By: Patrick Morris
If you take a shot at the king, you best not miss. And miss is exactly what Frontlines: Fuel of War did. During a tumultuous time in which the genre was being dominated by the merely four month old jugernaut that was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare reshaping the landscape of what audiences would come to expect of a modern shooter, Frontlines: Fuel of War hit arrived on the scene with barely a whimper. Despite their bucking the trend of the corridor shooter mechanics utilized by their competitors and a unique story telling vehicle the deadweight of antiquated gameplay, subpar visuals, and controls that are generously described as being terrible proved to be to much for Kaos Studios' inaugural effort turning what could have been a cinderella story into just another cautionary tale for any future developer or publisher looking to take on Activision's monster.
Welcome welcome welcome everyone welcome back to LegalSpeak, a ColdNorth Production. I'm TheLaw Morris and we are actually going to be changing things up quite a bit here on LegalSpeak. The show will now be split into three parts for your convienence. The first and shortest video will be a short form summary of both the history and my critique of the game or topic each week. Then the other two videos will be seperate longer form deep dives into the history the game and my critique and thoughts on the topic. Watch the videos in whatever order you want, if you're not super interested in a topic watch the short one to get a better idea then watch the other two for more detail. If youre like me and you know you enjoy longer form content then just jump straight into the two longer videos and have fun! This week's videos will be focused on the often forgotten Frontlines: Fuel of War, a game that was supposed to be the catalyst of a new Call of Duty and Battlefield contender but instead fell flat. So without further ado, lets get into it!
Frontlines has far more than it's fair share of bad and ugly to offer so lets just start with the good. The story in Frontlines, while not spectacular, is incredibly eerie and unsettling to play in 2021. Taking place in 2024 the world has been plunged into a global energy crisis creating famine and poverty that strikes indiscriminately. Two of the world's superpowers China and Russia have formed an alliance to both defend their own natural resources while also expanding their reach to co-opt the resources of those countries with lesser military might. To make matters worse during the early days of the energy crisis the world experienced an outbreak of the avian flue on pandemic proportions. After a coup d'etat in Turkmenistan the hand of both the Western Coalition and the Red Star Alliance are forced and world war 3 appears to be on the doorstep.
The player character is a nameless protagonist who is a member of an American fire team known as the Stray Dogs, known for their efficiency and brutality on the battlefield. Throughout the seven chapters that function as larger missions the Stray Dogs are accompanied by a reporter for the Affiliated Press through whom the bulk of the world building, story telling, and exposition is done. The wartime journalist aspect is the game's single biggest strength as it offers a perspective never before seen in a warfare shooter and one that allows the game's writers to more easily turn the script against their heroes and examine the atrocities of both sides of a conflict to acknowledge the travesty that is war. Unfortunately, while the perspective from which the story is told showed true potential the developers did a lackluster job utilizing their best idea and as a result we are left pining over what could have been.
The events of the story of Frontlines and the realism of the conflict and challenges that would be facing the world in the 2020's are nearly prophetic. Despite the improvements having been made since the start of 2021 and the majority of the world getting vaccinated within the next few months after the year we have all been through it's difficult to not see this game as some sort of cautionary tale. A global pandemic, trade relations weakening, and the east and west gearing up for what could possibly be a second cold war makes the failure in story telling and the absence of a Frontlines sequel more disappointing in 2021 than it was when the game launched in 2008. Call of Duty and Battlefield's biggest weaknesses appeared to be Kaos' strong suit and it's a shame that although they were jettisoned from DICE and the Battlefield franchise Activision didn’t recognize the strengths of Kaos Studios and scoop them up as a narrative team for future COD titles.
The bad consists mostly of the gameplay and controls. Shooting feels stilted and inaccurate, movement is slow and crude, and weapon balance leaves me unsure of what guns to use in any given instance as none of them behave in any previously understood way from other games. Call of Duty created and has been refining what has become the defacto first person shooter control scheme on a gamepad since 2004, Call of Duty 2 was released on the Xbox 360 in 2005, and nearly every shooter since has used the system of left trigger for iron sights for increased accuracy at the expense of maneuverability. A limit on number of weapons that can be carried at one time has been used in games to both balance gameplay by forcing players to make cost benefit choices in the heat of battle and allowed developers to streamline control systems since Halo Combat Evolved in 2001. And despite the two of these giants combined creating what is inarguably the foundation for any decent first person shooter control scheme Kaos Studios seems convinced that they can do better. For whatever reason scope in and out is by default mapped to the right stick and crouch is a three stage toggle on the left stick. These controls are reminiscent of Halo but without the accurate hip fire found in most arena shooters basic weapons like pistols, assault rifles, and LMG's become essentially useless. The game is understandably mechanically built to play like a Call of Duty game but then for whatever built to control like Halo, incorporating the drawbacks of both without the advantages of either making for a relentlessly frustrating experience. After playing for roughly three hours I was forced to go into the accessories app on my Xbox and remap the controls to more closely imitate Call of Duty.
Rather than pushing the player down a corridor of finely tuned hand crafted environments and allowing them to experience the almost roller coaster like experience of what audiences have come to expect from these sorts of games Kaos opted to make much larger resource intensive open environments for each level then scatter objectives across the map allowing players to choose in which order they want to tackle the mission. While the romanticized freedom of choice is obviously alluring in the case of Frontlines it is one that works to the game's detriment. Instead of a tailored experience involving surprises around every corner, and large action set pieces players are met with vast open flat battlefields making the game feel more reminiscent of playing with all of your action figures on your bedroom floor when you were a kid than a big budget Hollywood movie. The choose your own approach mechanic is an interesting one but ultimately didn’t do the game any favors in terms of keeping the audience engaged and eager for what would come next. It feels very much like a mechanic that should have and would have been left on the cutting room floor had the team had proper time and budgeting for QA testing every step of the way.
And the ugly, visually Frontlines is clearly trying to keep up with it's contemporaries with more up close character animations and interactions as well as environmental destruction but once again it falls short and instead of wowing the audience with it's visuals it ends up looking dated and less polished. Graphics look muddy and uninteresting, environments appear similar from one level to another without any opportunity for even the slightest bit of variation, and characters appear much more stilted and robotic. The culmination of all of these graphical shortcomings makes for a game that not only isn't on par with the Call of Duty and Battlefield games of the time but one that despite being released more than two years into the Xbox 360's life span looks as though with just a bit more RAM for the large open level design could have been rendered the original Xbox that was constructed of mostly laptop PC parts in 2001.
Frontlines: Fuel of War was an underdog story and one that after learning it I truly wish had been the upset the industry needed at the time. Competition drives innovation which inherently leads to better products so despite whatever preference you may have a new player on the scene would only make the game you choose to put your time into better. Upon it's release Frontlines was met with lukewarm yet somewhat positive reviews. But not enough to overcome the many drawbacks of the game. The game remains a perfect case study in overly ambitious yet great ideas but poor and under funded execution.
That’s all I've got for my critique this week, If you're wrapping up all three videos, thanks for sticking around. If not go check out my research and exploration on the history of the development of this game! You can see everything I do all in one spot over at ColdNorthPro.com. I'll be back next week talking about something else entirely so until then just go play some games!
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