I first got the chance to play Frontlines:Fuel of War at the 2007 Penny Arcade Expo. I had some time to kill and thought I'd give the game a shot. As a FPS fan I'm always looking out for something new. I played through the demo level and wasn't overly impressed. The game looked pretty good but it felt a bit on the generic side. Since then the folks at Kaos have polished the game quite a bit and turned out a game that's a lot better than what I had seen at PAX four months ago.
Set in 2024, Frontlines deals with a future fuel shortage that has left the world on the brink of World War III. China and Russia have formed the new Red Star Alliance while the EU and United States have formed the Western Coalition. The Red Star alliances starts making in-roads into Turkmenistan and the Western Coalition intervenes and thus starts off the conflict. In the single player campaign has you following the members of the Stray Dog squadron as they start to take the fight to the Russians and during the course of the game you'll get to visit new locations in and around the Russian empire and blow them up.
The folks at Kaos have done something a bit different with the single player mode in that they've mixed in some multiplayer concepts into the single player side of the game. When you die in the game instead of re-starting the level over again, you re-deploy to the battlefield instead of having to re-load the level and start over from scratch. You also have the option of changing your equipment loadout when you respawn so you can change how you approach the level when you re-spawn. This vastly improves the load time of the game as they don't have to reset everything and it helps you move through the game faster as you're not constantly having to play the game over and over again. For the most part the concept works for me as I liked being able to change my loadout and not have to kill the same group of bad guys over and over again.
The downside of this is that I did feel a little more detached from the narrative than I do in other games where I have to reload the full level. I felt more like a nameless cog than a particular soldier which isn't necessarily that bad but it is a bit different than every other FPS out there. It also reduced my frustration with having to repeat the same level over and over again without being too much of a cop-out. Because you have a limit on the number of re-deployments (it varies by level) I didn't have the same feeling of throwing away my life like I did with Bioshock at the end of the game.
The single play campaign is composed of eight different missions with each mission having four or five main objectives to complete. The full singleplayer campaign took me just shy of seven hours to complete but I didn't stop to smell the roses or explore the huge game worlds that Kaos has put into the game. The levels themselves are huge and range from large tank yards to large sections of Russian cities. If you thought the levels in Call of Duty 4 were big then you're really going to be impressed with the scope of what they did in Frontlines.
The objectives with in a mission do not have a set order to them so you're free to complete them in what ever order you see fit. This removes a lot of the linearity that you see in other shooters of this kind and it's a welcome addition. This does create some problems with your AI teammates at times as you'll sometimes lose them if you take a back alley or short-cut to reach an objective. This means you're fighting it out alone which can be frustrating at times. You do have radio controlled drones at your disposal during parts of the game which is a lot of fun. There's really nothing like driving a small RC car under tank and then blowing it up. If you want to see what that looks like in real life check out the end of this clip from Top Gear
Enemy and teammate AI is solid for the most part and they read and react to situations like you would expect. They take cover when fired up on and will attempt to flank you if you give them enough time. Your teammates have no problem wandering in front of your shots from time to time which annoyed me to no end as I would line a shot up and then just walk in front of you as you take the shot. I did have one major annoyance with the AI but it's more of a personal thing than anything else. If you've ever played Battlefield online there's always the one dork with the anti-vehicle load-out who's using the rocket launcher like a sniper rifle. This makes no sense in the real world as you would never waste a rocket trying to kill one dude. Unfortunately that AI has made it into the game and there are countless times I got into a rocket vs. machine gun fight that did not go well for the rocket launcher guy. I would have hoped he would have switched weapons or moved back but he didn't. That's more of a personal peeve than anything else and it's something that I adjusted to as I played through the game.
