Developer: Burut CT
Cannon Fodder 3 put us through the emotional wringer before it even released. As loyal fans of the classic strategy/shooter hybrid on the Amiga, our unfettered delight that a Codemasters-endorsed sequel was in the works soon turned to abject despair when it exclusively targeted a Russian release, and utter bewilderment when we learned that it was being handled by a relatively unknown studio with a penchant for seriously ugly CGI. I didn't take the plunge when it released on GamersGate a few months ago, my nerves in tatters, but a recent Steam release and a thoughtfully-provided review code gave me no excuse to delay any longer. Girding my loins and preparing myself for the very worst, I dove in headfirst with gritted teeth.
I emerged from the campaign feeling slightly numb, though not for the reasons I expected. Cannon Fodder 3 isn't great by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not a particularly bad little shooter either. It's one of those games; not exceptional enough to inspire much in the way of genuine excitement, nor horrendous enough to attack with genuine venom. The critic's bane.
First impressions are important, and Cannon Fodder 3 jumps on a landmine within the first five minutes. An overlong and poorly-animated CGI intro gives us an intimate look at Burut CT's artistic vision, which was clearly intended to evoke the slightly crude and caricatured sprites of the original games, but instead introduces us to some of the ugliest, most inhuman and least relateable characters we've ever seen in a videogame to date. All of whom are portrayed as completely brainless for the sake of some misfiring gags. Sensible Software's Cannon Fodder was predicated on us caring about faceless and expendable soldiers despite never knowing them to any great extent and actively enjoying the experience at a distance, hence delivering a critique of the hypocrisy and anonymity of war while still being fun to play, but the only emotion you'll feel here is that of uncanny disquiet at their overly realistic faces and distorted proportions. Not to mention the odd smirk at the impenetrably translated script and constant streams of awful voice acting.
A pervasive heavy metal soundtrack sits negates the sombre Boot Hill memorial, a cemetery into which your soldiers are interred when permanently killed, creating a jarring and uncomfortable interplay of introspection and gung-ho bloodlust that simply never gels throughout the campaign. Cannon Fodder doesn't take itself seriously enough to be taken seriously, but neither is it ever slightly humorous, which eventually averages out as a feeling of total apathy. A crying shame, since the original managed to provide plenty of gallows humour on top of some serious themes to explore if you're so inclined.
However, once you've ploughed through a hilariously brief and entirely useless tutorial that makes no effort to explain even one of the numerous keyboard shortcuts, the gameplay starts to resemble the Cannon Fodder we know and love. You'll control a small team of soldiers as a single unit from an isometric perspective, much like a traditional twin-stick shooter, with all troopers firing in the direction of your mouse pointer. The squad can be moved with right mouse clicks or optional WASD controls, both of which work well and are responsive enough for task. A selection of limited secondary weapons can be triggered with the space bar (a vast improvement over having to press both mouse bottons simultaneously), while multiple primary weapons such as can be selected on the fly. Mechanically, it's fit for combat, and a decent foundation for some hectic action.
Cannon Fodder fans will be pleased to discover that units can be split up and ordered to different locations, potentially to flank enemies or man turrets, and that your soldiers are as fragile as you might remember. Even though units now have health bars, they're only capable of taking a couple of hits before permanently biting the bullet and tote an incredibly small range to boot, making picking your fights absolutely paramount when racked against snipers, mortars, gunboats, tanks and guard towers.
Don't worry, folks. Even though enemies attack at a much faster pace and you can control Cannon Fodder 3 like a dual-stick shooter, it's almost impossible to play as one. Your squad's limited range, coupled with the fact that they follow your movements in a close-knit gaggle, means that success comes from using your secondary weapons effectively as opposed to weaving through incoming firepower. Grenades aren't just useful for destroying buildings, rather, they can be used to create an entry point in a base perimeter (thus bypassing the main entrance) or destroy some scenery elements such as a dam to deny portions of the level. EMPs knock out enemy vehicles, leaving them vulnerable and buying time to escape.
