It’s late in a mission: your forces are outnumbered two to one. In a final desperate attempt to win, you hurl a grenade at the feet of your collected enemy forces. As the grenade slowly arcs through the air, you celebrate your victory. That is, until it explodes, causing foes to cry out like roosters before they expire. Death cries are a satisfying part of battle in strategy games. The final breaths of your foe released into one audible scream, allowing you to take pride in the slaughter of your foes. That is, unless they sound like poultry while doing it. Sadly, the pained screams of the opposing forces are the least of your worries in Frontline Tactics, a free-to-play turn-based strategy title from developer Full Control.
The first mission in Frontline Tactics left a bad taste in our mouth. “Environments” in the game consist of a flat square or rectangular surface hovering in a limitless void. Units, friendly and opposing alike, look blocky and dated, while textures look like brown watercolor smears on the ground. Each new environment seemed to be even browner than the last. The only song in the game is a 20 second-long loop of a synthesized rock riff, while in-game levels are devoid of any noise that isn’t coming from your comical-sounding weaponry. Had this been 2002, it would have been unimpressive. But these days, this little effort going into the presentation of Frontline Tactics is just offensive.
One thing Frontline Tactics does well is teach you how to play. The token tutorial mission is the first mission, which means there isn’t a silly training course to go through. Full Control knows who’s going to be playing this game and wants them to experience the action. When new variables are introduced to the game, so are tutorial windows explaining how that variable will change the game. It’s a very smooth ride from beginner to veteran.
Combat works, though it’s not necessarily exciting. All units on the battlefield take turns according to a counter in the upper-left corner of the screen. When it’s time to take control, you can move your unit to a new position, attack enemies, or take advantage of the interesting innovations Frontline Tactics introduces. When placing a unit against a wall or similar surface, they’ll take cover, allowing them to avoid a great deal of bullets flying their way. It’s not foolproof, however, as the AI is very good at flanking your team to strike them where they’re vulnerable. The kind of strategies the enemy AI uses are very impressive, even at the easiest difficulty.
Early on, there’s very little variety in the missions. However, as we progressed, objectives that differed from “kill ‘em all” began popping up. As nice as this change of pace sounds, these objectives are still of the bland “defend this spot,” “capture this spot,” “leave this map alive,” or “capture this spot and defend this spot” type. The variety was absent.
The biggest draw of the game, however, is the price. Entry to Frontline Tactics is free, though you are given several options for paying (if that’s your sort of thing). Sadly, there is no minimum level for any items in the game, meaning that a guy who wanted to spend a large sum of money could theoretically own the best equipment in the entire game before even playing the tutorial.
Sadly, the multiplayer experience offered here gave us one of two experiences: a person who never spent a dime on the game, and was thus a dull match with a person on equal footing, or Richie Rich, whose equipment utterly tore us to shreds in a matter of turns. It’s nice that you can close the game and play a match on another time (reminiscent of Hero Academy), and even have a few games running at once, but this kind of imbalance between players ruins the experience for the side that wants to stick to the free side of things.
Had multiplayer been the only part of the game you could “pay to win,” then maybe the game’s single player mode could be redeemed. Sadly, after a dozen solo missions, you’ll be opposed by forces with the kind of weaponry you couldn’t have without grinding out out more credits. We went back to play easier missions and slowly eke out credits to finish the tougher missions, but ran into more of these walls in the game where the game clearly wanted us to drop some money for better equipment.
Free-to-play games are becoming a trend on the PC. Team Fortress 2 and Tribes: Ascend have both shown success with the formula, offering equipment and cosmetic items for sale. What makes these two games different from Frontline Tactics, however, is the fact that TF2 and Tribes have no straight upgrades – other weapons are other options, not upgrades. Everything for sale in Frontline Tactics improves the characters, and the fact that there are no restrictions on equipment use means there will always being a line of imbalance at its core. The clear lack of effort that went into Frontline Tactics is astounding: the dated graphics, abhorrent sound design, and little variety in gameplay create an experience akin to playing in garbage. Of course, playing in real garbage is free.
A code for 400,000 in-game credits (that redeemed but did not accumulate) was provided for this Frontline Tactics review.