Redundant no more. The ageing Real Virtuality game engine returns for a unique WWII strategic shooter experience with Iron Front: Liberation 1944. Often mistaken for a game in the ArmaII series of games from Bohemia Interactive, the studio actually has little to do with this project by X1 Software. Although strictly a game in its own right, Iron Front shares much in common with Bohemia’s titles, keeping the same overall aesthetic; including the user interface, maps, and chunkiness you’d expect if you’ve played ArmaII or any of the expansions. A richly detailed single player experience with extensive multiplayer, Iron Front was built with a lot of love by an indie mod-team turned developer, published by known Polish publisher Deep Silver. Priced at RRP £19.99, Iron Front almost apologises for its humble roots and use of the ageing (soon to be redundant) ArmaII engine. Is Iron Front, however, doomed by its parenthood? Or can this small but ambitious project evolve into something as in depth and much loved as ArmaII?

I’m not going to lie to you… I’ve been here before

Iron Front: Liberation 1944 is a bit of a perplexing vixen in the world of modern contemporary gaming. If you want an example of how professional opinion can go either way, take a look at Eurogamer Italy, who had a very high opinion of the project, compared to same subsidiaries Eurogamer Sweden, who had exactly the opposite. It’s not that Iron Front is beyond and foreseeable comprehension, so much as that it doesn’t meet any expectations of a modern first person shooter. If you’ve not done your research, you’re in for a nasty surprise. Does that sweep away any criticisms over the way the publisher and developer have show-cased the game? And how it presents itself? Not at all, but it is an important factor in determining whether or not you are a member of the intended demographic. Clocking in over 200 hours on the ArmaII franchise, I can safely say that this indeed is a game I can handle with some experienced savvy – but that doesn’t mean you have to have experience in ArmaII to enjoy it, so let’s find out why.

Modern games are often defined by their primary game mechanics. More often than not, a first person shooter denotes certain themes and expectations. Likewise, a third person shooter has seemingly become synonymous with a Gears of War type experience. Jumping into Iron Front expecting Call of Duty is a little like jumping into Crusader Kings II expecting Total War – there’s a ton of stuff missing from the former experience, but there are ways in which added depth and strategy more than make up for it.

Featuring two single player campaigns and, as of now, three single player scenario missions, Iron Front offers a wealth of content for the price from the date of release. Scenario missions range from tank battles to aerial assault, with more to come (I suspect, actually, that in the face of various criticisms there will be free-DLC scenarios in the near future.) The campaigns are played from the perspective of the German and Russian armies in Summer, on the Polish front. You’ve the option of playing them in their mother tongue with subtitles or dubbed in English. A seemingly no-brainer choice, I chose the original German and Russian, later to find that reading pages of tiny subtitles in a war was a little bit distracting. In fact on a few occasions I missed orders and ended up failing because I had overlooked the information. It’s up to you to decide which you choose, but subtitles take a little immersion away from what you thought you’d gain by playing each campaign in their native tongue.

The game also features up to 120 player multiplayer (not 64 player as reported here). An integral part of ArmaII, multiplayer in Iron Front is, at the moment at least, a little lack-luster. Numbers are fairly low and although there are coop scenarios and missions, there isn’t much hope of getting a huge battle on the way. In actual fact, the chances are you’ll spawn and get team-killed by some European kid who thought he was getting a World at War experience, as he spams chat asking how to spawn a hover-craft mounted with rocket launchers, screaming into team-speak asking everyone “how to do the game.”

This isn’t the players problem, though, it’s X1′s inability to offer a proper multiplayer tutorial for one of the many expansive or not so expansive multiplayer game modes. The single player campaigns serve as a great tutorial, though, without boring veterans of the engine. Don’t get me wrong, playing with friends or a community/clan has always been the best way to enjoy Arma engine games, but that doesn’t mean they don’t lose points for not appeasing the ‘drop in’ player who wants a bit of fast action.

A richly detailed foray into the life of WWII military front lines

For better or for worse, Iron Front: Liberation 1944 immerses players into a tangible war experience. This includes waiting around, refueling, drills, taking orders and driving vast distances. Arma fans will note the similarity to the ArmaII campaigns, but new players might wonder what they’d gotten themselves into. Both campaigns have basically the same dynamic, with the first hour of each teaching you how to answer commands, shoot each of the guns, drive the vehicles, and even hitch up an AT gun to a truck and drive it cross country to un-hitch it, move it, and shoot it. That’s where the charm of Iron Front is, though: the little details – leaving everything up to the player. Each ‘tedious’ chore dictated to you through the radio has strategic implications for your own game, though. Think about it for a moment: so, I can hitch up an AT gun… call in artillery… set up AA guns? When playing with friends, the level of cooperation required to strategically place defenses over one of the large chunks of Poland and Ukraine provided in all of the game modes is fantastic. Just as flying in and offloading troops and supplies was a treat in ArmaII, the same can be said for support roles and tactical placements in Iron Front. That’s the key thing to remember here, folks: Iron Front isn’t just a sandbox, it’s a toolset. Everything you need to have a huge scale, realistic war set during WWII is here like no other game before it, it’s just a matter of learning how.

