Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Storm: Frontline Nation Review

Storm: Frontline Nation, developed by Colossai Studios and published by Just A Game and Viva Media.
The Good: Sandbox mode or a story-driven campaign with multiple specific objectives, tactical battles with concrete unit counters and meaningful terrain, skirmish mode with random maps, online campaigns and skirmishes
The Not So Good: Lacks some depth, hard to find existing units, poor tactical AI, rudimentary diplomatic options, video-only tutorials, lackluster sound design
What say you? This turn-based tactical and grand strategy game offers a straightforward take on the genres for wider mass appeal: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Oh, Europe: you and your silly near-constant state of war. Sure, things are all peachy now, what with the European Union and soccer (erroneously referred to as “football”) serving as forms of unity. But a violent past makes for a violent future, especially when resources run out and everyone has to fight over the last croissant. Storm: Frontline Nation features such a clash, with forty-five nations duking it out in the near future. The game features both strategic and tactical turn-based game modes to satisfy all types of gamers, at least the types of gamers who like strategy and tactical turn-based game modes. Is this Swedish import tasty like candied fish?

Storm: Frontline Nation features a pleasing graphical package. It starts with one of the better-looking maps in the grand strategy genre, covering all of Europe and northern Africa. The textures are detailed and varied, and the terrain is true-to-life with mountains (possibly exhibiting purple majesty), oceans, and weather effects like fog and rain. You can zoom out far to see most of the continent at once, or tilt in close to see the good unit models and city designs. For the tactical mode, Storm: Frontline Nation has plausible hex-based maps for tactical battles consisting of varied terrain and the same good unit models as the strategic mode. Damage effects are unimpressive, as you’ll rely more on the unit icon than visual indications for determining health. Still, the game looks good. The sound is a different matter, starting with terrible, repetitive, simple unit acknowledgements (infantry units actually say “infantry” when selected, in a gruff, authoritarian tone). Coupled with the generic music, and the sound design is less than impressive. Still, the pleasing graphics of Storm: Frontline Nation help to keep the presentation afloat.

War! Which means it’s time for you to guide your European nation of choice to total victory. In the near future (next year, set your calendars), the campaign begins, which can feature a mission-driven story mode or more open gameplay where you simply capture capitals. You can customize the starting funds, units, mission frequency, availability of covert ops, and toggle manual initial deployment before you begin. Storm: Frontline Nation gives you access to five countries in the story campaign: France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and the United States (who, last time I checked, isn’t even in Europe). All forty-five nations are available in an open campaign mode. You can also undertake the tactical battles in skirmish mode, featuring randomly generated maps set in a specified terrain. You can also set the starting funds, turn limit, difficulty, tech level, availability of air units, and whether the computer shops for itself. If that’s not enough, Storm: Frontline Nation has full-featured online play, where you can challenge others to both the tactical skirmishes and strategic campaigns. Even better, you can use a multiplayer game offline (and vice versa), replacing human opponents with the AI. For those looking to learn the game, Storm: Frontline Nation has disappointing video-only tutorials.

The interface of Storm: Frontline Nation, one of the more important aspects of any strategy game, is good, but falls short in one major area. The game displays most of the pertinent information right on the main screen, like income, power, and province values. Full-screen spreadsheets can list economic, military, regional, or urban information. The history page is pretty cool, as it shows an animation of who owned which provinces each turn of the campaign. Objectives feature hyperlinked locations to find where you must invade, and the extensive tool-tips give detailed information to supplement the on-screen data. Storm: Frontline Nation does not select the whole stack by default, a “feature” I found out the first time a single unit made an attack instead of ten units. It can’t all be good news, however, so here’s my gripe: Storm: Frontline Nation makes it difficult to find your units. While all of your units are listed in the expenses list, you can’t click on the icons to zoom to the unit. Your only options are to scour the map for them, or tediously cycle through each and every unit using the “Q” key. While this aspect of the game could definitely use some work, the rest of the interface gets the job done.

About half of your time will be spent in the strategic mode, where you execute your plans for global (well, European) domination. The missions add direction to the game: every couple of turns, you are given a choice of three objectives (usually military, production, or diplomatic in nature) to earn small bonuses. The game’s simple economics involve earning income from controlled cities and territories, and then spending that money on new units, research, buildings, and upkeep for existing units (producing a soft unit cap): it’s very straightforward. Ground, air, and sea units are deployed at any city or appropriate structure (barracks, port, air base) when completed, and you can add researched kits for additional upgrades. Engineers can build airports, garrisons, missile silos, navy bases, nuclear test facilities, power plants, and shelters, or improve the infrastructure to supplement the income of a province. The economics of Storm: Frontline Nation are simply enough for most everyone to comprehend quickly.