That said, fans are likely to rail against the new checkpoint system, which completely changes up the game. Losing all of your soldiers doesn't end the mission, instead, a new squad of grunts appear at the last flag you discovered and the action immediately continues. This somewhat neuters much of the suspense and tension we were used to from the series, especially since units now gain experience and rank up at a much faster rate. You can even save progress at these checkpoint flags should you want to. Perhaps this was a purposeful decision on Burut's part designed to play on the theme of the series - continually putting poorly trained 'cannon fodder' through the grinder until the mission is complete - but the stakes feel that much lower.
A near-future setting and a forgettably vague storyline provide some interesting backdrops for the action such as a moon base and space station (clearly Cannon Fodder 2 was the inspiration here), featuring somewhat functional graphics bolstered by lashings of colour, big explosions and plenty of gore as you hunt down targets and kill enemy troops. It's not what you'd call pretty, but the dated visuals still manage to get the job done. Note, however, that a number of users have reported graphical glitches and issues - the worst I encountered was a little screen tearing.
Sadly, Cannon Fodder 3 never quite comes together. While the strategy elements are in place, the faster pace of many levels often doesn't give you the time to properly plan an assault or execute a clever manoeuvre, instead boiling down to a manic shooting gallery where you'll fight against unsuitable controls along with the aggressive enemies. A slightly wild camera and some clipping problems make navigation harder than it needs to be. Variation is also at a premium; almost every mission simply revolves around killing a certain number of foes or destroying buildings with limited explosives, requiring you to spend more time trudging around searching for ammo than actually engaging your targets. Several driveable vehicles fail to add anything new to the experience since they're so difficult to control that you're better off ignoring them altogether. Once the novelty wears off - which won't take long - you're left with a game that soon becomes tedious and only playable in short sessions.
Again, I've got to mention that jarring tone. Cannon Fodder 3 is as brash, colourful, overtly gory and chock full of industrial metal as any modern twin-stick shooter, yet the gameplay strives to be slower and more tactical. Dead soldiers' crosses appear on Boot Hill and are displayed on a post-level gravestone, but the painfully obvious (not to mention unsuccessful) slapstick humour and caricatured CGI monstrosities stop you caring about them one iota. I can't help but feel that Burut would have been better off favouring the measured tone of the first game, or pursuing a more action-heavy experience much like the manic Pineapple Smash Crew. At the very least, we can all agree that the metal BGM was a bad choice compared to stark silence during the missions, which perfectly created a sense of real threat followed by explosive release.
A couple of glimmers of brilliance occasionally make their presence known, such as windscreen wipers that clear excess gore off the inside of your monitor and achievements that confer persistent gameplay bonuses, but it's not quite enough to elevate Cannon Fodder 3 into the upper echelons of the genre. You can attempt to copy the experience, but it seems that Sensible Software were capable of providing something that Burut CT simply could not: charm. It's the difference between making a game you're passionate about and being ordered to knock out a copy - despite most of the ingredients reporting for duty, much of what made Cannon Fodder so timeless has been lost in translation.
- Some surprisingly faithful mechanics
- Nicely designed environments, gore and explosions
- A few neat features and flourishes
- Horrendous and inappropriate (disrespectful?) CGI, slapstick humour, industrial metal BGM and overall tone
- Checkpoint system devalues individual soldiers
- Graphically underpowered, unstable on some systems
- Poorly-paced and repetitive, some mechanical quibbles
- Where are Jools and Jops? Stoo? Anyone?
The Short Version: Cannon Fodder 3 isn't bad. In fact, it's often quite fun, especially when some of the levels provide scope for tactical play. But sadly, Burut CT's facsimile never evokes the classic balance between gallows humour, rock-hard gameplay and genuine pathos, instead coming off as tacky, generic and more shallow than it actually is.
Frankly, a little more polish and some distance from the brand wouldn't have gone amiss.