For those of you who don’t want a lesson in how-to-war, though – there is rich reward for a light foray into the campaigns. Although they start off slow, you’ll notice they pick up quickly. If you get through the testing phase of shooting all the guns, you’re rewarded with a scouting party to a remote village near by, where you’ll be taking pot shots at Germans you can hear, but can’t see. The sense of danger and immersion is extremely gratifying, and you’ll feel as though you’ve earned each kill – or the battle on the whole. The terrain around you is beautifully rendered, with view distances up to 10,000km if you’ve the machine for it.

Voice acting has also improved compared to games like ArmaII, particularly on the Russian side. The amount of dialogue is also surprisingly large. Mostly to provide context, the dialogue can prattle on a little – but it’s nice for immersion and a lot of love went into the cut-scenes.

Virtually no realism in Real Virtuality?

It’s true, Real Virtuality basically has no physics engine… but don’t let that scare you away. Although it wouldn’t be fair not to mention it, Real Virtuality doesn’t exactly have a very good reputation for rag-dolls, or other real world physics. Initially I was worried about animations such as bullet penetration, etc – but X1 seem to have worked hard to animate as best they could deaths and vehicle movement such as suspension with the tools they have. They’ve done an incredible job, especially with the way in which people die variably and with different intensity. Blood splatter looks great, and bullet impact feels meaty. Likewise, the suspension on vehicles looks realistic, and there isn’t any more of that clipping into the floor I had expected to carry across from ArmaII. Tanks shake about when shot, and people fly into the air if hit with HE grenades, etc. If I hadn’t have mentioned it, you wouldn’t notice the lack of a proper physics engine.

In the vein of realism, weapons of course perform realistically – with adjustable drop on each gun-sight and realistic ammo amounts and types. Vehicles can only carry so many, and manually switching between AP and HE is a must. Unlike ArmaII, tanks have the ability to pierce armour inflicting damage on the crew. You’re not going to kill a Tiger with an HE to the front, you’ve to maneuver as you’d expect to either damage side armour plates (which will fall off!) or to bust up the engine or turret. You can disable tank and vehicle systems, which must be repaired with a repair truck (that you’ll have to find yourself!). Tank warfare is fun, realistic, and is met by no competitor on the market. It is very similar to Red Orchestra 2 in its realism. A tank will need a full crew in order to function properly.

Flying in Iron Front is another surprise treat. The flying mechanics work easily as well as any major flight simulator on the market at the moment, but perform better than IL2 Cliffs of Dover, and feel much more realistic than Wings of Prey. All plane systems on each of the varied planes work as they would in a proper simulator, with joysticks automatically mapping themselves appropriately. My Speedlink Black Widow mapped itself and turned itself on. Playing the supply air scenario was a great treat, with dive bombing something of a strategic challenge met with great esteem and high reward when you crack it.

That’s what I mean about Iron Front… it’s barely a game, but in a really good way. It doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t, and it almost apologises for what it’s not – but it didn’t need to be anything other than what it is: a set of tools for you to experience World War II, with all of the famous Russian and German vehicles in all their detail, on the Polish front. You’ve been given the tools, they’re yours to make of them what you will.

Going somewhere?

Iron Front has its issues. Although many of the serious bugs have been fixed in patch 1.2, the game still feels as though there is a lot missing. The single player is certainly finished, and merits the price alone, but multiplayer needs more to really give it the same incredible feeling ArmaII had; the same longevity. It puzzles me as to why there are only currently 3 single player scenarios, when there are over 30 in ArmaII, but I can only assume – and I certainly have faith – that there are more to come. X1 and Deep Silver have been very, very fast in releasing patches and supporting the game, and I genuinely feel like it has only just taken its first few steps. I think this is going to be one to grow in both scale and depth, and for those of you with a penchant for strategy, sacrificing fluidity for greater control and immersion, this really isn’t a game you want to miss.

At £19.99 RRP, Iron Front offers us entry into one of the most unique gaming experiences there currently is. Can you name another World War 2 era game that offers the plethora of experiences Iron Front has the tools to offer? Even going back to Battlefield 1942 we’re met with about 1/6th of the depth. Even if it isn’t one to buy if you’re planning to play multiplayer on your own without friends, right now, it’s certainly one to keep your eye on. A project with huge potential but limited execution, Iron Front is currently a great single player purchase, but needs work to make it worth the multiplayer endorsement. I am, however, 99% confident that X1 are eventually going to offer all that I feel is currently missing – they’re only patches away.

If you think you might enjoy driving 40 minutes in the Soviet’s best little run-around, looking at Ukrainian countryside, on the off chance that someone 30km away might shoot you in the face at any moment, then this game is for you. If you’d rather be put right into the fight with unlimited ammo and a 99% chance of survival, this probably isn’t the title you’re looking for.