Cannon Fodder 3: War Used To Be Way More Fun
Newsflash: An obscure Russian studio has made a sequel to an 18 year old niche semi-real time strategy game, which is exclusively available through one online retailer, all while receiving no advertising, fanfare, or seeming acknowledgement of its existence by its own publisher. As you might expect, the game ain’t great. Read on to find out just how not great it actually is.
A Sensible Beginning
The original Cannon Fodder is a classic, albeit an obscure one. Cannon Fodder and its sequel, appropriately named Cannon Fodder 2, were released in 1993 and 1994 by Sensible Software, a European company that was also very well known for making soccer games. If you have ever head of Sensible Soccer, well… same folks.
The Cannon Fodder games were PC/Commodore Amiga titles that combined action, real time strategy and humor. The conceit was simple: you controlled a squad of one to eight soldiers with the mouse, one button doing the moving and the other doing the shooting. You then take this squad through various battlefields (including jungles, the arctic, etc) and accomplish various objectives such as destroying enemy bases, rescuing hostages, or just surviving.
For being so seemingly simple, the game was actually tough as nails: your soldiers died quick and often. The game is called Cannon Fodder and that’s exactly what your soldiers were. Even as they would rank up with experience, you would lose them in the blink of an eye to enemies, explosive barrels, or your own stupidly misthrown grenade, and ultimately, its fine. As the game implies, single soldiers are never that important. Further, as the game progressed, the missions became steadily more complex, requiring the player to manage multiple squads, or split up their squads to accomplish multiple objectives.
I am not ashamed to say I never finished either Cannon Fodder or Cannon Fodder 2. I played the hell out of both of them however.
This is not to say that Cannon Fodder set the world on fire, or became a best-selling phenomenon. Even so, for those of us who are old enough to remember the game (and its sequel), Cannon Fodder holds some considerable nostalgic juice. Cannon Fodder, while itself kind of a hybrid of shoot-em-up and RTS, actually came out before the RTS harbingers of C&C and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. The game required both strategic thought and quick reflexes, but perhaps most importantly it had a wicked sense of humor tinged with a bit of Vietnam-era social commentary. For instance, every time one of your soldiers bit it, you would see a new grave added to “Boot Hill,” while new recruits lined up at the recruitment office directly underneath.
Apart from a few ports, the last time were heard from the series was in 1994, when Cannon Fodder 2 was released. In 1999, Sensible Software sold itself to Codemasters, who more recently has been known for games like the Colin McRae Rally series, the Overlord series, and Lord of the Rings Online.
The Red Menace
Skip ahead nearly two decades to February 2012, when Russian developer Burut CT unceremoniously released Cannon Fodder 3 to a single English-language outlet: GamersGate. As the IP is now owned by Codemasters, they are technically publishing it, if pushing out a digital-only version of the game to a single online outlet can be called publishing, but it may help the game’s sales if Codemasters, you know, actually TOLD anyone about the game.
As of this writing, Cannon Fodder 3 doesn’t even appear on Codemasters own website. Clive Barker’s Jericho does.
So, why would Codemasters drop the ball like this? Why would they silently “release” this game to a second-tier digital distribution platform without even a bare attempt at publicity? Probably because the game just isn’t very good.
What’s wrong with Cannon Fodder 3? So many god damned things. The game is buggy, full of graphical glitches, it’s awkward to control, it’s not player-friendly, and it does a terrible job of explaining its mechanics. The game suffers from poorly paced missions, a barebones narrative structure, and generally poor presentation. It is also a tremendously ugly game with absurdly bad voice acting and somehow even worse sound effects.
In fact, looking back at my four hours of experience with Cannon Fodder 3, the most positive thing I can say about the game is that Burut CT clearly played the original at least once. At the very least, the game does play like Cannon Fodder.
No matter how much I wish otherwise, a properly written game review needs to be more than a brief history lesson and a quick list of bitches and gripes, so here are a few details.
As I said, Cannon Fodder 3 does play like the classic Cannon Fodder games, insofar that you control one or more soldiers in a squad via the mouse. Left click tells them where to go (holding it down directs them in a constant motion), while right click directly controls shooting. The result of which kind of feels like an RTS mixed with Robotron. Everything I said about the original Cannon Fodder games applies here as well: the game gets more difficult and complex, you control more soldiers and squads, and there is an attempt at humor, though perhaps not as dark nor as intelligent as Sensible Software’s original effort.
