What's a man to do if he's bored with Arma 2, and tired of Day Z, but still wants meticulous rifle-toting in Bohemia's soldier sim engine? Should he look to history and pick up X1's Iron Front: Liberation 1944? Or is this a trip to the Eastern front too many? Here's wot I think.
Iron Front, with patriotic solider sim blood pumping in its veins, has charged out in the open, and is now exposed from all angles to headshots of leaden criticism. There will be the standard charges levelled at this, which are frequently levelled at its parent military sim, Arma 2, which is that it is fiddly, clunky, and occasionally buggy. And those charges won't be baseless – I've seen a crash to desktop with this, the release version of the game – but they will generally miss the point. There are plenty of fine World War II shooters, yes, and many of them are both atmospheric and slick, but what Iron Front does is something quite different – it tries to make a sim of that experience, with dramatic consequences. This is not a traditional FPS, despite its scripted campaign, and the real meat lies in the editor and the multiplayer, and not the two campaigns that the development team have clearly invested so much time in.
What we have here is an all-encompassing World War II sim, that does more for Eastern Front battle antics than a couple of years of wargame releases. That's not to say this comes without problems, and further opportunities for criticism. But we'll get to that.
Let's look at those two campaigns for a moment. They're set in 1944, with the Nazis tryign to hold off the Red Army attacks. You can play from the Nazi perspective, or from the Red Army perspective, and the situations that face you ramp up from small scale infantry engagements, to full-blown battlefields with aircraft and angry houses. Arma 2 handles this range of situations marvellously, but the experience is one that seems constantly hampered by the lack of vision from the designers. The trick to making campaigns work in an open-ended world like this one, is to stage your set pieces in situations where the player really gets to feel a part of action. Hell, even if the AI completes the objective, try and get the player in a position where he can see some of what is going on. Iron Front doesn't often make that possible.
Yes, it routinely feels like a shonky mock up. The missions unravel bafflingly, while smaller issues make it feel like it has not had even basic player-annoying problems addressed. The Panzerfaust I had picked up from a previous part of mission is on my back – modelled accurately, as per Arma 2's methodology – but that means when I go prone, to avoid being shot, the blast shield from the thing drops in front of my face. I am forced to go into the gear menu and jettison it just to see where I am going. By this time I've been shot by Russian riflemen I will never see. Yes, the campaign experience hangs between dry simulation and parodic slapstick. (The voice acting and so-forth is enthusiastic, but predictable awful.)
Reload. Reload. Reload. The excruciating grind of this campaign reminds us of why the Arma campaigns never really work. For reasons of persistence and so forth, multiplayer games do not seem to face this precisely problem. The extreme lethality of the world, particularly here, make being booted back to a save point into an agonising experience.
This too will bring criticism to bear on the game. If there are better, more convincing single-player World War II experiences out there, what am I really buying?
Which brings the focus of my fingers to the typing of the multiplayer passages: I've struggled a bit with the multiplayer aspect of this game, basically because there were few available multiplayer servers. Once I'd played a game of co-op with a pair of surly Russians, got into a public game with a lot of European folk, and spent some time messing about in the editor (you never really understand these games until you've spammed a map with tanks and watched it play out), it was clear that there's huge scope for interest and entertainment here. The game is crammed with tanks, planes, and infantry paraphernalia. A huge chunk of the hardware from the Eastern Front is available to mission makers, and the maps themselves are large and excellent. While you'll spot some standard assets that appear in Arma 2, there's also plenty of bespoke stuff. I lost hours to the editor, just as I did with Arma 2. I'll never make anything workable, but who cares – sometimes you just want to make an exploding tank zoo.
And, fucking hell, I know I am a nerd for maps and huge open game environments, but this is almost worth buying for the big slices of Eastern Europe it portrays. I had a poke about in one of the Polish towns, and every building could be explored. The potential for urban warfare is enormous. ENORMOUS. I sat on a hill and watched Red Army and Wehrmacht do murder on each other.
All this, however, brings us to the final, critical volley. There's another group of critics that Iron Front is also exposed to, and they are the Arma players who point out that the game already has extensive World War II modifications, brimming with additional assets, so why would anyone need to buy this, a commercial version? That's a tough question, and one that I don't have answer for. The game's developers and publishers will point to the wealth of additional planes and artillery piece, the maps, and the campaigns, and so on. But that doesn't really seem like enough when the Arma 2 community has already produced so much of that for free. And the many rough edges are not going to convince any casual players, either.
No, Arma II is not short of World War II modifications, and this simply complicates matters. I can't honestly recommend Iron Front to anyone, precisely because it reminded of the things about Arma which irritate me, and precisely because so much of what it does is already supported by the community. But I also recognise that certain players will get a kick out of this game: a great big Panzerkick. There's no denying that this is a big release, that does try to justify its price tag. It delivers World War II scenarios with aplomb, and when used right, it will be impressive. I just wish it had done more, and tried harder, particularly in the single-player campaigns. Make the opening mission a situation in which you get to watch a tank battle through binoculars or something. What's actually here is so by-the-numbers, so underwhelming, that my interest vaporises in the warm summer sun.
That one other particular modification is showing off what can really be done with the Arma 2 engine - and capturing so many imaginations in the process - seems a little embarrassing for a full-blown project like this one.