I've said it before, and I'll no doubt say it again in another five years or so, but this is my favourite part of a console generation. The blockbusters' attention has shifted to the shiny new toys, leaving a massive audience of existing console owners more readily accessible to games that would previously have been lost in the crush. Cheap games, offbeat games, but often more interesting games than those that must justify their enormous budgets by appealing to as many people as possible.
That's a category that Enemy Front, a Polish-developed World War 2 shooter, should fit into. This is a game where you can see budgetary limitations as visible stretchmarks on the screen - scars left from a valiant but ultimately doomed attempt to straddle the gap between the game the developers wanted to make and the game their resources and abilities would allow. It's an underdog, a game you want to cheer on despite its many, many groaning flaws.
Those flaws are simply too numerous and too damaging for leniency, however. Enemy Front looks up at you like an emaciated puppy and you look back with a heavy heart, knowing you're going to have to throw it in the river.
Things get off to a bad start when, in the very first level, in the first minutes of play, I creep up on a Nazi to perform a stealth kill. In the process, the animation pushes us through the solid second-storey wall of the building we're in and both myself and the deceased soldier fall to the pavement outside. Similar catastrophic bugs, glitches and quirks persist throughout the game.
You'll enter an empty room only for the furniture to suddenly appear a few seconds later. It seems like there's a 50/50 chance as to whether sound effects will trigger at the right time. Characters constantly get stuck in place or locked into weird animation loops. I replayed one section four times and every time the same patrolling guard would slide around in place, standing and crouching over and over like a demented Cossack dancer. In a hospital scene later in the game, wounded soldiers writhe in agony, their bodies vanishing through the blood-stained stretchers as they roll around. Meanwhile, doctors and nurses go through the motions, wandering backwards and forwards, dutifully picking up and carrying invisible objects from one place to another.
Throughout the game, textures are low-quality, models are crude and cut-scenes are smothered in compression artefacts. In retrospect, the boot-up screen's declaration that the game was "achieved with CryEngine" begins to sound downright sarcastic.
Checkpoints are brutal, often placed before long and unbroken sequences of cut-scenes, battles and stealth. Die and you may find yourself replaying most of a level. The temptation to simply give up is strong, since the reward for perseverance is so meagre.
Weapons are so inaccurate that it's hard to tell if it's a deliberate attempt to recreate the capabilities of vintage firearms or just wonky physics. You'll line up perfect sniper headshots that go inexplicably wide then, seconds later, score an instant kill with a sub-machine gun from across the map. Bullets pass through solid walls; enemies spawn impossibly from places that were empty seconds before and then proceed to shoot you with supernatual accuracy - or else stand gormlessly in the middle of a firefight, apparently oblivious to the action.
It's a mess - a catalogue of broken bits that are consistently amusing but which can't help but conspire to cripple the game. Games can survive all manner of rough edges, but once the quirky stumbles impinge on the actual play, it's all over. If Enemy Front had even a sliver of ambition, it might be possible to overlook its problems, but it's as vanilla and bare-bones as a game can be.
The game's blurb describes a "richly interactive combat experience that breaks out of highly linear scripted FPS experiences" and every now and then, you get a glimpse of what that would have been like. Many levels are open and broad by design. You can genuinely flank enemies, working your way around them on either side rather than just opting to push down the left or right side of a corridor. Occasionally, there's the opportunity to use the environment to your advantage, sending logs tumbling into encampments or trucks careening into outposts. If the game had workable physics and convincing AI, there'd be some sense of satisfaction in doing so. As it is, such moments merely suggest a better game hopelessly buried under a broken one.
As an illustration of how shallow the game is, consider its approach to secrets. Each level contains various hidden Nazi eagle symbols as well as spots where you can scrawl the logo of the Polish partisan fighters. Finding them has absolutely no purpose. Locate all the secrets in a level and you can go to the Secrets section of the menu to be told that, yes, you found all the secrets in that level. There's nothing to see, nothing is unlocked, nothing is earned. The secrets are there because tradition demands that such games need secrets to find, even if there's no reason for them.
The same is true of the perfunctory multiplayer offering. There are three game modes (two of which are deathmatches) and only four maps. It's functional in the sense that you can run around and shoot other players, and it's endearingly old fashioned in the sense that there are no perks or abilities and there's no XP progression to unlock better weapons. Everyone has access to the same selection of weapons and it's into the fray with no fuss. It would be refreshing if only it wasn't tethered to the same clumsy, glitchy, broken construction as the single-player.
Perhaps most disappointing of all is that this is a Polish-developed game, set at a critical and traumatic crossroads in Polish history, yet it utterly fails to offer a new perspective on the overstuffed WW2 shooter genre. The hero is an American journalist who takes up arms in search of a good story and along the way various Polish, French and Norwegian resistance fighters are thinly sketched into the background. There's not really a story as such as the bland and featureless Robert Hawkings leaps inexplicably from one scenario to another, but the lack of any meaningful national insight is a bewildering omission. A game that truly showed the war from the point of view of the Polish resistance would be fascinating, but this is merely Call of Duty with an Eastern European accent.
Enemy Front is a bad game on almost every level, but it gives me no pleasure to report that. It's not a lazy game, as you can see the developer trying as hard as it can to mimic the juggernauts that dominate the genre, but nor does it show enough personality or ambition to break out of the tired old paradigms. It's not even as if it can claim to be reviving the wartime shooter sub-genre, sandwiched as it is between the vastly superior Wolfenstein: The New Order and the incoming Sniper Elite 3. If you have the urge to mow down digital Nazis, there are far, far better ways of scratching that itch than with Enemy Front.