The danger of driving a tank into battle is that if you get out to pee, your enemy might drive off with it. THQ and Kaos Studios (who, as Trauma Studios, were responsible for the popular Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942 and collaborated with DICE on Battlefield 2) know this, because they essentially jumped into EA's Battlefield franchise when no one was looking and renamed it Frontlines: Fuel of War. Although this tactic wasn't particularly creative, in a console generation that hasn't seen many Battlefield-type games, the outcome is a refreshing return to large-scale combat. With some wonky physics and a weak single-player campaign, Frontlines doesn't beat Battlefield at its own game, but at least someone is giving us the chance to run over people with tanks, borrowed or not.
The most important part of Frontlines is its lone online multiplayer mode, also called frontlines. Like in any Battlefield game, this mode has you and the enemy vying for control of specific points on various maps. Unlike in Battlefield, only a few of these points are available for contention at any given time. You see, every map is divided into two sides by a battle line, and only points along this line are open for business. By capturing all of these points, you push the line deeper into enemy territory, to the next group of points. If you push the line all the way back to the enemy's base and capture it, you win the game.
This is an interesting approach to Battlefield gameplay, with some awesome strengths and a few head-scratching weaknesses. The beauty of this scheme is that every battle, at any given time, focuses nicely on either one or just a few spots. So if you're in a game with a bunch of strangers, you can still count on everybody being on the same page, given that there are only a couple that they could possibly be on. Another thing that's nice about this setup is that you generally know where the enemy will be coming from and where they'll be going, so you don't have to constantly watch your back.
On the flipside, it seems silly that you can't do anything useful from within enemy territory (other than hunker down at their spawn points and pick off recently defeated enemy players as soon as they jump back into the world). It just doesn't make sense that area C would be worth controlling only if you also have areas A and B. Furthermore, considering that all of the fighting is based around particular spawn points, you yourself will get killed off the moment you spawn into the world...a lot. Of course, there are ways around this (such as choosing to spawn in at a different point), but all the same, it sucks to wait through one long respawn time just to get zapped and wait through another.
Before a battle, and any time you die, you can choose a loadout and a role type. The loadouts, of which there are six, determine the weapons you carry. For instance, if you choose the sniper loadout, you'll get a sniper rifle and a pistol. If you go antivehicle, you'll get a rocket launcher and a couple of other guns. All of these have their intended purposes, but they are far from equal. The heavy-assault loadout, with its huge, accurate machine gun, is far more powerful and versatile than any other, whereas the sniper rifle is generally useless due to its lack of stopping power. Balancing issues aside, it would make more sense for you to be able to pick up other peoples' guns.
However, the role types are one of Frontlines' most interesting aspects. Each role confers three extra abilities on the player; you start with one of them, and earn the other two by doing normal stuff such as killing people and capturing points. One of the coolest roles lets you control three different types of unmanned combat drones. These are essentially RC cars and choppers covered with bombs and sometimes armed with rockets. Other roles let you repair vehicles, call down air strikes, or nullify enemy electronics. These aren't particularly balanced, either (setting up a grenade turret is pretty futile if someone decides to send an air strike at you), but on the other hand it's nice to always have some kind of powerful ability at your disposal.
You also have lots of vehicles, from jeeps to tanks to aircraft, and they all respawn really fast. The catch is that they tend to spawn only at your base, which is hopefully far from the front line. However, most vehicles have two gears (slow and breakneck), so getting where you're going never takes long, and it can actually be a pretty fun ride. That is, until you run over some physics. You know this has happened when you try to drive over an abutment and your giant tank gets stuck pointing straight up in the air. Tricky terrain aside, the vehicles are powerful and fun to use, but easily destroyed by rockets or heavy fire.
Frontlines' controls, both in vehicles and on foot, are very generic. You zoom with a click of a stick, throw grenades with the L trigger, shoot with the right, and change weapons in a radial menu that can be brought up at the push of a button. Nothing is new or exciting, but everything works. The same can be said for the online play. Running around in tanks and capturing points isn't a new concept, and you can say the same for calling in air strikes, but chances are it's been a while since you've done either, and it's as fun as you remember.
The Battlefield games were never able to deliver a good single-player experience, and Frontlines unfortunately inherited that distinction as well. The campaign tells the story of a future in which only one oil field remains in the world, so everyone gets into a fight over it. The plot isn’t all that impressive; it unfolds with narrative lines like: "It all began in that hot, hot summer of 2008." The intro cinematic isn't quite that impressive, either; soldiers and a journalist trade tough-guy banter in a chopper that gets shot down and crash-lands you right into World War III.
Anyway, the single-player campaign has you running around with guns, shooting dumb enemies, and capturing control points. For a game so heavily invested in online multiplayer, this isn't bad single-player content, but it isn't really worth your time, either. Once you play online, you'll probably never spend another minute in the campaign again.
The graphics lack the level of visual fidelity you'll find in top-shelf games such as Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War, but they still look pretty good. There's serious fog of war in a few of the levels, but on the other hand, many of the environments look awesomely apocalyptic, with skeletal sky scrapers and floating pieces of debris. The sounds are also fine for the most part, and in particular the heavy machine gun sounds amazing. It has the audible impact of a jackhammer, which makes it one of the most entertaining virtual guns we've ever fired.
EA and DICE will inevitably be back to reclaim their prized war machine at some point, but in the meantime we're glad THQ and Kaos Studios knocked off some of its rust and took it for a spin as Frontlines: Fuel of War. The online battlefield mode is fun and refreshing, the battle-line scheme is interesting (albeit limiting), and the single-player campaign is predictably worthless. Consequently, the biggest problem is paying top dollar for a used tank when you've probably already had this experience before.