemy lines and capture undefended rear positions, denying us our favorite ultra-cheap Battlefield: Modern Combat tactic. Oh well...
Where most games supplement a solid solo experience with an often slapdash multiplayer game, Frontlines: Fuel of War nails the versus mode and boots the solo campaign forty feet over the goalmouth. Thanks to months and months of play testing, it’s the kind of smart and balanced shooter you’d expect from the men who brought the Desert Combat BF1942 mod, and it’s leagues ahead of the last Battlefield.
Feb 27, 2008