FBT is on the frontline of the fuel war. And he's not happy about it.
Frontlines, a modern era shooter, didn’t have much competition on release in early 2008 but it was completely missed. Because we were still living in 2007; Bioshock, Halo 3, Witcher, Assassin’s Creed, The Orange Box, Mass Effect - to name a few, but the name on every gamer’s lips was Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare, the game that rebooted the CoD franchise and pulled it out of the trenches of Normandy and into the now. Pre-release, CoD’s modern setting seemed like a folly but MW destroyed its competitors and made military shooters dangerous again. And that was just the single-player mode. The multi-player changed the way we gamed online, signalled the end to Counter Strike and Smack Talking reached new levels of idiocy. Love or Loathe it, CoD MW was a landmark game that cast a shadow over every other shooter and changed FPS forever. Frontlines could have ridden that wave but instead it drowned after CoD MW atomically dropped, dismissed as a wannabe. Worth a look now CoD is just a clone of CoD?
Set in the 2020’s, the world is on a knife-edge as fossil fuels run dangerously low. After a worldwide plague further destabilises nations, two pacts are formed; the Western Coalition (The U.S., various) and the Red Star Alliance (Russia & China). Relationships deteriorate until RS launches a surprise attack after exposing WC was moving to control Turkmenistan’s oil supplies. WWIII begins – and is documented by Photo-journalist Andrews, embedded with ‘Stray Dogs’ - a WC frontline battalion sent to weaken Russian defences as the WC pushes towards the Motherland. Let’s go.
As we’re set down on the ground we’re overwhelmed by RS forces and Andrews is kidnapped. I’m confused; I’d half expected to play him, given he’s the one in the cutscene rambling on about war is hell. Instead, I’m in the boots of … it doesn’t matter. It turns out, despite an opening where I meet every military cliché since Aliens (Jock jerk, the ‘get some’ marine, humourless commander, cocky kid etc.) I’m playing as non-descript members of the Strays. If I get killed, which happens regularly, I reincarnate as another Stray. This kind of interchangeable character only really works in games where the plot doesn’t matter yet the opening tried very hard to make clear freedom rests on my shoulders. We just sat through the fall of society, starving kids and disease-ridden bodies over Andrews’ speech about the futility of war and the Strays’ impossible odds. Hard to care when I just respawned Solider No.9. Had there been say 10 Strays we met and their deaths reflected in Andrews’ reports, brought home how tough this war was, I might have made more effort to not get killed every five minutes, but instead we battle anonymously through doing Capture the X missions over and over. Frontlines’ cutscenes constantly shows the Jock Stray and Andrews gassing about the state of the world after each mission. Does Jock ever actually fight?
Respawn games like Battlefield and Battlefront at least have compelling locations to fight bots in, but not even Frontlines’ maps are exciting enough to care. Visually, it looks like Counter Strike – a game that got respawning right by dropping the reasons and concentrating on the ways to win. Frontlines tries to be involving and distant at the same time and messes up both shooter approaches. The wonderful 2007 also had Medal of Honor Airborne – another nameless respawner, but each location was very different and difficult but most importantly, you could land where you liked, giving you the option to rethink your approach - I once lost 3 Strays in a row after the game constantly respawned me at the wrong end of a RS tank barrel and while you can chose to respawn at claimed objectives, you have to run your Stray all the way back to the battle again.
And that battle is unfairly tough. It takes the better part of a full clip to take down a RS solider, sometimes you’ll need several headshots even when he’s not in a helmet, but if they clip you it’s red-screen and ‘redeploy’. Each mission gives you a limited amount Strays to sacrifice so rather than care, you’re just careful because you don’t want to Capture the HQ yet again.
The only area that Frontlines distinguishes itself is in some the tech you can find and use. RC helicopters, c4-packed cars and miniguns allow your solider to weaken enemy lines and they’re a great deal of fun even if they only survive for a few moments. We can also signal for air-drops and drive Humvees and Tanks, along with one helicopter which I crashed instantly – I can fly the RC Copter like I’m Stringfellow Hawke but the grown-up version? Crashed in seconds.
Frontlines was developed by Kaos, a studio created by THQ specifically to build shooters. Both Kaos and THQ are now long gone which shows how well that plan went. It never stood a chance against CoD MW but it could have distinguished itself, gone its own way; instead, it’s the worst example of a single-player mission just being a warm up for the multiplayer - a quick knock-off, a Mockbuster (‘you rented Snakes on a Train?’), Frontlines is what you end up with when you send your Mum into Game (“the man said it’s the same as CoD and it only cost a fiver”).
It was tough to develop modern shooters in the face of CoD’s unstoppable cycle of releases, even rival MoH crashed spectacularly when they tried to compete. But Frontlines isn’t even a good throwback to pre-MW days; Andrews’ dispatches would hardly have made prime time CNN. Stray Dogs as a team could have matched CoD’s narrative-switching had we been given the opportunity to get to know them. If we don’t care about our soldiers dying or what they’re dying for, the experience becomes forgettable; Against the 2007 juggernaut Frontlines didn’t have much of a chance but it didn’t even put up a fight. That’s a fatal mistake for a shooter.
Developer Kaos Studios | Publisher THQ | 2008
Win | X360
Genres; FPS, Shooter, Military