Hexagons, half-tracks and heavy artillery galore in Slitherine's turn-based combat title
Frontline: Road to Moscow's combat looks deceptively simple at first glance, familiar hex turn-based strategy setup that doesn't seem to promise much that you haven't seen before. You start each map with an objective, a few unit stacks and a set amount of supplies. Early missions are generally fairly simple – capture this town and deal with Russian forces – but as you push further forward and you begin to encounter the resolute core of the Russian defence, well, things get a little trickier.
To make it that far you'll be using the classic mix of infantry, armour and artillery. What Slitherine does well, and this is the company's familiarity with strategy games shining through, is make each unit feel unique and useful. Everything you control can level up over time, and the special abilities they unlock after doing so are almost all incredibly useful. Basic infantry, perhaps the least capable of your core troops, net an incendiary grenade attack that raises their damage level form 'rather pitiful' to 'just enough to do the job', while light tanks get a kind of overwatch ability which lets them ambush enemy vehicles. Units carry across scenarios too, so if you manage to keep your artillery pieces intact they'll be far more effective as you push further into Russia.
Slower-paced naval battles feel like an extended artillery duel, with enemy fighter-bombers a constant worry
Perhaps Frontline's biggest success is the surprising amount of control it manages to give you, despite clearly being simplified for the fast-paced world of tablet gaming. Your supply points are key to this. As mentioned above, you begin each level with a set number of units. Supply points can be used to resupply those units in the field, refreshing their ammunition and restoring their number, but you can also use it to call in fresh units to the field and perform special attack actions like airstrikes.
Working out the best way to use this single resource leads to some very interesting tactical situations. Do you send another unit of paratroopers to the frontlines, knowing that an extra burst of sniper fire could finish off those encamped units of machine-gunners in short order, or do you opt to resupply your haggard flame-thrower units, causing him to miss a turn but safeguarding his precious experience for another day?
Frontline has some simple graphics, but satisfying sound effects and attractive terrain do enough to sell the bitter Eastern Front atmosphere
Adding to the surprising complexity are a number of neat combat mechanics. Firstly, the fact that your units run out of ammo means that you can't just use them to mop up an entire regiment of enemy troops. You need to keep an eye on your supply points to make sure you don't end up with a very expensive lump of metal on the board that can't do a damn thing. Machine-gunners and artillery can suppress enemy units if they do enough damage, driving them back and potentially out of cover. Finishing a unit off affords the victor a free move, which seems slightly arbitrary when all of your units have been pounding a tank into dust, but nevertheless leads to moments when you're trying to whittle down an enemy enough that your elite troops can finish him off, netting them a free action that could turn the tide of combat. Then there's random critical hits, which deal double damage to the affected unit and never fail to throw a spanner in the works of even the best laid plans. There's enough variation and strategy in play here to make each individual battle feel unique and unpredictable.
Some things do feel a little strange. Tanks are often surprisingly weak even against basic infantry, while one unit of flamethrowers can pretty much instant kill any infantry unit it gets close enough to attack. Unit balance is generally pretty good, but you will encounter moments when it feels like your units should be doing more damage. Personally I'd also like to be able to choose which units I start a battle with. It can be irritating when you level up your paratroopers or heavy tanks to godlike levels only to find you're stuck with a few armoured cars and conscripts for the next mission.
Still, these are minor blemishes on what is a surprisingly fun combat system. It's not just land warfare either, both aerial and naval battles pop up to provide a welcome change of pace. Not that land missions are all wars of attrition or city sieges either, there's a decent amount of variety there too. Sometimes you might have to destroy a convoy, sometimes retrieve a key document from an enemy officer. Okay, so you're essentially still just matching your hexes against the enemy’s, but even a little variation is welcome.
Battles start small, but eventually turn into brutal and chaotic affairs
All this blitzkrieging and bombing is backed up by a very simple but intuitive interface. Feedback tooltips pop up whenever you're about to engage an enemy, telling you just how likely you are to damage them, and how vulnerable you are in return. Feedback is clear and precise. Graphics are simplistic, admittedly, but not ugly, and seeing the campaign map change to a wall of German controlled territory as you continue your relentless march forwards is very satisfying. One omission that probably should have been included is a competent tutorial. Frontline isn't a particularly difficult game to pick up, but the pop-up text boxes that Slitherine has opted for are cumbersome and irritating to sort through if you're looking for a particular answer.
I've complained before about tablets and mobile games being ported to PC without any real care for their suitability on the platform. Frontline is one of those rare occasions where such a port doesn't feel out of place. Its simple, uncluttered interface and well-designed tactical combat are easy to dig into and surprisingly addictive. There were moments when I lost several hours to the game after only intending to jump in for a quick twenty minute mission session. I had far more fun than I was expecting. For Frontline's budget price there's a more than decent amount of content here. If you're looking for a cheap, fun tactical combat game that's simple to grasp and satisfying to master, Frontline : Road to Moscow comes highly recommended.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Taking a key Russian city without losing any of your elite troops, then mopping up the stragglers with a vicious tank assault.