Version tested: Xbox 360
Shell and BP made a collective 33.7 billion dollars in profit last year, but while the oil companies are laughing right now (and raping, and pillaging, etc), the future according to Frontlines: Fuel of War is not one they will enjoy. By then, the scarcity of oil reserves will result in an East-West divide that can only be solved by hard men with big guns. Cue yet another near-future first-person shooter on the Xbox 360.
And the PC, but they didn't send us that one.
This impending energy crisis starts off rather slowly, we're told, in the (ulp) summer of 2008, when international demand outstrips supply for the first time, driving up the price of oil to over 100 dollars per barrel. The effect ultimately devastates global economies in just a few years, particularly in the third world, which will endure "darker, cataclysmic events". As the depression deepens, the fight for energy resources intensifies, culminating in an ugly standoff in 16 years' time between the Western Coalition (the US and EU), and the Red Star Alliance (Russia and China).
So why not just nuke each other and be done with it? The problem with long distance nuclear conflict, says the game, is that both sides have sophisticated satellite missile defence systems at their disposal, creating the kind of stalemate that can ultimately only be solved via a good, old-fashioned ground offensive - albeit assisted with high-tech drones and the like.
That's were you come in, fighting the good fight against the old enemy in a seven-chapter campaign mode. The story, told between missions by a war reporter's cut-scenes, puts you in the boots of a beefcake squaddie duking it out across a series of objectives which, piece by piece, allow you to advance upon Moscow and cripple the Red Star war machine. Having been developed by the team responsible for the Battlefield: Desert Combat mod, Frontlines' template is rather familiar, which isn't bad news - Battlefield is quite good, you know - but applying it to single-player design is rather challenging, as EA and DICE discovered with Battlefield: Modern Combat.
In Frontlines' case, there's been an unfair perception that the single-player offering is basically 'Battlefield with bots', or little more than bolted-on training exercise to prepare you for the 50-player multiplayer main dish (up to 64 on PC). Frontlines' solo offering does lack a certain degree of personality in a narrative sense, but, for the most part, the combat is solid and polished enough to paper over some of the cracks.
Similar in size to most shooters in gameplay length (six-to-eight hours on first run-through), Kaos essentially breaks down each level into a series of mini objectives, most of which can be tackled in any order. Most follow the usual premise of 'capturing' key installations by standing near them for a specified time, or simply blowing them up. Unlike the arbitrarily sectioned-off level design of many FPS titles, Frontlines boasts a rather more convincing representation of battle, giving you the chance to carve you own path, often at your peril.
For example, you're not shoehorned into on-rails sections. If a tank is available, you can leap aboard and man the cannon, or switch over and drive it while firing missiles. Sometimes, going in on foot and planting explosives nearby just feels more satisfying, while other times it only makes sense to do the attacking from afar. This degree of freedom extends much further than the order in which you complete objectives, with a deceptively simple arsenal offering more options than are initially apparent. The remote control drones, in particular, offer a variety of ways to soften up entrenched targets from a distance, whether it's blowing up tanks with a four-wheeled assault drone packing C4, flying a Tiger Claw chopper into the heart of an enemy packed warehouse, or calling in an airstrike on a pesky tank.
Strangely though, the single-player offering doesn't grant such evil examples of high-tech warfare to the Red Star forces, despite the fact they have them in the online game. With fairly obliging enemies to fight against, on normal difficulty, you also have to be spectacularly rubbish to die at all during the first few missions, as not only do you have superior weapons at your disposal, but enemies carelessly wander right out of cover time and again. Elsewhere the recharging health system is very forgiving, and checkpointing is extremely generous too. It's a shame, because the single-player would be fine if it didn't feel unbalanced, your victory a foregone conclusion.
Of course, all of those niggles go out of the window in the rather nifty multiplayer mode. Supporting up to 50 players on 360 (the box says up to 32, but the Village map supports 50 and more will do so post-launch), the game rather comes into its own when you get around to experiencing it online. The basic premise is the same in that you're ultimately still trying to capture objectives (usually by, uh, standing near them for a bit, or blowing them up), and trying to outscore the opposing team within a set time limit over a number of rounds. Where the multiplayer mode really differs is in the fact that the maps are so much bigger, that both sides have sneaky technology they can call upon, and that real-life opponents are far more determined to stay alive. All round it's a far superior experience, and easily the game's best selling-point.
Before you jump into battle (and each time you respawn) you have six different weapon load-outs to choose from: Assault, Heavy Assault, Sniper, Anti-Vehicle, Special Operations and Close Combat. Each has three weapons, and some obvious pros and cons attached to each selection, so, for example, the Anti-Vehicle load-out gives you a rocket launcher, pistol and landmine, making it perfect for taking out any armoured vehicles but fairly hopeless at close quarters.
From there, you have a further four 'roles' to choose from: Ground Support, EMP Tech, Drone Tech and Air Support. Again, all are selectable each time you respawn, and each has three ranks attached to it. As you capture checkpoints, kill enemies and use role-specific equipment, a meter in the bottom right corner fills up, granting you access to higher ranks, and rewarding you with better equipment to use. For instance, a Coalition Drone Tech rank 1 gives you hover scout to send out to check out areas from a safe distance, while at rank 3 you can use a ground-based mortar launcher lethal against most vehicles and infantry. In addition, the Red Star equivalent in each category is subtly different. It might have a noisier engine, for example, but come with six rocket pods.
From our playtest on real world servers, plenty of large matches are already underway, and we have no technical problems or lag to report. Maps are spacious and matches are played in the right spirit, with everyone clearly having fun trying out all the various vehicles, from jets and choppers to tanks. Perhaps the inclusion of only one multiplayer mode - and a team-based one at that - will help keep it that way. There's no cross-platform play, but System Link is also present as an option for up to 12 players, with the usual ranked and player-match options and a selection of maps to suit matches of varying sizes.
One of the game's central problems is it looks a bit drab. Standing somewhere between Halo and Call of Duty 4, a passerby derided it as "the brownest game ever", which is accurate on certain sections, if a little mean overall. At times, Kaos crafts some excellent environments - the final level set in the ruins of Moscow is a wonderful example - and in terms of the explosive effects, vehicle models and so on, there's little to fault. It just lacks identity, visually, and feels uneven, which undermines the overall quality. One small thumbs-up, though, for allowing a "v-sync on" option - something of which I'm sure the rabid anti-tearing brigade will approve.
They, of course, are the sort of people who will enjoy this generally. Despite the single-player mode's inability to engage on a narrative level and the fact that you're supremely powerful for most of that side of it, Frontlines is a pleasant addition to the legion of shooters crowding the 360's line-up, largely thanks to its multiplayer. If killing other people is what you're into, and you're hankering after a new Battlefield-style game to call your own, then you should definitely give it a look.
7 / 10