Saturday, March 17, 2007

War Front: Turning Point Review

War Front: Turning Point, developed by Digital Reality and published by 10TACLE Studios and CDV.
The Good: Interesting advanced weaponry, good visual effects, straightforward resource collection, multiplayer win conditions eliminate end-game cleanup, poor weather affects reconnaissance, you can control individual units and turrets
The Not So Good: Controlling individual units is completely pointless, original units are disappointing, poor AI, fast arcade combat destroys units too quickly and eliminates strategy, attack-move results in too many wandering troops, easy to lose track of units, lack of formations, minimap is slow to update defeated enemy troops, suffers from mid-game stalemates due to fast production and low population cap
What say you? This alternative history World War II strategy game has some distinctive units, but the rest is just generic: 5/8

What if the countries involved in World War II had developed unrealistically futuristic weapons that we don’t even have today? This hypothetical situation is addressed in War Front: Turning Point, where the war front is Europe and the turning point is Hitler’s death early in the war. Spawning from this event, the Germans successfully invaded London and crazy walkers and sonic tanks roam the Earth. It makes so much sense! Either way, there is stiff competition in the World War II RTS genre coming from the likes of Company of Heroes and Rush for Berlin (among plenty of others). Does War Front: Turning Point’s unique World War II setting provide enough originality to make it a magnificent title?

War Front: Turning Point has an odd combination of graphics: spectacular effects and unspectacular units and environments. First, the bad news: the environments look like old 2-D levels from isometric RTS games such as Blitzkrieg and Sudden Strike, even though the game is in 3-D. The game’s levels don’t look necessarily bad; they just seem out of place. The units could also use some work: the infantry is standard fare, and when compared to, say, Company of Heroes, they are laughable in their simplicity. The tanks and vehicles are the same way: they could just look better. Now the visual effects are quite a treat: the explosions, shock waves, damage, nuclear explosions, weather, and dynamic time of day all look great. It’s apparent that more attention was paid to good effects, as they almost clash with the units and the background and they seem a little out of place. While the game looks average when units are standing around, once the action starts, War Front: Turning Point comes into its own. The sound is average for a real time strategy game: typical explosions and battle sounds with predictable background music. The auditory “low resources” warning gets annoying quickly and there doesn’t seem to be any way of turning it off. I do like the weather-related unit acknowledgements, however (“we can’t build in the mud!”). The presentation of War Front: Turning Point is a strange mixed bag of average sound and graphics with wonderful visual effects.

So, Hitler dies and everyone makes crazy technologically advanced weapons in an ever-escalating war. You can take on the new face of World War II in either the Allied or German campaigns, each of which is eleven missions long. The missions are kind of short and they are easy if the odds aren’t stacked against you, which they are for the most part. Like most real time strategy games that involve less than spectacular enemy AI, you are usually outnumber and trying to destroy a heavily-fortified base. The pathfinding and formation issues (which I’ll cover in a bit) only serve to exacerbate the problems. The objectives for each mission are clearly represented on the minimap, complete with tooltips so you’re never wondering what to do next. War Front: Turning Point has a typical assortment of missions: kill a unit, destroy a base, et cetera. Once you’re finished with the single player campaigns, you can try out multiplayer, which can be played in skirmish games against the AI or online through an integrated Gamespy browser. Other than the typical deathmatch game, you can play with special rules: in secret orders, each side is given primary objectives like Rush for Berlin, or conquest like Company of Heroes. Strangely, you can’t play any of the non-deathmatch modes against the AI, further reinforcing the belief that the AI is just not very smart. You can also set different victory conditions to speed up the end-game: rack and ruin just requires the destruction of all enemy buildings and aftermath eliminates fog of war when all buildings are lost (although why you would chose this over rack and ruin is a mystery). Skirmish games are seriously short (15 minutes for one-on-one), because units are produced so quickly and the unit limit is a low 200 units (well, low considering how fast units are constructed). It’s very odd, then, that it takes so long to move up a tech level, which really constitutes half of the game’s total length.

