I feel like I hear this all the time, but first-person shooters really are a dime a dozen these days, especially on Xbox 360 which is seen as the de facto "shooter console" in the eyes of many gamers. With so many similar products vying for the attention of the many Xbox devotees it certainly takes a special gaming experience to impress the masses. Call of Duty 4 was able to do it, BioShock certainly pulled it off, Halo 3 did it for a time and now it's Frontlines: Fuel of War trying to make its mark on Xbox 360 sales charts. It's a game rooted in present day headlines as the world is being torn apart by warring nations competing for the coveted oil that has been the bane of our existence here in reality for far too long. While the time frame for Fuel of War is set in the future, the issues that it tackles certainly hit home. Now the only question is if the gameplay can do the same.
Those who have played past Battlefield titles will feel right at home with Frontlines' core gameplay mechanic. Essentially the maps are riddled with predetermined capture points. As you steal them from the enemy you advance the frontline of the battle more and more until you eventually own the map. Some points require you to stand next to a satellite for a certain amount of time; others have you planting C4 to take down an enemy installation, but working through each of the missions never quite feels like an engrossing campaign. Instead, it feels too much like a series bot matches. Not to say that there isn't plenty of intense moments throughout the roughly 6-8 hour (three difficulty levels extend it a bit) set of missions, it just doesn't feel as natural as other games on the market.
The war that rages on throughout Frontlines is between the Western Coalition Army (United States and European Union) and the Red Star Alliance (Russia and China) with the bulk of the action happening throughout the Middle East. The cutscenes which bookend each mission are delivered from the perspective of an embedded journalist reporting on the war. While you don't have a defined squad with character names and specific personalities you still get to hear inspirational speeches and be a part of other moments of reasonably effective drama, but it never reaches the bar that has been set by others.
The real issue with the single-player gameplay isn't its storytelling, after all Frontlines isn't supposed to be a story-driven FPS, but instead the main problem is its lack of originality. If we had seen this game released a year ago we'd be singing a different tune as there are moments when you're repelling a massive enemy force across a monstrous battlefield that you can't help but define as "cool" but it doesn't separate itself enough from the shadow of the giants of our industry to cross the void from being a "good" to a "great" solo experience.
Luckily for Fuel of War the main attraction isn't its campaign. The real hook, the reason why there are going to be people playing Frontlines for quite some time, is its 50-player multiplayer. If you can manage to find 49 friends and have one hell of a connection at your disposal then there's the potential for one of the best experiences on Xbox Live. With planes, helicopters, tanks, and the myriad of drones and devices doing battle at one time on a few of the massive landscapes the action is undeniably fun and fast paced.
Frontlines also tacks on the ability to play a certain role for your team on top of the standard class selections of assault, special ops, and so on. You can be the guy who calls in air strikes to support the team or you can select to have command of EMP powers to disable enemy vehicles. Each role has three levels to it and each level has a different power. Play well and you'll be at your third level power in no time at all and that's when the strategic advantage of the leveling system really comes into view.
With all of the different roles, character classes, and vehicles that come together to make Frontlines it's a good thing that the control schemes for each are well crafted and fairly intuitive once you get the hang of things. The jets are easily the hardest to maneuver, but tanks and hummers are easy from the onset. Weapon selection is handled with a radial menu that only becomes a nuisance when you're carrying more than eight weapons which is a rare occurrence in single-player and it never happens online.
Though the multiplayer in Frontlines is clearly the star of the show it is not without a few flaws. First and foremost, there's only one game mode so you might tire of playing the same thing repeatedly. Then there's the fact that you can't run your own Xbox 360 as a dedicated server. Not a huge deal for most, but some will be disappointed. And while it's not exactly a flaw, it is worth noting the fact that you can't run your own 50 player Frontlines match, instead THQ will have its own set of dedicated servers to insure that things run as smoothly as possible.
As I've been saying throughout this review, the battles are massive in Frontlines. There's always a lot going on and there are several ways to approach different situations thanks to the list of weapons, vehicles and drones. All of this action does come at a pretty steep price, though. The visuals occasionally look flat out bad with draw in and texture pop in running rampant in a few scenes. Then there are the moments when the opposite is true; like when a rocket comes slamming into a stone barrier, shattering it and sending all of the debris right into your living room. The bottom line for the aesthetics of Frontlines is that they're the quintessential mixed bag (or as Jerry Seinfeld would say, it's a two-face).
The sound performs a bit better with nicely crafted themes and rock music that help to build the tension of a scene. And while the dialogue might not be of the highest quality, it's still effective nonetheless. It's clear that Kaos Studios was trying to go for the Hollywood-style high production values and they just barely come up short. Weapon effects perform as they should and deliver a good amount of punch where it's appropriate.
Frontlines: Fuel of War is clearly deeply dependent on its gameplay to bring home the bacon. Its single-player performs well enough to get players to work their way through for the achievement points its the multiplayer that will hook some FPS fanatics. If you can forget about the fact that youve been playing this style game for years with the Battlefield franchise then Frontlines will hook you for some time with its gargantuan battles, but for most Fuel of War will likely be too generic to truly sink their teeth into.