Frontlines: Fuel of War
7th Apr 2008 | 14:49
You can't have it all. At least, not unless you're Valve, Infinity Ward or Bungie. In this age of escalating graphical finesse, and skyrocketing production values and costs, most FPS developers simply have to face facts: you can create a killer multiplayer experience or a sublime solo one, but creating both in one package needs mountains of cash and legions of manpower that are beyond the reach of most developers.
Not even the colossus that is Epic could pull off this - the most elusive of combos -with its recently released Unreal Tournament III (which featured an awesome multiplayer, but a disappointing single-player campaign), so it's surprising that a fledgling development studio - albeit a highly talented one mainly comprising of the team behind the excellent Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942 - believed it could compete with the big boys on two fronts.
Kudos to Kaos for trying, but no Stogie. But maybe an ultra-thin Hamlet for giving it a crack.
We certainly had high hopes for Frontlines. At one point, pepped up on hype and optimism, we even thought it may be capable of slugging it out with Battlefield 2, rather than being another glass-jawed dope riding high on PR propaganda.
Frontlines' promises of 64-player battlefields rammed full of infantry and vehicular firefights; a searing, story-driven single-player campaign tackling some of our time's most poignant global issues; and the seemingly obligatory Unreal Engine 3 pulling the strings in the visual department, meant the portents were more than positive. But joyous gaming moments aren't built on corporate half-truths.
Over the past few months we've received conflicting messages about the single-player campaign. Some said it would be no more than a training mode for multiplayer. Others claimed it was a game in its own right, and one potentially good enough to stare down Call of Duty 4 and its peers, while walking away with its head still held aloft. But strip away the pre-release chatter and you find that it's neither.
Set in the near future, Frontlines' single-player campaign charts the conflict between the Western Coalition Army (the US and European Union) and the Red Star Alliance (Russia and China) - two superpowers scrapping for control of the world's dwindling oil reserves. As a member of a Western Coalition Spec Ops unit, you find yourself at the epicentre of the conflict, and it's not long before you're sent on a daring mission to capture oilfields and stymie enemy incursions into WCA territory.
Clearly, the world's leaders overlooked the irony of fighting over petrol using legions of heavily armoured fuel guzzling war machines. Politicians, you've gotta love 'em.
At first, Frontlines' single-player action is deceiving, drawing you into intense encounters that have you panting like a whipped dog in a sausage factory. Backed up by your AI-controlled sidekicks and urged on by a masterful, undulating soundtrack of rousing riffs and orchestral highs, the early minutes have you believing you're in for something special.
Your gun kicks heavily as you struggle to pin down your meandering foes - tough-to-hit targets that simply won't stand still. Tracer fire slams into walls and dirt, bullets buzz past like radioactive flies, while levels and enemies appear to exude impressive levels of detail.
The sheer ferocity of this campaign's battles is admirable, while the semi open-ended levels ensure you can approach each battle from a variety of directions. The plot is another plus, its measured twists admirably convincing you that you're trapped in an uncompromising World War.
Then it happens. Slowly, bit by bit, the cracks begin to appear as the intoxication
of the opening encounters wears off, and the truth stares back at you from your monitor like an aging ex-beauty queen with fading makeup.
There are problems aplenty. Immortal teammates are incapable of killing an enemy soldier, no matter how many rounds they pump into their Kevlar-encased ribcages. Enemies seem to target only you, virtually ignoring the presence of your half-dozen comrades.
Not that it matters, as you literally have to charge into the open with
a target painted on your backside while shouting, "Russian vodka tastes like ovine afterbirth!" for there to be any chance of you actually getting killed. And let's not forget the poor collision detection and the occasional invisible barrier that clamps your vehicle and won't let it go.
What begins as a seemingly convincing battlefield soon degenerates into a predictable slog. The visuals also begin to betray their true hues, with enemy faces that are blank and characterless at close quarters, and death animations appearing to be tacked on rather than seamless.
These faults create a nagging feeling that Kaos Studios have attempted to ape COD4's action, but that they've forgotten to inject Frontlines with its illustrious counterpart's cinematic panache.
WAR FOR THE MASSES
Moving swiftly on, Frontlines' selling point is the multiplayer campaign, which has little resemblance to the single-player experience.
The multiplayer game's primary selling point is the purported revolutionary, shifting frontline mechanic. Basically, this means that instead of being able to capture strategic points in any order, you can only liberate points at the frontline of the battle. Capture one of these strategic points and you force your enemy's holdings back and advance your own, thereby shifting the frontline of the conflict.
This actually works incredibly well, as it manages to concentrate hotspots to one or two brutal battles, making for some truly cataclysmic bloodbaths, especially on the more populated, open maps.
Frontlines' multiplayer games can be unceasingly brutal, despite a myriad of collision and clipping glitches. Rumbling through the desert in a column of tanks while jets screech overhead to meet a wing of advancing gunships will have your blood circulating like you've just been spanked by a drawing pin-studded bat.
Driving and piloting vehicles are, on the whole, pretty uncomplicated tasks. Except for flying choppers and jets, which are the very definition of infuriating. Expect to see countless unintentional kamikaze dives from multimillion dollar pieces of hardware as flyboy wannabes career into cliff faces and dunes, and gunships are felled by the merest contact with the scenery.
Getting to grips with these aerial machines is so time-consuming you're likely to abandon the whole notion of adeptly piloting one, unless you're the type of person who slaps on mirrored shades while watching Top Gun and cups their crotch during the dogfights.
One of the multiplayer game's biggest letdowns is the similarity between the two side's arsenals. You barely notice what side you're fighting for, save for some minor aesthetic differences, excellent radio chatter and blaring propaganda messages that assault your ears as you hump, drive and fly through the eclectic collection of solidly designed levels.
There's a lack of originality and imagination that permeates Frontlines. Soldier classes, while numerous (Assault, Heavy Assault, Sniper, Anti Vehicle, Spec Ops, Close Combat) are one-dimensional, each sporting overly attack-biased capabilities. The specialist roles (see the Three Step Master panel), while being novel and welcome, also feel overly predictable.
Worse still is that there's only one type of multiplayer game mode which means, despite the multiplayer game being fairly entertaining, Frontlines' action begins to feel repetitive far sooner than the non-stop carnage suggests it should.
For every moment of air-sucking destruction there's an exhalation of disappointment at the lack of variety, at the sheer rigidity of the action, where, "Kill, kill, kill!" is the only mantra that seems to truly matter.
While the frontline mechanic does succeed in coordinating attacks and creating hotspots, there's rarely a sense of the genuine team synchronicity that sets Battlefield 2 so high above its peers, just a feeling of strangers nodding in unspoken comradeship before embarking on haphazard expeditions to track down the enemy somewhere on the frontline.
Performance is another issue. Even on some of the less populated maps, the action often chugs like an aging steam train scaling Everest, even on systems packing much more grunt than the minimum specs demand. And if you're looking to join 64-player servers, you'd be best advised to kit yourself out with a powerful dual core processor and at least two gigs of RAM before signing up.
QUALITY NOT QUANTITY
Kaos Studios' bold attempt to create a first-class single and multiplayer experience should certainly be admired, but while the team has managed to pull off some notable successes - especially in the intensity department - it's fallen short in too many key areas. A lack of originality, polish and imagination are the main culprits that blight a solid - if predictable - single-player campaign and a sporadically decent multiplayer experience.
Frontlines initially promises much, and while it does manage to deliver a brutal and unceasing FPS experience in which the superpowers of the future slug it out for the world's remaining resources, the end result is more often fool's gold than the black lifeblood that motivates the game's two uncompromising warring factions.