With it's themes of Peak Oil and future fuel shortages it would be easy to call Frontlines:Fuel of War the Al Gore of FPS games (An Inconvenient Frontline?) but the game really doesn't incorporate those themes into the game play at all. These themes merely are used to setup the backdrop for the game. That's not a bad thing but it does seem like the limitations on fuel could have been incorporated into the game more. Maybe limitations on how many tanks you get or limited ranges on the tanks until they re-charge their solar panels or something else to bring the overall theme more into the gameplay. This isn't something that I would take points away for but rather a missed opportunity to weave it more into the fabric of the game.The single player side does fall a bit short of of Duty 4 and Halo 3 but it's not bad. The game doesn't quite stack up to Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3 but it's worth playing for the level design and the re-spawning single player twist. The game does have one or two solid signature moments and much like Call of Duty 4 they involve nuclear weapons. Honestly the single player game isn't really the main reason you want to buy the game. No, the real gold is to be found in the game's amazing multi-player component.
It's important to note that Kaos studios was developed by the people behind the excellent Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942 and that game's signature's are found all through out Frontlines. This is a great thing if you're a BF fan like myself as this is really the first time the Battlefiend experience has been done one the Xbox 360.
First things first, the game supports 50 person multi-player on Xbox Live. That's more than three times what you get in Halo 3 and twice what you're going to get in Call of Duty 4. This means ginormous maps to support all these players and the vehicles necessary to make getting across these maps easier. This is something that Kaos understands and the maps are well laid out and there are enough vehicles to make getting from point A to B easy. As a hedge against not being able to find a vehicle the developers allow you sprint as much as possible which is a nice touch for when you're the last guy to spawn and there are no vehicles left to take. There is still that frustration of running all the way across a map only to get felled by a sniper before you can fire a shot but that's one of the things you have when you have this kind of game and the unlimited sprint goes a long way to alleviating some of that frustration.
The big difference between Frontlines and all the other multiplayer modes is the frontlines system in the game. Rather than fighting it out for a set of disconnected control points across a map you have to control a series of control points which form the Front of the battle in the game. In order to move the front forward your team has to control all three points of the map which adds a whole new level of strategy to the game as you can't just march from capture point to capture point but rather capture a point and then defend it. I really like this system as it forces a whole new level of co-operation and teamwork across the team.
In order to manage the chaos you can form squads with the squad leader able to mark objectives on the map. If another nod to Battlefield you can spawn on your squad leader which helps for coordinated attacks and defenses assuming your squad commander has decent survival instincts.
Another nice feature of Frontlines is that in addition to a class (sniper, assault, heavy assault, sniper, and special ops) you can choose a role (ground support, air support, drone technician and countermeasures). Within each sub-class there are three levels you can gain as you play the game. Each adding a new ability rather than replacing an old one. These sub-classes add a ton to the game as you can really flesh out your role so much better than just a straight class. For me I found the mix of heavy assault and drone technician to be perfect as I could scout out and soften my opposition with the drones and then march in guns ablazing to finish them off. The sniper/countermeasure is also a good combo as you can find a nice hiding spot and then cloak yourself from radar.
The vehicles in the game are what you would expect as you have tanks, armored jeeps, APC's, tanks, planes, and anti-aircraft vehicles at your disposal. I always had a problem flying the helicopters in the Battlefield game but I found I was able to fly the ones in Frontlines without much problem. The vehicles are powerful but balanced out well by the countermeasures and rocket launcher in the game. You don't seem to have the problem that Battlefield 2 did where one player in a jet or helicopter could dominate the entire game as you can use the EMP weapons in the game to take down a good pilot.
From my time playtesting the game with the other media and THQ staff I had a great time with the multiplayer side of the game. It will be interesting to see how the general population of Xbox Live takes to the game as it requires a lot of teamwork not just straight deathmatch skills. The Frontlines system really forces you to think about offense and defense at the same time and it players the tools to do so but whether or not they do so is up in the air.
The game uses the Unreal Engine 3 and while the game doesn't look as good as Gears of War or Bioshock the scope of what Kaos is doing is a lot larger. Instead of rendering small indoor areas the folks at Kaos are dealing with large outdoor areas and city areas. That's not to say the graphics are bad they just had to spread to looks around a bit. There are some great levels in the game and the last battle through the streets of a Moscow is very well done as you really feel liked you fighting in a bombed out city.
All told Frontlines is a great first effort for Kaos and they've done a great job of bringing the large scale battles from the Battlefield games to the console and added their own twist to the genre. The mutliplayer action is top notch and while it's not perfect I think a lot of people will dig the experience of playing with 49 other people.