Diplomatic options are disappointing: the usual suspects, like peace treaties, alliances, and non-proliferation treaties, are present. Storm: Frontline Nation gives you a sortable list for relations and other pertinent information to help you decide on your next victim. While the AI will approach you with reasonable offers (that always favor their side, of course), there is no indication of chance of acceptance, or counter-offers from the computer if an agreement is rejected. So it’s all guesswork: how many Euros will it take for a peace treaty? The world will never know. Research is simple: five areas (nuclear, biological, chemical, missiles, technology) with linear options that unlock more powerful weapons. A simple one-time monetary investment is all that’s required to leap to the next level. Storm: Frontline Nation features some secretive options: special forces can sabotage buildings, use biological weapons, or rescue spies from prison, while spies cam view province information, steal research, assassinate other spies, or use a suitcase bomb. Auxiliary game features, like most of the game, are basic in nature.

Storm: Frontline Nation is purely focused on war: “expand” is the name of the game, as you must capture more territory to fuel your ever-expanding military. Oddly, the game has a UN-like autonomous force that will defend invaded nations; this works like a “badboy” rating found in other grand strategy titles, but seems out of place in a game that wants you to attack everyone else. When you do attack others, you’ll need to stay near (or quickly capture) cities to keep your units in supply. The AI is good enough: they capture territory efficiently, complete upgrades and order units, and declare war at opportune times against appropriate foes. I did not observe any inconsistent or odd behavior from the AI at the strategic level.

But grand strategy is only half the game! When a province is contested, you can enter the tactical mode where some of your forces (additional units are used as reinforcements) will engage the enemy in a turn-based battle on a hex map. The goal is to capture the three flags on the map, or destroy everyone, or survive until the time limit if you are the defender. Storm: Frontline Nation has obvious unit counters that make for satisfying, if simplistic, combat. Ground units include infantry, engineers, tanks, artillery, and anti-air units, while fighters, bombers, and helicopters take to the skies, and destroyers, battleships, carriers, and submarines sail the seven seas. Certain units can also be equipped with bombs and missiles of a nuclear, biological, or chemical nature for added fun and/or excitement. Every unit has its role: infantry captures flags, tanks and artillery destroy things, helicopters destroy tanks and artillery, and anti-air destroys helicopters. Each unit can be given move, engage (which will follow the specified enemy if they move while attacking them), assault, or bombardment orders each turn, and special abilities (like improved attacks or smoke) bought in the strategic mode can be used during combat. Terrain is important: tanks can’t go into mountains, and fortifications provide bonuses to infantry units. Lastly, your technology level can enable different special bonuses to use during the battle, like improved attack or defense for a specific unit, immobilizing enemy units, or revealing areas outside your sensor range. Overall, the AI was not impressive during the tactical battles: while they will (slowly) pursue objective locations, the computer does not move units together, continually exposing single units, like tanks to helicopters, even if the computer has anti-air units stationed on the map. After a couple of battles under your belt, taking down even a superior force is relatively easy.

Storm: Frontline Nation features a good balance of grand strategy and tactical gaming, and the basic rules and depth makes it appropriate for novices and veterans alike. Europe is in a state of war, so the economics are simply an effort to balance almost constant troop production and research. Funds are earned directly from territory, so your primary goal is to devour your neighbors. The game also offers missions to undertake along the way: these offer good intermediate steps for players and an overall goal to eventually end the game. The strategy AI is good, although diplomatic feedback could be more detailed. The tactical half features transparent unit counters that make the battles a matter of bringing complimentary units and using them in concert. Unfortunately, the AI isn’t very good at doing this, as you can pick off single, unprotected units one at a time. The terrain, special abilities, and bonuses vary the combat somewhat, making for some satisfying moments. The game’s interface is decent, although I would kill (not literally (well, maybe)) for a list of all your units. Features include plenty of options for setting up campaigns and skirmishes (including randomly generated maps), and all nations are available in the open campaign mode (though the more structured story campaign mode limits your choices to five countries). Storm: Frontline Nation features online play for both game modes, and you can even alternate between single player and online play during the same game. The tutorial is a huge library of videos you’ll ignore, and despite shortcomings in the sound design, the graphics of Storm: Frontline Nation are solid. So if you’re looking for an easier approach to grand strategy and tactical battles, Storm: Frontline Nation isn’t a bad place to look.