The problem with all of this is that the game feels exactly like you would expect an Eastern European knockoff to feel: shoddy and tone-deaf. While the control scheme is technically the same, it’s mechanically all wrong. Moving your soldiers feels imprecise and haphazard, whether its due to their slow running speed or poor pathing, it is never predictable where they are actually going to go. In fact, I found them passing my curser over and over again, often walking straight into bullets or explosions.
Moreover, the camera is strangely tied to the mouse in a delayed centering mechanic. Wherever you move the mouse, the camera will attempt to center on it a second later, leading to a nauseating, almost sea-sick feeling. This scheme fails at simplifying camera control; it just makes the game worse.
The shooting is slow and plodding, with both enemies and your own soldiers having far too much life. Cannon Fodder 1 and 2 were fast, almost visceral games, and the inclusion of substantial life bars slows the game down to a crawl.
The game also does a horrific job at explaining its own mechanics and objectives. The control scheme is actually unexpectedly complex, with more than half a dozen additional buttons than just the mouse and spacebar in use. The only way you would know this, of course, is if you looked in the settings menu yourself. The game makes no effort to instruct players on how to actually play it. This sort of philosophy was par for the course in 1993. This is no longer the case in 2012.
Finally, the missions are just bland. Part of the problem here is the lack of a minimap and clear objectives. Levels get large and mazelike, and it’s difficult sometimes to know where you should be going and what you should be doing. Not that the objectives are ever that interesting: you mostly just shoot “terrorist” enemy soldiers and blow up buildings. Even so, the lack of objective markers and a map utterly cripples the game. I can’t express adequately how annoying it is to think you finished a half-hour mission, only to see you still need to kill one more enemy soldier, but you have NO idea where he is.
War Ain’t Pretty
Unfortunately, the game looks just as bad as it feels. At a basic aesthetic level the designers settled on a nightmarish super-deformed look that I can only describe as ill-advised. It’s easy to see what they tried to do: the first Cannon Fodder games were kind of cartoony in a pixelated way, and Burut CT tried to emulate this. They failed. At its very best the game is awkward and offputting.
More than that, the game does not put its best foot forward all the time, or even often. Nearly every aspect of the game, aside from the menus, has presentation issues. These range from the washed out, overly compressed intro movies to the glitchy and framey in-game graphics. In still pictures, the game looks almost interesting: bright colors, big explosions, etc. Once you have it playing in front of you, this just doesn’t translate. Those trees don’t look quite so good when their textures flicker in and out of existence, and the explosions are surprisingly puny and unsatisfying.
All of this is as nothing though, compared to my absolute hatred for Cannon Fodder 3’s sound design. Everything is exactly wrong. This includes the (thankfully sparse) voice acting, which sounds like a Russian being recorded with a headset mic in a garage, attempting to speak with a British accent, in order to voice a seemingly American general.
The rest of the sound design is equally bad. After having JUST played the game, I honestly can’t tell you if there was music at all. It left that little of an impression on me. I can tell you the game had walking sound-effects. The sounds of feet hitting the ground. I know this because the sound is horrific and constant. Assuming you play the game with the sound on (you have already made two mistakes there), you will be hearing this sound pretty much the entire time. It’s almost like gravel in a blender: abrasive and annoying.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
I make a special effort to find the good in obscure, budget, or unappreciated titles. While I am, by no means, any sort of masochist or gaming saint, I generally think I have an ability to appreciate games that others would not. I found absolutely nothing to appreciate about Cannon Fodder 3. Even assuming they fixed the graphics, re-recorded the audio, and overhauled the camera and controls, the game still would be just mediocre. At about $26, the game is not even worth it for fans of the original. Do yourself a favor and just track down the first two games and play them on DosBox.
While Eastern European developers have made great strides in recent years, putting out AAA titles like The Witcher and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Cannon Fodder 3 is a regrettable example of something that could have been great, if handled by careful, competent and well-funded developers, but that just ended up as shovelware. It’s not surprising that Codemasters is hiding this clunker, I am sure they wish it never existed in the first place.