by Vincent Chandler
reviewed on PC
PROJECT: I’M GOING IN…
Be careful not to confuse Beyond Enemy Lines with Gene Hackman’s 2001 thriller Behind Enemy Lines. Nor should it be mistaken for 1998’s Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, despite the fact that trying to Google Beyond Enemy Lines will result in the search engine itself trying its hardest to convince you that you probably meant to type ‘behind’ instead of ‘beyond’. No Google, I am my own person, and I know what I want.
The awkward mangling of a commonly used phrase to the point that Google will argue with you is apt representation for the overall state of Beyond Enemy Lines. The whole affair feels like a weak and awkward approximation of a tactical shooter; its aging technology, un-fun gameplay and copy-pasted assets being held together by nothing more than the passion of its single man development team.
Developer Polygon-Art is a one man army, and I can appreciate the time and effort that goes into creating a video game all on your own. Beyond Enemy Lines appears to be a passion project of sorts – a fan-made spiritual successor to the once popular Project IGI. I personally find the idea of engaging in a creative endeavour of this scale alone admirable. So it is for this reason that I will pull my punches here. However, no matter how nicely I word this, Beyond Enemy Lines is a not a good game. It is clunky, awkward and un-engaging. It is at best, functional, and at worst, terrible.
Beyond Enemy Lines looks to harken back to the realistic tactical first person shooters of yesteryear. It bills itself as ‘hardcore’ and ‘unforgiving’, with emphasis placed on large open environments to promote a careful, tactical approach that should make use of quick thinking problem solving skills. Its nods to realism are the usual fare; there is no reticule to aim your gun from the hip, the spread of bullets from every weapon is ‘realistically’ poor and you take very little punishment before meeting your demise. You cannot save during missions, health syringes are scarce and ammunition is counted in clips as opposed to individual bullets.
TACTICAL SHOOTING, POOR GAMEPLAY
All of this would be perfectly acceptable if the gunplay was fun, functional or at all rewarding. It is not.
The damage caused by guns is wildly inconsistent, whilst the accuracy of every single weapon is appalling. Meanwhile, enemies are trained to be able to hit their mark (unlike the protagonist you inhabit) and have fantastic eyesight. You flinch when hit, making it even more difficult to actually dispatch your foes in combat. The lack of save points and large spread out environments serve to create a frustrating trial and error gameplay that isn’t remotely fun, namely because the game itself isn’t fun.
The list of actual problems with the game’s systems is too numerous to include here, but I feel examples will help to illustrate my frustrations. For instance, it isn’t possible to fire over the trunk of a car whilst crouched because of how bad the collision detection and hit boxes are on enemies. Arbitrarily, you can’t switch from the ‘health syringe’ to any weapon slot except for the pistol or SMG. When you reload a gun that currently has a full clip, it uses up and discards that clip; my first experience of this resulted in me inadvertently using up all of my ammunition as hitting the reload key multiple times after an encounter with an enemy is a nervous habit I need to get out of. All of these faults compile to create an experience that just isn’t worthwhile.
Level layout also serves to frustrate. Every level looks remarkably similar, with assets such as water towers, computer rooms, radar domes and vehicle garages being copy and pasted between levels. The environments are meant to be large open spaces to promote differing approaches and replayability, but your inability to cut through or scale most fences means you are funnelled through entry points pre-determined by the level’s designer, such as stacks of crates near a wall or broken fences. This leads to boringly linear playthroughs of levels that are billed as being ‘sandboxes’.
The unforgiving nature of the combat pushes you to make use of the game’s stealth mechanics. You have a tactical computer that gives you a real-time top-down view of the mission area, which when coupled with the binoculars actually works well in allowing you to plan your approach and understand your enemies patrol routes. However, on several occasions I found that pressing the weapon change keys whilst using the tactical computer resulted in me being stuck within the computer screen view, whilst still being able to move around and shoot blindly with no vision. Another frustrating game bug that highlights the overall quality of the experience.
In line with this stealth focus you are to avoid security cameras, use silenced weapons and generally sneak your way to achieve your objectives. Cameras can be disabled from computer terminals dotted around the map, which lends a limited use to exploring your environment. Unfortunately, aside from this the levels feel very bare. The main problem with this stealth is that enemies seem to spot you in spite of your crouched and cautious advancement, and proceed to pepper you with bullets thanks to their inhuman levels of accuracy. And although combat isn’t impossible (just frustratingly crap), it ended up turning out better if I just ran away from an enemy so that they would reset to their patrol route.
The game’s commitment to realism, or more accurately ‘hardcore’ gameplay, is inconsistent due in part to the games shoddy design. Enemies will not pursue you too far, and return to their post if they lose you. I didn’t witness an enemy activate an alarm, call for backup, or interact with each other in any way other than to shoot collectively at me. It all feels very pre-1998 AI with no semblance of providing an accurate simulation of an enemy taskforce. And although your character struggles to shoot straight, he is an Olympian sprinter, able to sprint indefinitely with no signs of discomfort or distress; a bizarre oversight that serves to epitomise the game's status as a collection of poorly implemented mechanics and strange oversights.
All of Beyond Enemy Lines faults are worsened by drab visuals and weak audio. In spite of running on newer Unreal Engine technology the whole package looks poor and feels aged, like a high-res remastering of some late 90s shooter, complete with gameplay that just doesn’t stand up to modern standards. However, things get worse as you start to make your way through the game; awkward badly animated cut-scenes reward your perseverance through this shoddy collection of clumsy mechanics. Reaching your final objective of a level only to watch a poorly rendered truck meekly shuffle its way onto a road and chug up a hill, whilst the sound effects for its engine and tires cut out abruptly before the scene is finished really drives the point home; Beyond Enemy Lines is just bad.
IT'S JUST BAD
The playing field is so dramatically stacked against you, and the rules of engagement so staggeringly poor and badly realised that the whole experience is incredibly frustrating rather than rewarding. The presentation is lacklustre to say the least, and the game struggles to bring anything worthwhile to the table. A one-man development project is admirable, and his continued support with the release of new maps is to be commended. Unfortunately, the title fails to fulfil its basic tag-line premise of being at all ‘tactical’, or offering any kind of ‘sandbox’. If I were you, I would pick up Project IGI 2 from GOG.com and relive a piece of (relatively obscure) gaming history for half the price.
High quality voice acting for the mission briefings. Grass looks nice… sometimes. On-going support from developer with new levels.
Poor gunplay, stealth, AI, sound, visuals and level design. Just poor.