Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Frontline: Fields of Thunder Review

Frontline: Fields of Thunder, developed by Nival Interactive and N-Game Studios and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Accurate units and maps, integrated multiplayer matchmaking
The Not So Good: Strongly reminiscent of Blitzkrieg II, poor unit pathfinding and attack-move is sporadic at best, units die rather quickly, extremely difficult, graphics are getting outdated
What say you? Blitzkrieg II goes more historical, but it’s so similar that you won’t notice any difference: 5/8

I think it’s fair to say that there have been a lot of World War II real time strategy games. So many, in fact, that I’m quickly running out of things to say about them in the introduction. So, I have made an executive decision (which makes me feel like Steven Seagal) to keep this short and to the point. Frontline: Fields of Thunder is a follow-up to Blitzkrieg II, a game I actually received to review but the disc didn’t work in my DVD drive. Frontline uses the same graphics, user interface, and engine and applies it to the largest Soviet-German conflict of the Eastern Front: Kursk. In fact, Frontline: Fields of Thunder calls itself “Frontline: Kursk” and “Blitzkrieg II: Kursk” on several occasions, so it’s no mystery what this stand-alone expansion-like product is trying to do.

Frontline: Fields of Thunder has the same graphics and sound as Blitzkrieg II. Of course, if I had actually reviewed the original game, I could just post a link there and call it a day. Oh well. Frontline: Fields of Thunder is in 3-D, but it definitely looks 2-D, reminiscent of other World War II RTS games like Silent Heroes. I know it’s in 3-D because you can rotate the camera, but it sure looks 2-D. The units aren’t the most detailed things in the world (and when compared to Company of Heroes, they look downright silly), but the environments have a sort of raw realism that makes them slightly memorable. There are some good effects in the game, especially fire and the overly dramatic explosions. Bullet hits on the ground are also clearly visible, which is a nice touch. Still, this engine is starting to look dated when compared with other contemporary games. The sound is very typical for a RTS game: voices from soldiers (in German and Russian), explosions, bullets, background music. There’s nothing we haven’t seen before; if you played Blitzkrieg II, Frontline: Fields of Thunder has everything you’ve seen before in terms of graphics and sound.

Frontline: Fields of Thunder covers the Battle of Kursk in 1943, which pitted the Germans against the Russians. The game comes with two 10-mission campaigns (one for each side) that tells the tale of the battle from both sides. The main hook of this game is the historically accurate unit composition and maps that the missions take place on. I, of course, wouldn’t know the difference, but if they say it’s true it probably is. Frontline: Fields of Thunder comes with the ability of playing custom battles and campaigns. You can create them using the map editor, but only if you own the Blitzkrieg II expansion (evidence that Frontline: Fields of Thunder isn’t a fully separate title). You can also engage in multiplayer action over a local area network or on the matchmaking service. I didn’t really check out how well this works because I got the game before it was released (I am cool like that). The game is played using the now-standard conquest mode, where you must hold a certain number of objective locations for a period of time. You can set the time limit from 15 minutes to 40 hours (that’s quite a long game) and change the time required to switch over control of a flag. The units you are given are set by the mission designer; instead of using a point system like Close Combat, you’re stuck with what units were really in that battle, even if you don’t like them. Tough it out!

What changes are made from Blitzkrieg II? Other than the new campaign and missions, the maps and buildings are more accurate, the icons are better, and reinforcements are more streamlined. And that’s pretty much it. Frontline: Fields of Thunder is definitely on the low end of stand-alone expansion pack value, forgoing quality enhancements seen in games like Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar and going for the simple “new campaign” approach. For those unfamiliar with the Blitzkrieg II system, Frontline: Fields of Thunder features some tutorials before you leap into the campaigns. Since you are given a fixed set of units for each mission that cannot be changed, the same mission will most likely play out the same way. This is historically accurate, but not good for replay value. Controlling the game is typical for an RTS game. You can issue move, follow, line up, aggressive mode, attach/detach guns, get in/out, attack, defensive fire, entrench, lay/clear mines, and repair orders. There is a problem with pathfinding in the game, as units that are grouped together and given a movement order may (and usually will) split up if there is an obstacle in their way, such as a mountain or building. This becomes more of a problem when moving across the map, when the number of potential obstructions increases. Units will also dance around to place themselves to attack an enemy, and tanks will routinely run into each other while they scramble for position. It’s sad (and a bit alarming) that these fundamental problems aren’t fixed in this “new” version of the game.

The reinforcements you’ll receive in the game are planes, either scout aircraft or bombers. The ground units you start with are the only ones you have for the entire mission as there is no base building or resource collection in Frontline: Fields of Thunder. You will receive additional supplies, such as ammunition and spare parts, by capturing depots that are scattered around the map. These are important locations to have, as it extends the life of your forces greatly. Your objective locations are clearly indicated both on the minimap and on the main screen; it’s just a matter of effectively moving and positioning your forces. While the AI has some trouble engaging the enemy (mostly with positioning), you can set units to automatically use their skills, such as throwing grenades. This cuts down on the micromanagement in the game. Frontline: Fields of Thunder features a historically accurate assortment of units: infantry, artillery, and tanks. If it fought at the Battle of Kursk, it’s in Frontline: Fields of Thunder. The gameplay is very similar to Blitzkrieg II (not surprising): fast paced with lots of destruction. Units, and especially tanks, seem to die rather quickly after only a couple of hits, and they don’t seem to be the realistically imposing force they are in Company of Heroes (where if you see a tank, you’re screwed). I’m not a fan of the pace of the game: if you’re going to offer historically accurate units and maps, why not make the combat seem more realistic? As it stands, Frontline: Fields of Thunder moves too quickly to be tactically relevant, and you’ll just end up throwing units at each other and seeing what happens. The lack of flexibility in unit selection means you’re limited in your potential strategies and it allows for the enemy AI to “cheat” by getting many more units. While this may be historically accurate, it’s not really that fun to get pounded by a superior foe. The missions in Frontline: Fields of Thunder are extremely difficult, due to the limited forces you are given and the seemingly infinite enemies you will encounter. If you aren't well versed in RTS games, Frontline: Fields of Thunder will be a difficult road to travel.

There’s no real reason to get Frontline: Fields of Thunder, especially if you have Blitzkrieg II, as that title has far greater replay value and a larger scope. For extreme fans of the game and of the Battle of Kursk, there might be some value in Frontline: Fields of Thunder, but this is really a stand-alone expansion (and priced as such) than a full-fledged new title. The modifications are so subtle that I doubt anyone other than the developers and historians will notice them. Despite leaning more towards historical accuracy with its maps and unit selection, the gameplay is still the fast-paced unrealistic orchestra of explosions seen in Blitzkrieg II. You’re probably better off just getting Blitzkrieg II, since it includes more battles and the editors, than playing Frontline: Fields of Thunder, unless you really want to play the Battle of Kursk. Frontline: Fields of Thunder just doesn’t offer enough differences from its predecessor to necessitate a purchase even with its lowered price.