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Posted on Nov 5, 2004 in Stuff We Like

Reaching Towards Realism: A Survey of World War II Tactical 3D RTS

By Jim Cobb

World War II: Frontline Command

Publisher Strategy First and developer The Bitmap Brothers tried to hit a homerun in 2003 with World War II: Frontline Command ( They had the distance but fouled out. This product is an exercise in failed opportunities, rife with innovation but weak on the basics.

Covering American operations from D-Day to the end of the war, units represent squads or single specialists and vehicles with primary and secondary weapons and the usual health bar. Nice additions include morale (units may refuse orders) and ammunitions levels for artillery and special weapons. A very nice feature is the concept of “shared line-of-sight” in which any unit cam spot for an indirect fire unit. Smoke grenades are given a limited role by recon groups. Ambushes are easy to create and useful for dealing with the stupid AI.


Two levels of play define difficulty. The recruit level has twelve missions in three blocks of four missions each while the veteran level has 25 missions in five blocks. Individual missions can be chosen within a block but a set number of missions must be accomplished before the next block becomes available. Veteran missions are marked by having less troops than at the recruit level and more objectives per mission.

The graphics represent an enormous improvement over previous games. Different types of men are easily identified and the terrain, although polygonal, captures the essence of the field. The fog-of-war is just that; a fog instead of a dark filter. Camera controls include pan, zoom, rotate and tilt. This game shows the way for graphics in this genre. One point where graphics fail is the mini-map, which is too small and dark to be of much use.

Initially, the interface seems great also. Instead of a static menu bar at the bottom of the screen, right clicking brings up an order ring that gives quick access to targeting, movement stances and formations. Context sensitive cursor tooltips yield fast information on movements and special functions such as grenade attacks. Red circles mark weapon ranges with ranges adjusted for weapon type. Veteran players may have some difficulty with left clicking for both selecting and targeting but they’ll soon adapt. All functions can also be done through hotkeys. A small glitch occurs when activating secondary weapons. A tiny main weapon icon in the bottom left of the screen represents each unit. Players must click on them to bring up the secondary weapon and then move to the secondary’s icon. This combination is very tedious and harms play. Fortunately, use of the ALT key accomplishes the same thing. The usual “lasso” convention for making groups is present. Sound effects ar good. Weapons and vehicles make authentic noises. Voices confirm orders while avoiding unnecessary nattering.

So far, Frontline Command’s system seems great but then it shatters on one huge rock: game speed. This game only has one speed and no in-game pause command. Therefore, combat turns into the dreaded “click fest”. The game pace is languid enough for movement to contact but, when combat begins, the player hardly has time to issue orders to one group, not to mention coordinating moves of several groups. This flaw not only substitutes reflexes for tactics but make the player handle one group at a time, reminiscent of a limited board game system. Any attempt at authenticity goes by the board because of this.

The designers must have felt that one flaw deserves several more as a critical eye picks up more mistakes that could have been forgiven had game speed been better. Gross faux pas include equipping every engineer unit with bazookas as a primary weapon, having American jeeps tow the large British 17-pounder howitzer and assuming every unit can communicate with indirect fire units to the rear. Submachine gun units are separate from other squads, contrary to American practice. Paradrops are not scattered. A single bazooka round can wipe out an entire infantry squad and tank armor is not differentiated by front, side or rear aspects. The usual mistakes of any troops operating captured equipment as if they had already read the manual and supply, repair and medical attention being fast and complete are also made. The AI is just fair defensively and rarely attacks.

Frontline Command also suffers from a narrowness of scope and rigidity of choice. Too many missions seem to be of the commando variety with troops dropping behind enemy lines to capture documents instead of plausible tactical problems. Limiting players to only American troops in 1944 cuts down on replay value and the “unlocking” system of entering missions adds a role-playing element without core units to follow along through the missions. Players who are interested in the Battle of the Bulge must play several missions before getting to their point of interest. On-line play is limited to GameSpy Arcade. Finally, this game uses the insidious Starforce copy protection system that installs a possible damaging hidden system device without the player’s knowledge.

This product is as frustrating to review as it is to play. Elements of it are groundbreaking and should be staples in World War II RTS games but, due to the lack of pause to give commands and a myriad of easily correctable mistakes, serious gamers should not bother with this even as a lark. Those hardy souls who want to bulldoze through the missions any way should visit for good, thorough walkthroughs.

A shelled town is a melancholy thing.

The red-and-green symbol shows that the mortar fire hitting the bridge is using “shared line-of-sight”.

An illuminated arc shows the kill zone of an ambush.

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