The future used to be a great place to be. Back in the absurdly optimistic late '70s and early '80s, we were all looking forward to a 21st Century world including universal spandex acceptance, teleportation devices, little laughing robot slaves that mashed potatoes for you, video phones and hover boards. Well, we got the video phones (happy slappers rejoice!), but the silver clothes never caught on, and the rest was a big fat lie designed to keep kids watching Tomorrow's World. Was everything about our childhood a fib?
Today's version of the future is more honest, therefore an unending stream of doom. If the media's not furrowing its brow over climate change, nuclear programs, house prices or religious extremism, then there's always rocketing fuel prices and the dwindling oil reserves to max out the misery-o-meter. Now, let's fast forward to the year 2024, and imagine how bad things are going to get.
17 years on from these relatively utopian times, Frontlines: Fuel of War paints a distinctly bleak picture of a world scrapping furiously to get hold of the remaining energy reserves. In 2012, the world goes into an economic depression known as 'The long emergency': blackouts last weeks, Africa runs out of food and political divisions run deep. But, far from things getting better with the advancement of renewable energy sources, the obsession with fossil fuel goes on. The Russians team up with the Chinese and form the Red Star Alliance, and have designs on the big untapped oil stocks under Taiwan. This, of course, doesn't go down well with the Western Coalition, (comprised of the United States and the European Union) and the situation soon escalates into all-out war over who controls these increasingly valuable resources.
Another throw of the DICE
Cue Unreal Engine 3-powered first-person shooter action, from the makers of the highly regarded Battlefield 1942 mod Desert Combat. In case you've missed the New York studio's merry-go-round name-change comedy, here's the deal: Trauma Studios was brought into the DICE fold in 2004, and the following year was shut down. From the ashes, THQ hired the newly renamed Kaos Studios to develop what was to become a multi-platform shooter on PC, 360 and PS3. Almost two years on, the fruits of its labours are ready to show off, and we're given a quick hands-on with the multiplayer, and a more detailed assessment of the single-player campaign.
The first thing to note is how completely different the single and multiplayer modes feel to play. Despite the evident similarities to the revered Battlefield series in the online multiplayer mode, the fully-fledged campaign mode offers an entirely different experience. While multiplayer is much more of a 'combat sandbox' where you take on different roles and engage in a tug o' war with the opposition over who controls the 'frontline', the single-player equivalent has a much more defined objective-based approach to the concept of moving forward that frontline. In many ways it's not dissimilar to the freedom exploited in Medal of Honor: Airborne, and that's definitely a good thing.
Essentially, the vibe the team wanted for the single-player was to somehow capture the kind of cinematic intensity of the Call of Duty games, but without that linear stranglehold which shapes every decision. In Frontlines, you can expect a bunch of key goals, and multiple ways of approaching them - not to mention the freedom to tackle them in the order of your choosing. Okay, so this has been done before in other games, but what's interesting about Frontlines is not only do the enemy fight back and reclaim territory, but that you can approach the war in a refreshing variety of ways.
By far the most interesting way of taking the fight to your enemy is via a variety of high tech drones such as RC cars and choppers, which give you the opportunity to surprise the enemy with fast-moving and nimble attack vehicles that can fly or drive right into their midst before they have time to react. Packed with C4, the RC drone provides the ultimate suicide bombs, allowing you to swiftly drive under tanks and other armoured vehicles and blow them sky high with minimal danger to you and your men. Again, the RC chopper gives you the opportunity to surprise the enemy by flying right into their midst and pick off key targets before they can react. Elsewhere, the Gatling gun-mounted Assault drove and the Mortar drone present you with a massive opportunity to take down key buildings and entrenched enemies. Albeit limited by a specific range, this hands-off approach gives Frontlines an interesting tactical point of difference that also benefits the overall gameplay variety on offer.
Alternatively, of course, you can ignore all that and simply charge in all-guns-blazing in a more traditional fashion, or grab a nearby vehicle and make use of its mounted cannon or grenade launcher to take on the armoured vehicles giving you grief. The fact that there's no right or wrong approach and no set scripted path through each level is much appreciated, and helps give players an unusual degree of freedom without sacrificing the overall impression of a raging battle. To witness enemies taking advantage of weaknesses and re-taking captured points is also a sign of a developer taking steps to lend that sense of dogged determination that so few games infuse into the enemy AI.
