Sunday, April 20, 2008

Review - Frontlines: Fuel of War

The FPSes are coming out in good numbers the last few months, and one of the ones that definitely caught my eye was Frontlines: Fuel of War. The TV advertising campaign made it look particularly juicy, and made me think how difficult it is these days to tell actual game engine footage from pre-rendered footage. Adding to my salivation was that it was put out by one of my favorite game publishers (THQ). So I got it... but work's been kicking my butt and I had a backlog of games awaiting my attention, and that worked out to F:FoW's advantage in this instance because it gave them time to issue two patches with a followup hotfix each. Thus, this game has a bit of an advantage on the review block as compared to some others, because the others mostly were reviewed before the patches could come out.

Graphics -
The visual experience in Frontlines: Fuel of War is absolutely breathtaking. The models are well-made and high poly. The textures are rich and detailed. The level design shows care and attention has been paid to every little aspect of the game. It's gorgeous. Beautiful. The 3rd person (vehicle and drone) cameras behave well. The post-processing effects also add well to the immersion, particularly the darkening and blurring of the first person view when taking damage. There is a fair amount of bloom-abuse going on, and sometimes motion blur gets a little silly at times, but overall your eyes could hardly ask for more. I particularly also like how the game tries to point out where enemies are firing at you by circling them in red, because sometimes they'd otherwise be a little hard to make out.

Audio -
A fair amount of effort also went into the auditory experience of Frontlines. Not only is there appropriate orchestral soundtracking, but ambient sounds of battle really help to immerse the player into the game. The voiceovers and cutscenes are a little low volume as compared to the gameplay portions, which led me to have to turn it up for the cut scenes and back down during play. The game also likes to push the bass, so if you've got a subwoofer on your gaming rig, prepare for complaining neighbors. While it is also nice that the single player bots are more vocal than in some other FPSes, shouting banter, muttering during down time, and of course describing the position of nearby attacking enemies, their taunts and quips tend to get a little repetitive.

Gameplay -
The controls are the familiar WASD-mouse combo, and perform well. This surprised me, given that Frontlines was another one of those thrice-cursed "console first" FPSes. Usually games that come out on console "and oh yeah, PC too" tend to favor their console roots, and you can feel them trying to interpolate thumbstick movements from your mouse. But not Frontlines.

The game does recycle quite a few things from other titles, but they're good ideas and deserve to be stolen. The "hide to heal" Call of Duty paradigm is used, along with the industry standard "wide crosshairs means innacurate" mechanic complete with accuracy boosts from crouching and going prone. The game uses a "respawn at a base you've taken and let you pick equipment" dynamic that clearly hearkens from Battlefield, with a limited number of respawns per battle. The choice of gear is less limiting than in Battlefield however, because you'll often find things like rocket launchers, drones and sniper rifles lying in enemy outposts as you take them over, and you don't have to "swap out" kits to use them. Conceivably, you could end up carrying every weapon available at once with no penalty really, except that these things can only be picked up once, and if you die with them they are gone. The game also uses a "take, hold and advance" methodry any BF fan will recognize instantly and take to as a duck to water.

The one truly original and novel area of the game is in its use of remote controlled drones. Used for getting around otherwise difficult to breach defenses and such, these tiny tanks, helicopters and cars are well implemented and fun to mess with. It was also a good idea to be able to switch back and forth between drone and soldier with a single right click, and to be able to pick the drone back up.

The accuracy of many of the weapons can be a problem for those who like to run and gun. Even the standard assault rifle needs a fair amount of crouching and sitting still to gain any sort of accuracy over more than a few dozen paces. Shooting while running (or sometimes even standing) often just hoses down a general area. Enemy troops can take a lot of punishment as they're as well armored as you, except even the slightest grazing of their head is good enough for a headshot, which is an instant kill.

Oh and speaking of headshots, I absolutely love how a headshot causes the target's headgear (be it big armored helmet or jaunty little beret) to flip 30 feet straight up into the air like some kind of carnival shooting gallery. It made me grin maliciously every time it happened. Hat's off to ya. Roffle.

The levels themselves are very good. You can tell a lot of time and effort went into the design of these maps. There's also a lot of destructability to the environment, meaning a tank could blow away that sandbag wall the bad guys are hiding behind, and a lot of the junkyard cover can be blasted away as well. A lot of other games make a few dozen standard structure types and "populate" a 2.5D topographical map with them and call it a day. I'm looking at you, Battlefield. You do this some too, Call of Duty, so don't look so innocent. Here, though, the level of detail and planning on each level brought adjectives to my mind as I played through them such as "lovingly crafted" and "painstakingly wrought." Given this, I suppose it only makes sense that the single player experience is rather brief.

Gripes -
Like Call of Duty 4, the single player campaign is a little on the short side, ringing in at around 4 hours or less. It's possible this could be because of the extraordinary amount put into each level, but I can't help but think that some of the blame for both of these games' short campaigns lies on their shared origins as FPSes made with the console crowd in mind. Damn those console tards and their short attention spans... CoD4 got a bit of a pass on this brevity, and largely so does Frontlines.

The story isn't as immersive here though. Your cohorts are largely disposable and interchangeable, and the cut scene characters are cookie cutter cardboard cutout stereotypes from the great big stockpile of banal clich├ęs. This of course prevents you from identifying and commiserating with them even in the slightest, which is something of a pity. Even though I always had at least 4 buddies around me in the single player, I always felt alone, and was particularly unconcerned as to whether the others on my team lived or died, which was not true of other games of this ilk. This indifference was exacerbated by the fact that whenever one of my squad died, another stepped out from around a nearby corner to take his place as if he was waiting just out of camera shot for somebody to die so he could come out and maintain the status quo. It's too bad, because if you really look at it the AI on your squadmates is rather good; they know about taking cover, they shout out where the enemy is, they only occasionally do something incredibly stupid that ends up getting them dead. Also, I'm sure it took some creative programming to arrange so that a replacement squad member never spawned in plain sight of the camera... always just around a corner or behind some other such obstruction.

Most of the bugs have been worked out (including a rather entertaining transparency bug having to do with things hiding behind the sky), but there's still the occasional crash as of version 1.0.2.

My final, and perhaps most poignant gripe is that there are no bots in multiplayer. This prevents you from setting up private games with only a friend or two and getting the full experience. Instead, you have to share your multiplayer time with the unwashed masses of ECKSBAWKS! kiddies out there, which in my not-so-humble opinion hurts the replayability of the game.

The Verdict-
The Good: Great graphics, great feel, great levels, excellent and immersive combat experience.
The Bad: Short single player experience, no bots in multiplayer, trite plot/characters, a little heavy on weapon inaccuracy.

Overall, it's nice to see a game that really shows what the Unreal engine can do (since apparently Epic Games couldn't be bothered to do so). Unreal engine + THQ = nerdgasm, and the proof is in this game. If only it was a little longer or you could fill multiplayer games with bots.
Grade: A-.
And that's the word from bandit camp.

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