Reviewed: July 27, 2003
Released: June 26, 2003
I’ve been a fan of the Bitmap Brothers for nearly 15 years, playing games like Xenon and Speedball and their sequels as well as the infamous Gods. I still have those games, although the only thing harder than getting them to work on a modern PC would be finding them in my 20-year stash of software. Needless to say I was quite excited when I dropped in on the Strategy First booth at E3 this year and learned that the Bitmap Brothers were back with a new war game that was about to redefine the RTS genre.
World War II: Frontline Command might just seem like another battlefield strategy game on the surface, and in some ways it probably is, but there are so many innovative new features and gameplay elements that have been worked into the title that there is little room for comparison.
I’m not a huge fan of the RTS genre, in fact, the last RTS game I played and enjoyed enough to actually complete was Sudden Strike, coincidentally another WWII game from Strategy First. It’s taken two years for someone to come up with a game creative enough to spark my jaded interest in the genre and keep me engrossed for nearly three weeks now.
Perhaps much of my unexpected interest and enjoyment with this title is due to the unique way that the designers have blended in all of the best parts of all the other RTS games that have come before it. Veteran gamers will spot the inclusion of elements from games like Commandos, Sudden Strike, and Close Combat, but rather than simply combining these devices and releasing yet another strategy game, they have used them as a core then improved upon and added a few new features of their own.
The heart of any game is the controls, or in the case of an RTS game, the interface, and Frontline Command features perhaps the best interface of any strategy game to date. The tutorial gives you a rudimentary crash course on moving, combat, vehicles, artillery, and camera control before dumping you into a 1944 war-torn Europe just before D-Day.
You can use the mouse almost exclusively to play this game thanks to one of the most intelligent context-sensitive control schemes I’ve had the pleasure of using. You simply left-click on a unit then left-click on a target, object, destination or anything else in the game and 95% of the time the default action is the one you wanted. Clicking on a halftrack will have your men climb aboard, but clicking on a supply truck will have them stock-up on ammo or a medical jeep will heal them.
For more advanced moves like having your men crawl, organize into formations, or force them to attack a neutral target you right-click the unit to bring up the intuitive medallion interface then click on the appropriate symbol to perform the desired action. Symbols are logical and obvious like the eject symbol that you find on any VCR used to eject your troops from vehicles or relinquish control over artillery units.
To add to the realism and complexity is the sheer number of units at your disposal, 23 authentic unit types per side. Learning to use all these units individually and as an organized team is paramount to victory and a lesson you will learn even in the first mission. In that particular mission you have to escort a team of engineers to a radar station. You have three engineers and three groups of infantry to protect them. It takes a bit of strategy and planning to figure out the best placement of the riflemen so they can protect themselves and the engineers while they plant their explosives.
But this is only the simplest of examples. In later missions you will be organizing massive assaults using multiple units of various types, planning ambushes, infiltrating deep into enemy territory to assassinate high-ranking officers, and other exciting missions. There are 25 missions in all that can be played either in the 4-block, 12-mission “recruit” mode where difficulty is a bit easier and you don’t have to concern yourself with things like ammo, or the 5-block “veteran” mode that offers all 25 missions where you must complete 20 of them to win the game. This gives you the options to skip any single mission in each of the five blocks.
Missions are broken down into primary and secondary objectives. Secondary objectives are optional and only available in the “veteran” mode, but if you complete them you will get certain advantages in future missions. There is a bit of strategy involved in the way you complete these objectives, as once the primary objectives are resolved the mission is over. This means you need to complete any secondary goals prior to finishing the primaries.
Anyone who has played an RTS game in the last three years will know about the “fog of war”, that perpetual mist or haze that obscures your vision and allows you only to see what the units under your control can see. Frontline Command takes this concept to new and more authentic heights with an ultra-realistic sight and sound detection system. It’s similar to the gameplay in Close Combat but much more advanced, and in a brilliant touch the fog is actually a gray mist that floats above the battlefield. This is much nicer and realistic than the traditional blackout zones of those other games.
