Frontlines: Fuel of War Review
If you've been wondering whatever happened to the guys that made that kickass Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942, then this review will likely pique your interest. Kaos Studios has most of those guys, who after DC went on to help out in creating Battlefield 2. But it seems that EA couldn't find a place for them, as Kaos instead struck out on their own to create a new shooter on the PC and 360 called Frontlines: Fuel of War. It promises huge battles with infantry, tanks, and aircraft all on large maps with up to 50 players. PC gamers might be stifling a yawn right now, seeing as how there are so many recent titles like this on the market, but for the 360, online games of this scale simply haven't been done yet. But this is Kaos Studios' first full game; can it stack up against the many blockbuster titles we've seen recently on the 360?
The single player campaign for Frontlines tells a story of a war brewing between East and West in the near future as the world's oil supply dwindles down to a few wells in the Middle East. When China and Russia form up to create Red Star, the US and Europe quickly band together as the Coalition to fight them off. The game takes place in the Middle East and Eastern Europe while one of the guys that rolls with your squad, a war reporter, fills in the backstory here and there. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Kaos wasn't that concerned with a story, and while the premise is certainly sound, it doesn't get too deep into the politics or ramifications. Don't expect to learn anything about our current society from this game. Don't expect to hear Hollywood-quality work from the voice actors. Do expect to make big boom-booms, though.
And that's where the game is the most fun. Sure, the single player campaign acts like a slick and well-hidden tutorial for the most important part of the game, the online play, but it does stand on its own fairly well. It'll last you six or seven hours and will give you plenty of choices for how you want to attack enemy bases, take out Red Star armor, and capture objectives to move the front line forward. The campaign is pretty easy on Normal mode, as you get a number of deployments that allow you to respawn without having to load your game, and the enemy is pretty braindead as well. They'll randomly run out from behind cover as if an invisible swarm of bees has just descended on them, making them easy targets for your assault rifle. The few enemies that are specifically placed up on towers with sniper rifles or machine guns have to be dealt with a little more carefully, but for the most part Frontlines really is just trying to get you to play through a bit of single player so that you'll know what you're doing once you go online.
Almost every first person shooter tries to innovate somewhere in its weapons, and in Frontlines that comes with the drones. With these you can pilot a remote-controlled vehicle or helicopter to take out enemies from afar - they're pretty damn useful in both the online and offline modes, but in the end I just couldn't get into them. Sure, I might not kill the sniper before he kills me, but I'd rather shoot at him with my own gun than just drop a damned RC helicopter on his head to blow him up. I'm sure others' opinions will differ on the matter. Vehicles overall feel a bit weird to control as Kaos picked a pretty non-standard scheme for tanks and such, so expect to spend some time in the single player mode practicing the handling. At least most of the rest of the controls make sense - well, after a few moments of getting used to them.
It's the multiplayer mode that really makes Frontlines shine, as the maps are fun, the number of weapons and vehicles at your disposal is good, and the whole thing is balanced fairly well. In online play you'll be split up into classes which is about the most jarring difference from the campaign, but it works well since the developers didn't try to create some huge number of classes all with narrow roles. Anyone can kill anyone else here, and the mix of rocket launchers, sniper rifles, and assault rifles all work together in a pretty good balance. The guns look and sound great and are satisfying to use, something that many FPS games to this day still don't always nail. Oh, and while there are aircraft in Frontlines, the helicopters are the more useful; jets feel stiff and are frustrating to try and keep in the boundaries of some of the maps.
One of the problems I've always had with the Battlefield games is that the developers seemed to want to distribute the battle out across the whole map, ensuring that the only good strategies resulted in several smaller fights going on simultaneously. Rarely would you see more than, say, twelve people fighting together over any one objective, because it'd just be easier to take a different objective that no one else was guarding. That's the "Conquest" gameplay mode, and Desert Combat continued that tradition. But Frontlines forces players to fight over a couple of points, resulting in a much more intense firefight as people concentrate on only a couple of objectives at once. The one downside here is that Kaos only does have this one teamplay mode, so if you get sick of it, the only solution is to just play a different game. I also found that the big battles can be easily dominated by a good squad with a smart commander that has his buddies spawn next to him, so if you really want to enjoy this game competitively, clanning up is a big deal.
But going back to Frontlines' presentation, I was really impressed by the sound in Frontlines. The whistle of artillery fire and the boom of it rocking the ground behind me came through loud and clear through the 5.1 system, and most of the guns and weapons sound loud and powerful without being screechy or annoying. No pop guns here. The visuals are solid, too, as Frontlines brings in these old Soviet bunkers and the like to add interest to maps that could have otherwise been just big, boring deserts. The game runs on Unreal Engine 3, but the developers seem to have tweaked it quite a bit as many of the quirks of the engine (like low-quality to high-quality texture switches - hello, Gears of War and Mass Effect) are nowhere to be seen. Scoring headshots in the campaign causes enemy soldiers' helmets pop off vertically and sail 50-plus feet into the air almost every time, showcasing a very rudimentary physics system, but it is nice to just bust through a concrete barrier with a tank to surprise some poor sap hiding behind it for cover. All this being said, Frontlines isn't the best looking game around, but the graphics are still pretty solid and you won't mind the small lack of detail in the large multiplayer games.
Oh, and speaking of that, the box only advertises 32-player action and not all of the maps actually support 32 players, but there's at least one right now (it's called Village) that already works with 50 players and Kaos Studios is working on more. Expect the frame rate to dip in a full 50-player match, but it's not too bad at all. Also, Kaos is running their own dedicated servers for the 50-player matches, as anything less is still, just like all Xbox Live games, hosted on people's own 360s. The 360, as well as most people's home internet connections, simply wouldn't be able to handle the hosting of so many players at once. The downside to all this? Getting into these servers can be a real chore and it's not exactly smooth sailing once you do. If Kaos can fix their multiplayer issues and offer some smoother play pretty soon, then more players are likely to pick this one up. And for those of you who are used to Halo 3's incredibly slick party and matchmaking system, well, don't expect much here.
Frontlines: Fuel of War surprised me quite a bit. The PC multiplayer beta that was running a few months ago was horrible and felt all wrong, and while I haven't gotten a chance to play the final PC version of the game, the 360 version is pretty damn solid. The single player game is good, light fun and not as overbearing as, say, Call of Duty 4 or even Halo 3, as it feels pretty familiar and just puts less pressure on you to follow a strict, linear path to your goal. Multiplayer is even better, though, as those enemies take on actual intelligence (or as much as can be expected on Live) and start using the same high-tech toys you do in huge battles with tons of lead flying everywhere. Frontlines probably won't win any big awards and might even be forgotten by summer, but until then you can get in a lot of great matches with dozens of people together at once.