Review: Frontlines: Fuel of War

FrontlinesFuelOfWar.jpg One of the biggest surprises of the year so far for me has been Frontlines: Fuel of War, the Xbox 360 and PC FPS from THQ and Kaos Studios. It’s not only a surprise because of how well it turned out, but also because for a game that was touted as such a multiplayer oriented affair, it’s the single-player campaign that’s actually the star of the show.

In fact, the multiplayer is the weak link in the chain here if you ask me. That’s not to say the multiplayer isn’t any good, because it surely is. It’s just somewhat unstable and extremely shallow. Frontlines is very much a Battlefield-esque FPS shooter – not too unexpected given Kaos Studios’ past work creating the hit Desert Combat mod for BF1942 – featuring eight massive, open-ended battlefields for up to 32 players to go to war on (upwards of 64 players on PC), six soldier classes to pick from (Sniper, Assault, Heavy Assault, Anti-vehicle, Close Combat and Special Ops) with a few supporting role specializations, like Ground Support and Drone Tech, that advance in level as you play and gradually grant new abilities, and plenty of land and air vehicles to pilot.

The twist with Frontlines is its aptly titled “Frontlines” gameplay system. You see, unlike the Battlefield games where teams are simply fighting to control various nods spread across the entire map, the “Frontlines” system divides each map into two sides, with the central dividing line containing only a couple of control points. As a team takes control of these locations, the frontline pushes back into the other team’s side of the map opening up a new set of nods to fight over, with the struggle continuing on like this until one team pushes the front back to the opposing team’s base and captures it. It’s like a military match of tug-of-war, as both teams struggle back and forth for supremacy.

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Personally, it’s a style of play I find far more compelling than the completely open-ended online shooters since at any given time there’s only ever like two points of contention in play, ensuring that every player on both teams knows exactly where to go at all times, and thusly focusing the action in to a greater extent and all but eliminating the frequent tedium of traveling across a huge map trying to find where most of the action is taking place.

The problem is that the “Frontlines” system is the only play mode available. There’s no Deathmatch, Capture the Flag or any other typical multiplayer mode you’d expect from an online shooter. There aren’t even any slight variations to work with. The game plays one way and that’s it. Sometimes you just don’t feel like getting involved in an extended battle and would rather blow off some steam in a quick round or two of Deathmatch, but you can’t do that here. For a supposedly multiplayer-focused game, the lack of depth and variety sticks out like a sore thumb.

Another issue is the instability of the online play and the game’s engine overall. While the performance was much worse when the game first launched, there’s still more problems with lag and disconnects than there should be. Weird bugs also pop up here and there and render the game unplayable at times, such as this odd glitch I’ve suffered multiple times in which my character will all of a sudden fall through the ground and get permanently stuck in a parachuting animation like I’d jumped out of a plane or something. Like all Unreal Engine 3-powered games I’ve played, texture load-in is also an unsightly bug that consistently rears its ugly head. The game is graphically impressive overall, though, especially in regard to the extensive viewing distance and detailed environments.

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But as I mentioned in the opening, Frontlines’ saving grace is its single-player campaign. Common opinion seems to be that the solo play is worthless – at least that’s what I’ve gathered from the bulk of reviews and critiques I’ve read — but I must’ve played a completely different game because I found it to be one riveting, cinematic experience. The campaign spans eight stages and roughly eight hours, with each stage playing out exactly like the “Frontlines” multiplayer mode. This system, I found, works incredibly well in a single-player format due to the open nature of the maps and subsequent non-linearity that ensues. The objectives are always the same, but you have free reign to approach them however you like. That makes for unpredictable gameplay and highly replayable missions. I’ve replayed stages multiple times and still never get bored because they always seem to unfold differently than the time before.

The storyline is also a strong point because it’s not the usual WWII retread or played out Middle-Eastern terrorist-blasting affair. With Frontlines, Kaos Studios depicts a believable, near-future outlook on the world in which global oil supply is rapidly depleting and the struggle over the waning energy resources has essentially erupted into World War III, with the Western Coalition (US and Europe) and Red Star Alliance (Russia and China) waging war over the lone remaining oil reserve of any significance located in the Caspian Basin in Central Asia. It’s not some far-fetched, in-your-face tale like most other military shooters, and the game doesn’t go overboard by putting you in control of some heroic super-soldier of a lead character. Instead, you follow the exploits of a special forces unit of the Western Coalition known as the Stray Dogs and watch the story unfold through the reporting and narration of an embedded field reporter. It’s a more subtle manner of video game storytelling, but it works wonderfully to paint a believable, immersive game world that breaks new ground rather than tapping into the same old tired war settings.

Down to the most basic of mechanics, Frontlines also has a fantastic core shooting model. The game’s arsenal of weaponry is diverse and a whole heck of a lot of fun to fire. Kaos Studios absolutely nailed the weighty, tactile sensation of firing a weapon that is so vital in establishing a FPS ahead of the competition in such a crowded genre. If the guns in a shooter aren’t that interesting to wield, you can basically stick a fork in the game. But you don’t have to worry about that here. Simply put, the guns in Frontlines are among the most satisfying you’ll ever fire in a game. Even the sound effects are perfect.

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Even with a few glaring weaknesses in its multiplayer mode, I can’t recommend Frontlines: Fuel of War enough. Its strong solo campaign and sublime shooting model far outweigh any of the negatives, and the “Frontlines” gameplay system is interesting enough to engage you with the online play for at least a short time. Overall this is one of my favorite games of 2008 so far. Too bad the PS3 version got canceled. PlayStation gamers are really missing out on an under appreciated gem here…

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Pros:
+ Sublime shooting model
+ Highly replayable solo campaign with an intriguing plot and setting
+ Incredible audio design, weapon sound effects in particular
+ “Frontlines” system provides an interesting twist on the Battlefield brand of FPS design

Cons:
– Not enough meat to the multiplayer to keep you hungry for more
– Somewhat buggy and unstable engine performance

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PC
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Kaos Studios
Release Date: 2/25/08
Genre: FPS
Players: 1-32 on X360, 1-64 on PC
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!