Sure, helicopters are cool and all, but sometimes you just have to deliver a message with a really, really big bullet. From a really, really big gun. Mounted on a really, really armored monster.
Germany wanted to send just such a message to the Soviet Union. The Soviets replied in kind. It probably went something like this:
Soviet Union: “Have a cocktail.”
Germany: “Is it getting cold in here?”
Frontline is an RTS that allows the user to engage in just such a conversation, from either the German or Soviet side. Sure, there is infantry and artillery and planes and stuff but the real action is tanks. You’ll be driving your tanks around battlefields mowing down fences, trees, orphanages – anything you can catch. If you can’t catch it, you’ll blast the holy beejeezus out of it with your giant gun. Testosterone will flow and blood will spill, and at some point you’ll wake up in jail facing charges for punching your sister.
The interface will not get in your way. Everything is very RTS-standard: big map, mini map, left-click, right-click, group select, and so on. The designers made it a point to not get tricky with the controls (or in fact, with very much else). In this case that’s a good thing. The learning curve to simply play the game is not steep. In fact, if you played Blitzkrieg you are pretty much set.
Single-player is basically a series of missions strung together into a campaign. The Germans get one, and the Soviets get one. Your progress is tracked and you can be awarded medals for doing good things. These medals hang around in a “locker” that sticks with you from mission to mission, which makes for some nice feedback. The single-player experience is not an afterthought here as it is in so many recent RTSs. In fact, multi-player only has one game type: Capture the Flag.
Each scenario is based more-or-less upon actual historical events. Your mission briefing will provide an outline of what the situation is along with a description of the historical setting. Of course the mission is generally “kill everybody else”, but that’s rather historically accurate in itself. The game as a whole goes for historical accuracy. According to the designers, each unit has been adjusted for realism – things like armor-piercing ability, speed, rate of fire, etc. An in-game “encyclopedia” is provided that describes each of the units in the game (and some that aren’t).
This penchant for realism leads into one of the game’s bigger flaws. Simply put, it’s too hard. RTSs have a well-earned reputation for being light on the strategy end of things. Apparently Nival took that as a personal challenge. After the first couple dozen times trying to beat a mission (the missions can play out differently even when being replayed, so not much knowledge can be brought forward) one wishes they had included a difficulty setting. There is no resource gathering, just reinforcements who arrive on a set schedule, so the margin for error (or even bad luck) is slim.
It all looks pretty good, though. It is great fun to destroy the landscape. Trees can be crushed, fences flattened and verdant fields churned up by tank treads. Want to burn a village down? Who doesn’t? The landscape is gorgeous, actually affects gameplay (through line-of-sight rules, for example) and appears to be fully blow-uppable. There are limits to the graphics – several different versions of the same type of thing are oftem indistinguishable. For example, different types of anti-tank guns can appear very similar. Luckily time can be paused and clicking on the unit in question clears up the problem.
In playing this game, your humble reviewer found that at first, it was a lot of fun. After repeated butt-kicking (in which the reviewer was the kickee) some of the bloom came off the rose. Thoughts started wandering through the reviewer’s head. The (few) non-sexual ones included: “I’d bet this would be more fun in multi-player”, “This might make a good gift for somebody new to RTSs”, “Do I really need another WW2 RTS?”, and “I’m hungry”.