Other than giving tooltips of victory locations on the minimap, the user interface is very outdated. For instance, it’s impossible to select all of the units on the map at once (you can just select units on the screen). This makes it extremely easy to lose units in the heat of battle. The minimap is also slow to update defeated enemy troops. Stormy weather turns off the minimap (and ground aircraft), which is a nice touch. The gameplay of War Front: Turning Point is, again, typical: collect resources at mines, building buildings, construct units, bring death and destruction. The game’s only true resource (cash) is gathered by collectors and brought to your supply depot; assigning three collectors to a depot will result in a fast income rate. Non-allied teams must construct power producing buildings in addition to collecting resources, and destroying these buildings becomes a viable strategy for enemy forces. The building arrangement is (surprise!) typical: barracks for infantry, factories for tanks, and airfields for planes, although each airfield is limited to two planes. I like that the planes are treated in the game as support units, and you can select them all at once. There is also the usual research building and turrets for each type of unit. The only thing that’s atypical about War Front: Turning Point is the alternative units, which are really just more powerful versions of existing vehicles. They don’t behave any differently, they just have more health and deal more damage: it’s quite disappointing. I’d rather see real secret weapons like they show on The History Channel instead of completely implausible walkers and sonic tanks that aren’t even around today. There are also hero units with special abilities that I feel are completely out of place in a game like this that is based on semi-realism.

The slowest aspect of the game is moving up the three-level technology tree: you can crank out a full army of 200 units in about five minutes with one barracks and one factory. The game is really decided by whoever controls the central resource locations and is able to produce units a minute sooner. War Front: Turning Point quickly turns into a stalemate, as each side produces their maximum number of units quickly and at the same time. Since you can replace losses quickly as well, it’s very hard to defeat and opposing force, especially if they’ve build plenty of defenses. Besides the new units, War Front: Turning Point features the ability to directly control any armored unit or bunker. While taking direct control of an anti-air facility is quite fun, controlling the rest of the units is not, and it actually hurts your team. If you are controlling a single unit, orders cannot be given to the rest of your army, and units in War Front: Turning Point are not the best at automatically engage enemy units when they are not given an attack move order. You can increase the effectiveness of your defenses if you control them, but taking over a unit is worthless. And you’ll need to baby-sit your forces, too, since there are a couple of issues with movement. Pathfinding is OK, but there are absolutely no formation commands, and units will string out across the map single-file. Since most of the maps include bridges, your troops will arrange themselves in a line even after crossing the bridge, allowing themselves to be picked off one at a time by the enemy. This is really, really annoying. The game states that double-clicking a movement order will make the selected units move at the slowest unit’s rate, but I have yet to see this work. Giving an attack-move order is just as bad: units seem to wander off and engage troops that are nowhere near the order location (especially if they retreat). It’s odd that they have such a large engagement radius when given an attack-move order, but almost a non-existent one when defending. The lack of a rundown of units or a “select all” key makes this problem even worse.

While War Front: Turning Point promised an original gameplay experience, it does not deliver. Not only are the unique features in the game very superficial, but War Front: Turning Point has fundamental problems with unit movement and gameplay balancing that severely inhibit your enjoyment of the title. Attack-move commands result in semi-random movement around the map and there is a complete lack of formation commands: units will just line up to be killed off, instead of circling an enemy. I don’t have a problem with fast-paced gameplay (see Rush for Berlin), but since the population cap is reached so quickly, you can commonly fighting evenly-matched opponents to an infinite stalemate. This game doesn’t feel any different from the countless other real time strategy games that have already been released. Direct control of units may seem like a cool idea (one that’s being implemented in more and more games), but it’s only useful for defensive structures and not for individual tanks. Sadly, after playing games like Company of Heroes and Supreme Commander, War Front: Turning Point just doesn’t offer a unique experience to make it a memorable title.