Sting at the pump.
Gas prices certainly are high these days, aren’t they? It’s enough to make you mad. Fightin’ mad. So mad you might consider driving a hybrid like a hippie fruitcake. So mad you’ll actually take public transportation. So mad you’ll go invade a country and liberate yourself a friggin’ full tank of gas already.
[image1]Nope, I’m not describing life in today’s world of four dollars a gallon. This is the premise for the third world war depicted in Frontlines: Fuel of War. In this apocalyptic vision, oil demand has exceeded supply, leading to famine, pestilence, death, and - you got it - war.
Unfortunately, the almost believable premise is about the only thing in the game that works as it should. Although Frontlines sports sophisticated machinery - gadgets and vehicles and doo-hickeys galore - it seems to be lacking the juice to run all that neat stuff. Ironically, the supposed widespread lack of energy is an apt metaphor for the game itself - a promising battlefield-style shooter that ultimately just up and dies at the curb. It might look good in the garage, but before you know it, Frontlines will be jacked up on cinder blocks and left to fertilize the yard with rust.
The game’s appeal rests heavily on its multiplayer Battlefield-style online matches, as Frontlines offers a single-player campaign only six hours in length. It is no Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3, but the various missions in the campaign, in which you play as a generic hero-soldier fighting to secure oil fields, are a good introduction to the Motor Trend-worthy collection of vehicles and gadgetry. Unlike similar titles, such as Warhawk or Shadowrun, Frontlines can’t be faulted for not giving us something to play when the servers are down.
The vehicles and gadgets are what make Frontlines special. Several varieties of tanks and jeeps can be driven, each with unique weapons. Some tanks have missiles, others cannons, others flak-guns for aircraft. But you can also take to the air in various kinds of helicopters - both troop transport and attack - and eventually in jet fighters. Even if there’s an oil crisis, you’ve sure got a lot of ways to get around (and no gas gauges!).
[image2]But cooler than the vehicles are the types of gadgets you can wield. The best are the remote-controlled drone craft, ranging from recon helicopters to mini-guns mounted on RC cars. There is something uniquely satisfying about killing enemies with the equivalent of children’s toys. One can see where this trend unerringly leads: assault kites.
The single-player campaign is not exactly thrilling. The story can’t decide if it is comic or dramatic. The enemies are Russian-speaking “Red Star” forces who seem lifted from the same Cold War propaganda that your square-jawed crew must be reading. The only distinct character is that of an embedded reporter whose voice is way too proselytizing, but at least it's different than the generic Marine-speak that has become the lingo of most of our video game shooters.
The artificial intelligence is truly artificial, with enemies making fatal decisions every moment and friendlies scurrying around you like a pack of sycophantic children. No matter where you go, your squadmates spend more time checking you out than facing the enemy. As you run through levels, you’ll often pass by friendly soldiers hurrying the other direction. At least in terms of a simulation of the multiplayer experience, the single-player campaign succeeds: You won’t get a lot of help from your friends.
[image3]Not that the multiplayer game doesn’t need help of its own. It’s promising on paper: take all the neat vehicles and gadgets introduced in the single-player campaign, and throw them into giant maps with huge 32-player matches. Each player will have two choices to make between each respawn: a role type and a weapon load-out. The load-out will determine what weapons the character can hold, and the role type will give each player special rechargeable skills. With lots of vehicles and gadgets and lots of playing style options, Frontlines looks like it’s going to rule!
But it doesn’t come close, and it’s hard to pinpoint the absolute backbreaker for what should be a competitive multiplayer experience. My bet is that the most damning problem is the extreme looseness in the fundamental aim-and-shoot mechanic. Due to lag or wonky auto-aim, enemies firmly in crosshairs can dodge bullets without moving. And when they are moving, especially running, it is nearly impossible to draw any blood at all. There just doesn’t seem to be an accurate connection between the bullets you fire and the enemies you kill. Even when you do hit an enemy, it feels a lot more like luck than skill.
There are a host of other problems as well, not the least of which is the well-intentioned but silly squad communication setup. Even though there might be thirty-two players on a team, you can only hear and talk to the members of your “squad”, which is limited to just four others. Joining a squad means applying to the squad leader or making your own using a clunky HUD-interface. Squad leaders who take their job seriously, yelling out orders like “Secure that checkpoint noob!”, are intolerable, but the alternative is not communicating at all. Moreover, it is impossible to have any overarching strategy, since you can only talk to a few other isolated people on your squad.
Other issues should be mentioned, such as the difficulty in driving tanks, the frequent spawn-killing (you frequently respawn in front of the same enemy), and long respawn times between getting spawn-pwned. There is no persistent leveling up, nor is there any customization option. Worst of all, there is only a single game mode called “Frontlines”, which is a “Territories” style game with a particularly stupid twist. Not only can you win the game by taking all the checkpoints, but you can also win the game by getting a certain number of kills. This tips the balance in favor of camping the checkpoints, which can be boring if both teams are doing it.
[image4]And while you’re camping, you won’t have much to look at. The graphics aren’t horrible for being based on the Unreal engine, but the frame-rate stutters at times and movement looks choppy. The sound effects are pretty basic but are essential to survival. If you’re paying attention, you can always hear an approaching RC copter before it explodes in your face.
The coolest part of Frontlines, the RC copters and mini-tanks, are legitimately neat and worth a look if a friend buys the game. But the extremely loose shooting, weak communication apparatus, and lone, quidditch-link, multiplayer game mode are points that recommend waiting. Go ahead, use that seventy bucks to get a full tank of gas. If nothing else, you can always drive to Vegas, baby. Vegas 2, that is.