Vehicles also play a massive part in Frontlines, with confirmation of around 60 in the final game. Although we only got to experience a handful, you can look forward to a full complement of ground and air vehicles, including the usual staples such as jeeps and tanks, as well as attack choppers and jets. From our playtest, both the handling and attack controls felt slick and intuitive, with a refreshingly pick-up-and-play feel to the whole thing. One slight concern as far as the single-player element was concerned was whether it would provide much of a challenge. With a somewhat forgiving recharging health system, it was a simple process to repeatedly duck back whenever you took a few hits, let your health top up, and not really engage the battle as carefully as you might. And with just seven chapters, a few question marks remain over the longevity of this otherwise solid part of the game - ones which we hope to have answers to soon.
As much as THQ and Kaos appear keenest to talk up the single-player element, the general consensus among those of us present at the event outlining the game was that the multiplayer might actually be its biggest selling point - in theory, at least. 32-player support, a neat, flexible set-up system, and a broad scope over the type of role you want to take up lends it precisely the kind of appeal that made Battlefield-style games such a popular and enduring sub-genre.
In-keeping with its experience with Battlefield series, Frontlines' multiplayer is fundamentally based on a combination of playing choice and teamwork as you head for each capture point and try to stand your ground long enough. Obviously, as complete noobs we were annihilated repeatedly by the gleeful Kaos mob, but in the short time we got a hands-on it was easy to appreciate the breadth and depth of what was on offer.
Each side has a load-out, front and a role, so you have to swiftly decide whether to, for example, go for a more hands-off sniper approach, or take the fight to the enemy close up with an assault rifle - or perhaps even be the one tasked with taking down vehicles with your rocket launcher. And then there is the choice over which role you take on - ground support, for example, lets you repair things or deploy miniguns with which to shoot down attack choppers, while EMP tech leaves you invisible to the drones, and deployable sentry guns enable you to lay out your defences in such a way as to force the enemy to come in on foot only. You might prefer to take an Air Support role and utilise your cluster bombs when things are getting really hectic - it's up to you.
Role out the barrel
Whichever role or loadout you choose, you're always mindful of the disadvantages in some way - but that's where working together, laying out your defences and choosing when and where to use the plethora of ground and air vehicles (all multi-occupancy, remember) makes it a fun trial-and-error experience. In addition, we were told that you can also rank up areas of your choice during a match. Our hands-on time was sadly too brief to get a full grasp on the impact this will have on the way you play, but we'll be sure to pay close attention once a final build wings its way to us. What we did learn was that at rank three the Coalition would be able to call in a Gunship minigun and rain down a vicious hail of shots, while the Red Star mob have carpet-bombing up their sleeves. War: nasty business, unless you're playing a videogame version of it.
Meanwhile, with maps that range from a quarter of a mile to four miles in scale, and terrain diversity which goes from the Middle East right up to Moscow, Frontlines promises the kind of gameplay variety in other areas which ought to bode well. Whether you're playing on a sprawling solar farm in the middle of Kazakhstan maps or a more confined map, it should prove to be another great addition to the slew of online shooters out there. Whether it delivers on this promise...that's hard to say right now.
Technically speaking, it's a game with plenty going for it, with the kind of detailed, sprawling and convincingly realistic environments you'd expect from an Unreal Engine 3-powered title. Benefiting from a solid frame-rate, highly detailed buildings and terrain and a pleasing degree of destructibility, Frontlines doesn't disappoint in any area. Despite featuring such sprawling terrain, compromises are few and far between, with the draw distance holding up well, no glitchy v-sync issues to report, and an impressive amount of attention to detail in all departments. Whether leaping out of a jet and parachuting down, driving a tank or clearing the confines of a building, Frontlines is a game which tackles whichever facet of war is thrown at it.
With a decent single-player campaign and a hugely promising multiplayer offering, Frontlines: Fuel of War is possibly the first game of its kind to successfully combine the immediacy of a scripted, cinematic FPS with the multiplayer depth of the Battlefield series. Rather than reduce the single player experience to a bot-laden training exercise, both elements of the game appear to stand up well in their own right and we await its release in February with interest...
Frontlines: Fuel of War is due out on PC and Xbox 360 on 15th February, with a PS3 version currently scheduled for April.