Troops and especially vehicles have various lines and range of sight and sound detection. The game is a true 3D world so your LOS (line of sight) is limited and obstructed by buildings, bushes, trees, etc. This allows for the innovative SLOS (shared line of sight) feature where additional units can be used to increase the visual range of other units. This is especially useful for tanks that already have a narrow and limited field of vision. By using a foot soldier as a “spotter” you can quickly locate and target enemies that would otherwise be undetectable. This also works for artillery and mortar units giving them a much greater range and effectiveness. Of course, if you lose your spotter the SLOS system breaks down rendering the units that rely on the chain useless until you get a new spotter in place or reposition the unit. There are even a few enhancements to the SLOS system such as binoculars and sniper scopes to give you even greater viewing range.
Just as inventive as the SLOS is the implementation of a morale system for each of your units. This controls how motivated your soldiers are and how fast they carry out your orders. When morale is high your men are much more aggressive and will viciously attack anything that comes into their area of awareness. They can even go into “hero mode” and perform daring actions entirely on their own. When their comrades start dropping troop morale will drop right along with them and your men will become more unsure, their accuracy will go down, and there may be a delay or even a refusal to take your orders. You can boost morale by completing objectives, keeping your men together, or having a commander or armored support in proximately.
As previously mentioned, the available selection of units is quite impressive and the level of detail is equally as impressive, both visually and behind the scenes. Each unit has armor, speed, and weapon power attributes, and both men and vehicles will often have secondary weapons or attack modes. Infantry can toss grenades and engineers can plant explosive TNT charges.
To further enhance the realism you can have your men hide inside buildings and setup elaborate ambushes. You can hide them in the trees and bushes and put them in a defensive mode to attack anything that comes into their “cone of influence”. Troops in defensive mode are harder to hit and more accurate but they are also stationary targets and unable to pursue the enemy or track them outside of their assigned defensive cone.
As perfect as Frontline Command may sound there are a few notable flaws you will encounter early on and they will follow your throughout your tour of duty. The first of these is unit organization. Rather than control individual men units are comprised of a squad that you can select and order at will. You are often in control of multiple units and while you can easily organize individual squads into one of several formations you cannot organize the entire group of units. This means that if you drag a selection box around six units (squads) and click a destination each squad will take their own path toward that target while remaining in the precise layout in relation to each other that they were in when you issued the order. While the path selection routine in this game is intelligent and well visualized, you normally don’t want your army moving in mass in some spread out pattern. This means you will be doing a lot of minor tweaking to individual units to get them in just the right position before executing mass movement orders.
Another annoyance was the omission of any way to select “like” units. In most RTS games you can double-click a unit to select all units of that type. This is an effective method for quickly locating scattered troops and regrouping them. You do have the ability to group units of any type together and assign them a hotkey. This is a great way to assign a protective squad to a weaker engineer or “attach” a commander to a group of men to boost morale. Keep in mind that your groups will move around maintaining the same positions relative to each other that they were in when they were grouped. This means you will want to organize each unit and get them into position before assigning them a hotkey.
Micromanaging exact unit placement isn’t the only thing that can get a bit repetitive and even annoying in this game. Moving long distances on your belly – something you will do often – takes considerable time. A time acceleration button would have been welcome. There are also other mundane tasks that while realistic are equally as boring. Moving around artillery units requires you to hitch the gun to a jeep or halftrack and drive it to the new location. You will also need to man the weapon with at least three men.
There is an excellent multiplayer component that supports LAN and Internet play using GameSpy for up to four commanders. You have a few standard options such as picking the maps, both single player and custom multiplayer maps, choosing axis or allies, limiting the amount of money available for purchasing units, and choosing the difficulty, but there is a disturbing lack of gameplay options. They do give you an assassination mode that lets you win the game by killing the other commanders, but otherwise you win by defeating all of the other troops. It would have been nice to have some objective based multiplayer options like trying to control multiple points on a map, retake control over a town, or something a bit more original.
It’s been awhile since I played an RTS game and this is the first that has actually been in real 3D. I’ve played plenty of isometric and 2D games that can be viewed from multiple angles but this is the first where terrain, buildings, and even individual units are actual 3D entities. By making the game in real 3D you have unlimited control over the camera, both panning and zooming. The only feature that I found lacking was a way to lock the camera to a unit so it scrolled with my men.
