WWII: Frontline Command
What do the Bitmap Brothers and REM have in common? Well, back in the eighties both were incredibly creative groups of people who blazed such trails through their chosen artform that their many imitators only made the genius of the originals all the more apparent. The nineties saw them make the leap from critical to commercial acclaim. Then things nose-dived. REM's last album was pleasant enough, but could have been recorded by just about anyone, so devoid of the sparkle of originality and inspiration that defined their earlier albums. Saying that, they were still an amazing live act at this year's T in the Park. Sadly for the Bitmap Brothers there is no equivalent to the stage so we are left with just their studio efforts, and this, their latest, is not going to be bothering any awards ceremonies this year.
WWII games have always been popular, and for good reason. Lots of fighting, nasty baddies and a historical context which can make the whole experience more visceral. That Spielberg film really opened the gates for the developers of these games; the number of WWII themed titles in the last five years is truly impressive. Some have been good, some great, and many have been as useful as a Sherman tank taking on a Tiger II head on. And, it pains me to say, the BBs have added another title to the latter group. Some of my favourite gaming moments of all time have been had while struggling to overcome the challenges set in one of their many utterly classic titles. So when it was revealed that their next project was going to be a take on the Close Combat games, but in real-time 3D and with a complex morale system to portray the delilabating effects of combat on the fighting men, I was more then a little joyous. Their last game, Z2, was a beautiful if somewhat overly intense futuristic RTS with some interesting alternatives to the standard design path of most developers. So how the hell have they managed to make such an ugly, cumbersome and plain just-not-much-fun game?
Everything seems fine at first, from a nice mood setting newsreel style intro, to plenty of setup options, the inclusion of multiple play modes and integrated multiplayer through the patchy GameSpy system. The first mission has you taking command of a small group of paratroopers, engaged with the task of eliminating a radar installation to help pave the way for the invasion of Normandy. Things are still looking rosy here, as the game engine initially brings about a sense of admiration. There's a reasonable amount of background detail, a proper fog-of-war and line of sight system, and the basic pleasure to be had from controlling little WWII mannies as they crawl and run across a landscape teeming with Nazi scum. The terrain shows the progressive damage of battle and almost any structure can be reduced to rubble. However as you progress through the game, the blandness of the colours becomes all too apparent and the depressing lack of variety in the battlefields begins to disappoint. It's all very murky and muddy, like an attempt was made to recreate the filtered colours of Saving Private Ryan. But then where's the splash of red blood to offer some contrast?
Now of course it's unfair to criticize a game solely on it graphical shortcomings, but the problems with the engine don't limit themselves to the aesthetics. The line-of-sight system can cause real problems. Now, the idea of having groups of soldiers sneakily crawl alongside the brocage to launch a surprise attack on the enemy is appealing, but when even your commander with his 'binocular' special ability can only see about a screen and a half across the battlefield the player soon gets a feeling of detachment from the struggles that are going on. Skirmishes occur with frightening randomness, and the enemy doesn't seem to suffer from the same sense of tactical unawareness as the player, so carefully planned coordinated strikes are often ruined by the sudden appearance of an 88 or some panzergrenadiers. The actual control system is a right pain as well. Radial systems can work very well - see Neverwinter Nights - but for them to work the detection system has to be just right. Which it isn't - selecting any option is a hit and miss affair, something that is unacceptable in a close combat game. The number of times I thought I'd selected a group of soldiers to be the vanguard of a new assault on that gun emplacement only to find that they'd not heard my shouted orders and preferred to sit around smoking fags and taking about their girlfriends was exasperatingly high. The whole control system was very sluggish on top of the selection difficulties, bearing a level of unresponsiveness that drove me to distraction.
The much heralded moral system is also a total let down. Your soldiers are supposed to perform heroic actions when the battle has been going well and to cower in terror when all they can see around them is the gradual dismemberment of their buddies. Well they do get a little star above their heads sometimes. Apart from that I couldn't really notice much going on. There was also supposed to be a very precise simulation of the capabilities of all the weapons and vehicles used in the war. My arse. Don't attack tanks at the front seems to be the extent that that myth ties in with reality.
Now, the game isn't a total disaster. There are a good few missions to get your way through, from the initial softening up before D-Day right through to the subsequent romp across Western Europe, and some levels are well enough designed to take your mind off the problems of the systems used to play the game. Operation Market Garden makes an appearance, as does a Utah Beach level, now a standard inclusion in any WWII game; even if it concentrates on the industrial efforts on the homefront every game must have a D-Day massacre level. The multi-layered control system shows much promise in ideas even if it has been so poorly let down in its execution. Each soldier has a special ability, from bazooka guys with their TNT charge to the grunts grenade attack. Fields of fire can be easily set up and flanks guarded with ease. It's just when things start to move about that matters become a problem.
WWII Frontline Command cries out for a second chance. With some serious reworking of the detection system and some enhancements to both the look and the performance of the engine the great ideas that are undeniably present could be allowed to shine through. Unfortunately there are other parts of the game which don't work very well, so it seems a sequel is going to be the only form of salvation as the problems will require more then a simple patch. However, judging by the poor commercial reception for the last few titles out of the Bitmap Brothers, it would seem increasingly likely that these greats of the computer gaming world may have to finally hang up their keyboards. Either that or get back to the pure and simple games that they used to make so well. I certainly know which of those two options I would most like to see. Xenon 3000 anyone?