Frontlines: Fuel of War
27th Feb 2007 | 14:09
When Battlefield 1942 first rolled off the production lines in 2002, it came as something of a revelation. Sure, we'd played shooters with vehicles before, and yeah, we'd seen games with huge, open levels; but in BF1942 it just seemed a lot more liberating, uncomplicated and, well, fun. It was, without us really knowing it, the combined-arms action-shooter we'd been waiting for.
However, as you'll know if you played the game, the popularity of the core game was soon matched and even eclipsed by a free mod called Desert Combat, a modern-day remix based on the first Gulf War. At the time, this was a source of some snide amusement - that EA's ground-breaking shooter had been so easily bettered by a home-brewed mod. But make no mistake. Desert Combat may have been distributed as a free download, but the team responsible were no bunch of dabblers, students and wannabes. In fact, Trauma Studios were a 'proper' development team, bankrolled by EA, with a New York office and everything.
I LOVE NEW YORK
A couple of quiet years later and the DC team are back, with a new name, a new publisher and a brand-new game called Frontlines: Fuel Of War. Having been big fans of DC's oil-wrangling action, we could hardly turn down the opportunity to journey to New York to play the new game - and of course, buy a cheap iPod.
Arriving at Kaos Studios' plush HQ in downtown Manhattan, we immediately feel on familiar territory. Not just because all US development studios look pretty much identical, but because at a glance, Frontlines is a very similar game to Battlefield 2. It has the same vast, open-world battles, the same brimming catalogue of vehicles and weapons, the same arcade sensibility. You click on a map to spawn, you jump in and out of vehicles, you capture points, you rack up kills. It's set 20 years hence, so the lethal arsenal has a bit of a 'near-future' feel to it, but mostly we're on very safe ground.
But wait just a minute. Despite the broad similarities, Kaos Studios have a few new tricks up their sleeves, and it's these that could make Frontlines the next logical step for the genre. General manager Frank DeLise describes their first secret weapon: "The game is based on this 'frontline' mechanic, where a line of objectives or control points moves constantly through the level. At any time there are two or more objectives in the frontline, and you can take them in any order."
As simple as it sounds, this feature may be a stroke of accidental genius. I say accidental, because it's an idea that evolved largely in single-player, as a way of offering a controlled yet non-linear path through the levels. But in multiplayer, where the frontline is pushed back and forth as the two teams tussle for control of the map, the frontline device solves one of the biggest problems of the Battlefield series.
The problem is this. In Battlefield, you generally have to control a number of points that are strewn across the map, which means your forces need to be split between those defending your existing points and those attacking new ones. In practice, what this usually means is chaos, because nobody wants to defend and everyone has different ideas about which point to attack next.
Frontlines banishes that chaos. Here, everyone is fighting along a single, focused front. Defending and attacking become virtually synonymous, and nobody is left roving the wastelands wondering where the action is. For this reason alone, Frontlines has the potential to be more fun than vanilla Battlefield ever was.
Of course, it doesn't end there. As mentioned, Frontlines is set two decades in the future, amid a global scuffle over dwindling energy supplies (the key protagonists being the Red Star Alliance and the Western Coalition). As a result, many of the weapons are mildly futuristic, from mini-nukes to smart air-bursting grenades.
"Everything is based off where the military is going all over the world," says DeLise, a self-confessed military nut. "It's all based on real-world technology - we've just added what we call a 'Kaos factor' to make it more interesting."
Without doubt, the most enjoyable cutting-edge gadgets on offer are the 'drones' - remote-control vehicles that can be used to scout out enemies (and of course blow them up). "The recon drone is like a mini-helicopter," explains DeLise. "To deploy it you just throw it, and then you can fly it around in first-person. It has a function that will flash up red tags and pinpoint where people are hiding - which makes it great for hunting out snipers."
There's also a remote-control buggy that works in similar fashion. But while this is all real military technology, the 'Kaos factor' means that the buggies are super-quick and loaded with C4, making for plenty of laughs when you deploy them under vehicles and unsuspecting personnel. In testing, it was also discovered that recon drones could be loaded with a satchel charge, making them even more satisfying as anti-sniper contraptions.
After thrashing the multiplayer with the Kaos team for a solid afternoon, there are two things that stand out clearly: the superb frontline mechanic, which serves to focus the action on a small, yet shifting area of the map, and the highly entertaining RC drones. In other respects, the game is a fairly conventional team-based shooter, albeit with great attention to detail and some excellent level design.
Incidentally, the levels tend to come in three varieties: some are geared towards infantry assault, with lots of interiors and tight spaces; others are a bit more open, with space for a handful of large vehicles; while a third type is all wide open spaces, ripe for helicopters, tanks and tactical nukes. It's all good, solid stuff and should provide a good deal of gameplay variety.
That's the multiplayer anyway. But if there's one thing Kaos are absolutely adamant about, it's that their single-player game is not going to be a mere sideshow - a hastily bolted-on afterthought, as it has perennially been with every generation of Battlefield.
"From the beginning, we wanted to make sure that the single-player campaign was a huge focus," confirms DeLise. "A lot of FPSs out there, you get either a single-player infantry game or a multiplayer all-weapons war game, but you don't get both - and that's our goal. Our single-player is a proper, cinematic, story-driven campaign."
Not only this, but it has an ambitious design brief: completely unscripted, non-linear gameplay. DeLise explains: "We didn't want our game to be like a bot-match. We didn't want it to feel like just a bunch of AI fighting you. We wanted the enemies to seek cover, flank you, talk to each other and act as a squad, so it feels like real people in a real area instead of scripted events. There's nothing scripted, it's all contextual."
As far as DeLise is concerned, heavily scripted shooters like Call Of Duty are old hat, played out, yesterday's news. What he wants to do is bring the level of choice you get in multiplayer games like Battlefield into the arena of solo gaming.
"We really wanted to break out of the box and do a more non-linear experience," he says. "So we don't tell you, 'Right, this is a sniper mission, now you're a sniper.' You get to choose at every turn - do I want to be a sniper, a heavy gunner? Do I want to drive a tank? And how do I want to take this town?"
As a result, the levels are completely open and your actions more or less uninhibited - you can go wherever you want, take objectives in any order, pick up any weapon, drive any vehicle. And while you have a squad fighting alongside you, they pretty much just follow your lead, staying close and engaging enemies as you encounter them. The only real structure comes from the frontline mechanic, which gives you a constant sense of purpose, as well as working as a checkpoint-save system.
NOT QUITE THERE YET
It's an admirable approach, and in many ways what all games should be working towards. However, we're not convinced they've nailed it yet. The action is certainly fierce - what DeLise describes as "Call Of Duty on crack" - but from what we saw, the non-scripted gameplay serves to highlight a number of predictable AI deficiencies.
In short, they're simply not smart enough. They flank, they take cover, they drive vehicles, but in no way do they feel like real people, with all the ingenuity and cunning that goes with that. AI simply isn't that advanced yet.
Admittedly, we've only played the first couple of levels, and the game isn't due out for another six months. But on present form we suspect Frontlines will still be perceived first and foremost as an online game. Luckily, with the multiplayer looking as impressive as it does, that may be no bad thing.