Individual unit details are excellent. The tanks, jeeps, halftrack, guns, and variety of soldiers are all modeled with extreme care and detail right down to the insignia. The terrain textures can get a bit repetitive in the wide open areas, but there are excellent trees, bushes, and the landscape is populated with farmhouses, fences, rivers, and just about anything else you would expect to find in the European countryside.
The cities and smaller towns are all well designed with a variety of buildings and other structures to make them not only believable but functional as well. Many of the buildings are able to house your men giving them added protection and allowing them to orchestrate ambushes on enemy troops. There is a country charm and even some authentic English architectural elements used in the design of these buildings.
Animation is pretty good. The vehicles are a bit jerky when they turn, almost as if some giant invisible kid was playing “war” and moving them with his hand. The men move around realistically and drop to their annoyingly slow crawl or sprint across the hillside. They’ll man weapons or pile into a transport or medial unit.
Special effects are limited to bullet tracers and the occasional explosion when you toss a grenade, fire a cannon, plant explosives, or use the heavier weapons. Buildings will explode and end up in smoking ruins but there is a disturbing lack of persistent fire after the initial blast. Charred dead bodies will litter the battlefield bringing home the horrors of war.
Other nice touches include a stunning interface that shows health, ammo, and morale in various colored unit bars. The unit icons along the bottom of the screen give ammo counts and even your hotkey numbers are shown when selecting units. The medallion interface is graphically intuitive with simple icons and the context-sensitive cursor changes to reflect the default action that will occur when you left-click the mouse.
I must commend the designers for digging up some excellent archival footage from the war. This is really good stuff, all black and white of course and grainy with age. I’m not a huge history buff but I do watch the History Channel from time to time, and a lot of the archival material in this game is footage I have never seen before.
Frontline Command runs at all of the popular resolutions all the way up to 1600x1200. You’ll need a pretty decent rig to run the game that high but at the more moderate resolutions the game plays flawlessly on the listed statistics. It even supports FSAA eliminating a lot of the jaggies at lower resolutions.
The music and sound are much better than I normally expect for these types of games. The soundtrack is some good authentic war music with military themes that you would hear during any documentary or war flick.
Sound effects include the whine of jeeps, the rumble of tanks, and the resounding boom of the big guns followed by satisfactory explosions. There is a modest amount of voice work, basically units confirming their orders, so you will hear “Yes Sir” until you are ready to scream.
RTS veterans will quickly adapt to the new gameplay devices used in this title and finish the 12-mission “recruit” mode in 10-15 hours. Missions range from very short to moderately long, but nothing really takes more than an hour unless you fail and have to replay. The “veteran” mode is a bit more challenging. The AI is a bit tougher, you have limited ammo and are forced to rearm and repair damaged units, and you also have to complete 20 out of 25 possible mission to win the campaign.
The block design of the mission structure allows you to go back and replay any of the missions in a particular block once you have finished that block. Each mission is scored and you can keep track of your best efforts. The game also supports multiple profiles so several people can play the game without encroaching on another player’s progress.
The multiplayer modes may offer a bit of additional gameplay for hardcore gamers. Personally, I found them a bit lacking in purpose and really wasn’t motivated to play the game online outside of what was required for this review. There’s just better stuff out there to occupy my online gaming time. While you get the benefits of GameSpy you also need to make sure everyone has at least the recommended stats, if not the optimum stats, before trying to play this game online. There is a lot going on and a dial-up connect just isn’t going to cut it.
It’s been over a decade since I played a Bitmap Brothers game and after several weeks playing World War II: Frontline Command I now remember why I love these guys so much. They have been making quality games since they first appear on the scene and this one is no different. You can tell that the designers have looked at everything currently available and borrowed all the best parts, improved on a few, and added a few new features that are sure to be “borrowed” by the next big RTS game to come out.
The few flaws I did notice are more oversights than anything else, easily correctible in a future patch if they choose to do so, and are just as easily overshadowed by the quality gameplay and exciting mission designs. If you love war games or just RTS games in general then you won’t find anything better than Frontline Command.