As the well-worn playground of many a strategy game, World War II finally banks an unexpected turn in War Front: Turning Point. War Front takes a hobbyist historian's favorite pastime -- hashing "what if?" questions into alternate history scenarios -- and places it on the game board in a familiar real-time strategy framework. While countless game studios have Michael Bay'd and Jerry Bruckheimer'd their artistic license over every inch of the European, African, and Pacific theaters of WW2, few have taken the bold step that developer Digital Reality uses to kick in the door.
Digital Reality engages in a sci-fi retelling of mid-20th century military history by exterminating the Nazi war machine early in the game (a hard-bitten fight, trust me) and intelligently teases out one of those alternate history timelines. War Front doesn't go so far as to allow you the ability to rewrite WW2. It simply guides you down two railways: The Allied campaign and the Germanic campaign, each touching on common points during this newly-written chronology, but not hindering the linear narrative of either's progress.
After the Nazi Party is dissolved, the Rheinland marches inexorably on, while England and America witness a would-be ally filling the Bad Guy vacuum left in Hitler's wake. Here's a hint: The name of the new bad guy begins with an "R" and ends with "-ussia." Essentially, the real world's Cold War goes hot in War Front's melodramatic retelling.
Expertly choreographed cut scenes splice missions together, the director's chair obviously helmed by a savant of film school techniques. The voice actors, however, never fully inhabit their roles or cull creative readings out of their scripts. Which is all well and good if War Front were pure spoof, but it takes itself just seriously enough that the unintentional yawns it delivers are louder than the huskier-than-thou voices.
The briefing screens are composed of fly-by cameras, 2-D maps, and animated dialogue between the protagonists. The now-customary Heroes string together the storylines between levels, bantering their stereotypes back and forth at each other. There's the square-jawed, stalwart German, Roland Hellmann, barking loyalty and forward-thrust nationalism. And then there's the square-jawed, stalwart American, John Lynch, bucking authority and Bond-ing with the women. Understandably, War Front isn't here to revolutionize the way we play RTS games (Company of Heroes), nor is it here to squeeze award-winning drama from its storyline (Brothers in Arms). It's simply here to find fresh footing in a marketplace already shell-shocked with an overabundance Dubya Dubya Two material.
So a "Bravo Zulu" is in order for Digital Reality in pressing forward with their concept. Further spicing up the overly-familiar WW2 battlefield is a handful of conceptual units that never actually saw the light of day. The Allies drop earthquake bombs and setup force shield generators. The Germans lift off with jetpack infantry and lay it down with robotic exoskeletons (and let's not forget to mention the giant, aluminum zeppelins). And the Russians -- whom you can only play in multiplayer skirmishes -- give enemies a serious case of freezer burn with "Ice Spitters," or heat things up with mobile turrets the length of railroad cars.
A standard assortment of tanks, troop transports, and artillery units keep the body of your force looking and behaving in a household fashion. Air superiority keeps your side of the conflict flying the friendly skies, but a strong ground presence is required to do any real surgical work. And with the relative weakness of War Front's units, your factories and barracks are well-served by the loop-production button; you're free to micromanage elsewhere as your war machine cranks out metric tons of cannon fodder for an often relentless enemy.
The AI operates as a blessing and a curse, depending on which end of the bullet you're on. Large vehicle convoys tend to string themselves out over long distances, reducing your hitting power should you encounter the enemy, but otherwise minimizing losses should an air strike be called on your location. Infantry units are required to capture buildings, but they'll leave behind the rest of a platoon if it's mixed with, say, a medic and some bazooka troops (who do not participate in building captures). Repair trucks alternately want to lead the charge, or hang so far back that they are out of the convoy's repair radius.
And the age-old problem of units not reacting to enemy fire is a clear and present danger in War Front. The otherwise poorly-structured first-person shooter mode -- which you may initiate with anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and machine gun bunkers -- is a necessary evil, since your bunkers would rather not respond if an enemy is just out of range, even if it is within range while in FPS mode. At any rate, this hackneyed FPS construct is only a viable option if the campaign scenario calls for it specifically; otherwise, battles are too fast and frenetic to spend any length of time hunkered down with the ground pounders when you should be commanding from above.
This is no nitpicking picnic by any means, but it doesn't deface the overall allure of War Front. The battles are furious, the explosions pack a dutiful wallop, the units are painstakingly rendered, and the landscaping is rather involved. Vehicles pay no mind when bowling over acres of trees, plowing over rural panoramas, and engaging in a little urban redecoration -- and that's just moving them from one part of the map to another. It's clumsy, but satisfying.
In regards to the story (and a welcome expansion or two) I'd challenge Digital Reality to stop pulling punches when selling their scenario. They don't need to dig into the psychological horrors of war, no, but this version of World War II doesn't feel like the world is much involved. There's perhaps one dainty cut scene, shot in black and white, pitch perfect with its scratchy film, trying to capture the spirit of the 1940s. And except for one striking scene with Big Ben draped in German banners, War Front doesn't look to root itself in its own alternate reality. I'm already sold on the concept: It's a winner, no doubt. Now make me a believer.
Bonus points for finally taking World War 2 in a different direction, Digital Reality. Much of the basics are intact here and make for some worthy game time. Now lose the gawky first-person mode, make the AI respond properly to enemy action, and give your viewers a macroscopic view of how this alternate history is affecting those beyond the battlefield.