I miss World War 2 games. There, I said it. I miss being part of a setting where the villains and heroes were clearly defined, where the story was punctuated by historical facts and not made up rubbish about third rate superpowers waging war against each other. But what I don’t miss are the predictable FPS clichés that have infested action games since the 90’s, where it’s linearity and dramatic set pieces attempting to ape the spectacle of a big budgeted Hollywood movies that replace freedom of choice. Thankfully, Iron Front prevents making those mistakes, though does end up making others of it’s own.
A full blown retail release of an ARMA 2 modification, Iron Front not only takes us back to the tried and tested theatre of World War II, it quickly also takes full advantage of ARMA 2’s vast scale. The result is a title that not only makes WWII feel fresh again, but also adds a nice new dynamic to the action genre by embracing the unpredictability of a limitless and huge environment.
An environment populated by an impressive array of, well, just things. Whiles there’s always scepticism surrounding the decision to turn what was originally a free, user created fan modification into a full blown retail release, Iron Front at least justifies it’s expense by looking like a retail game. It’s impressive just how much has been put in here. An entire army of German and Russian weaponry and vehicles have been recreated and put to use in an accurately moddled version of wartime western Europe.
It also come with two massive single player campaigns as both the German army, caught on the receiving end of a serious beating, and the Russians, ploughing their way through the west against their fascist foes. Both offer up a variety of missions, each exploiting the rich and huge game world open to them and quick to lay on a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. The difficulty of the ARMA game has been replicated here in full, and while there’s been some attempt to ease newcomers into the complexities of the game through some much needed (if long winded) tutorials, they shouldn’t be so nieve as to expect it to be easy.
As was the case with ARMA, this is a tough uncompromising action game, where one bullet is enough to finish you and the threat of running out of ammo is a very real problem. It also makes things much more tense, where you know every step you take can put you closer into the sights of a waiting enemy soldiers crosshair. Inevitably, that quick save and quick load button will be seeing a lot of action. It would be unwise to jump into Iron Front expecting to gun down waves of German or Russian bad guys towards a final dramatic conclusion.
This is war recreated as real as it can get, an unpredictable and deadly affair where you constantly have to be two steps ahead to be in with a chance of making it through to the next mission. Those already familiar with any of the previous ARMA games should find comfort in just how familiar it all is. The basic controls haven’t been tampered with and everything from squad controls to map reading remain as they have been throughout Bohemia’s epic wartime series, though not all of the returning features are welcome.
Squad control for instance is as cluttered and unwieldy as it ever was. Being given command of more than a couple of troops at a time is a painful and often unrewarding experience. The vast array of commands to issue can be confusing and cumbersome to deal with in the middle of a battle. Micromanagement of the fiddly controls in order to issue commands isn’t something you want to be burdened with in a game where making a tough and immediate choice on the spot is how you, and your squad, survive the mission.
Not that your squad seems to have that same love of life as you do. AI is just as fiddly and unruly. Enemies can frequently and annoyingly spot you through dense shrubbery and fire off a few rounds from behind scenery you can’t see through. Allies can be just as chaotic in their decision making process, either opting to carry out commands in their own sweet time rather than when you issue them, or falling foul of other such mind boggling stupidity such as shooting at a target through a wall, plastering a house with bullets as their target remains unscathed on the other side.
The only redeeming quality is that you’ll often not take notice of all these shenanigans, such is the scale of the war you’ll be fighting and the tense position you’ll find yourself in throughout most of the campaigns many missions. One thing Iron Front does well is take full advantage of the size of it’s huge world at every opportunity. Seldom will any objective force you down a linear path, and with wide open environments per mission, you’ve a degree of freedom that can allow numerous approaches to each objective.
It’s nice and varied too, factoring in something small such as street to street fighting as an infantry man, gunning your way from door to door of each building in some close knit combat. Another mission might put you in command of tank column, seeking out enemy armour in huge tank brawls, while another may put you in the cockpit of an aircraft for some aerial dogfights. Rarely does it become boring or dull, constantly throwing up new objectives to tackle.
It’s a far cry from the tedium of modern day shooters, where cinematic highs and short confined corridors have become all too the norm. If anything, Iron Front and it’s parent game ARMA 2 offer a glimpse of where the FPS genre should be headed, where it’s the freedom of exploration and the methods of play that convey the experience rather than a developer’s intent to match Hollywood-style grandeur.
That’s not to say all should follow in Iron Front’s footsteps, it’s a game of acquired taste, an uncompromising and realistic look at how wars are fought, where you’ll often see yourself staring at the blue sky having been felled by yet another enemy bullet. It’s challenging and difficult in equal measure, but as with ARMA, that’s part of it’s appeal, it makes you earn that victory, forcing you to tread carefully and plan ahead rather than charge in guns blazing. In that regard, those who crave more than quick high octane thrills may be better suited to try Iron Front than those seeking immediate relief from an easily accessed shooting gallery.
A complimented multiplayer mode also adds some staying power, where matches can support up to 60 players in huge maps where the numerous vehicles and weapons of the single player make an appearance, and again, it’s a difficult mode to fall into, where movement is slow and the priority is less on how quickly you can climb the scoreboard, and how long you can hold out for. An Armoury mode, allowing access to all of the vehicles and weapons to try out beyond the confines of the campaigns and multiplayer, will also eventually make an appearance, however for now it’s an option that remains greyed out and inaccessible.
But that perhaps should come after other needed improvements. The trouble with games that began life as mods is that they don’t always get released with same amount of polish as other retail games, and while it can hardly be called a buggy disaster(minus a couple of occasions of random crashes that I encountered) the game still remains a little rough around the edges. You’ll notice things such as glitchy animations and some bizarre, and often unintentionally hilarious character flaws that, while not entirely shattering the game experience on the whole, do reek of a title that could have benefited with a bit time having those creases ironed out.
Ultimately though, it’s Iron Front’s embracing of ideas first trumpeted by ARMA and it’s refusal to stick to the tried and tested norms of the FPS genre that win out in the end. It might not be the best looking game, it might not be the easiest to get into, and on occasions it may even make you curse at the screen for the amount of times that you find yourself screaming in frustration at being killed time and again, but it’s endearing, and above all else, feels fresh and new. In an age where not even major publishers can get a break by churning out the same high production value products because of over familiarity, it’s refreshing to see someone try and break the mould, warts n’ all.
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