I’m screwed. Time seems to crawl by as I try to cram more bullets into my revolver, huddling behind an outhouse. The bastards have me cornered. I can hear their sneers just around the corner. My comrade is lying in front of me, his brown duster turning red as blood flows from the holes in his back. A fleeting moment passes. The first of the sonuvabitches shows his ugly mug, swiveling to my view. I act on instinct, pulling my knife and throwing it in his face with one smooth move. I’m on my feet before his body hits the ground. If I’m going to die, I might as well die with my boots on. The Colt in my hand roars as I open fire on the second ranger. I only had time to load two bullets, and both of them find their way to the black-clad lawman’s heart. The third bastard is upon me. He swings his axe, but I manage to kick him away, scrambling for my second knife. I launch after him, determined to plant the blade between his eyes.
Turns out there is a fourth one. I catch him from the corner of my eye, but I’m too slow. Sawn-off shotgun blasts its deadly payload right into my side. I hit the ground hard. I’m done for. Just as I slip into unconsciousness, I hear a gruff voice yelling from the distance. “PASS THE WHISKEY!”
Welcome to Fistful of Frags.
The Old West is the quintessential American myth. A harsh land where the only law is the gun, the birthplace of legends. It is surprising then, how few multiplayer FPS games have chosen it as its setting. With the notable exception of the Call of Juarez series, there is not really an abundance of professionally made games where one can draw a six-shooter from their hip and give that yellow-bellied bastard what was coming to him. It seems that this setting only appeals to the modding scene, as if only they have realized the hidden potential. Fistful of Frags is one of these creations, a one-man project to create a western multiplayer experience in the Source engine. The game, originally envisioned as a mod, has just been released as a standalone version on Steam, with the very generous price tag of zero dollars. And let me tell you, it is glorious.
Fistful of Frags is an old project, originally released back in 2007. This vintage can be clearly felt in the gameplay, which carries some delightfully oldschool vibes with it. The gunplay takes hints from an another veteran of the genre, Counter Strike. You won’t be staring down the ironsights of a revolver in this game, but instead you rely on an old-fashioned crosshair. Hitting your target in this game of single-shot firearms doesn’t mean pressing down a mouse button and drawing a line of death across the scenery. No, putting a bullet into an enemy requires you to stop on your tracks and take aim carefully. Reloading the guns isn’t done with a 0.2 second tacticool animation, but instead painfully slowly, a bullet at a time. Hunkering down behind a box won’t give you health back, for that you’ll need to find bottles of whiskey, which serve as the game’s thematic health packs. One-shot kills are very rare, and usually it takes two to four successful shots before your enemy goes down.
All this creates a game where simply seeing someone before they see you doesn’t mean you have confirmed a kill. Instead, things tend to boil down to extended shootouts, where the calm and the steady win over the twitchy and the overeager. The pace of the game is dictated by the reloading mechanism. A revolver only holds six bullets, and since reloading more into it takes so long time, you really want to make those shots count. Oftentimes it is faster to toss away an empty weapon and look for a new one. Weapons of fallen enemies litter the ground with a handy visual indication of how many bullets are left in the magazine. Interestingly enough, Fistful of Frags gives everyone an unlimited amount of all ammunition. You won’t find yourself helpless, if you only manage to find a moment to put in a few more rounds.
Firefights in Fistful of Frags are dynamic, evolving beasts. You won’t be just aiming and shooting, but instead you are trying to also look around for new weapons, dodging and weaving to make it as hard as possible to hit you. A versatile melee system featuring throwing knifes, axes and kicks to the stomach makes taking the fight to the face is a viable tactic. The first time you burst into a room filled with enemies and manage to emerge victorious after literally clawing and biting your way through, you are going to feel like a goddamn western superhero. The close-quarters struggle of Fistful of Frags is an unique experience. Shoot the first guy, throw a knife at a second guy, punch a third guy, pull the previously thrown knife off the corpse and stab a fourth guy in the gut. You always have room to maneuver and improvise in Fistful of Frags, which makes it just so damn fun to play.
As for the weapons, you will find an appropriate selection of 19th century firearms. The implements of destruction range from a bow and arrow to Winchesters and the crowd favourite, dynamites. Each and every gun has distinct character attached to them, and each of them require a different kind of playstyle. Running around with the axe, chopping people to pieces is a hectic experience where every kill requires snap decisions and quick reflexes. The single-shot Smith rifle is a more careful weapon, requiring the player to assess each shot very carefully. Even the four different revolvers the game sports manage to each have their distinct personality and style attached to them. The Schofield revolver is a mid-range sharpshooter’s dream, the massive Colt Walker is one of the few guns capable of single-shot kill and the smaller Colt Navy lends itself beautifully to fanning, making up for it’s lack of damage with enhanced rate of fire. The ability to dual-wield different handguns you pick up from the ground enhances this by enabling a wide variety of combos.
Of course, when it comes to weapon diversity, balance is an important question. How do you make a game with weapons ranging from a pump-action shotgun to a hatchet an even playing field? If every weapon needs to be roughly as effective in killing people, how do you create diversity? This is where one of the true game design genius of Fistful of Frags’ scoring system comes to play. It’s astonishingly simple yet supremely effective: different weapons give different amounts of points for a kill. Shooting an enemy with a sniper rifle from afar only gives four points, while shanking the sonuvabitch with a knife will net you twelve. These points, aptly called Notoriety, are what dictate the standings on the scoreboard.
This simple system is what truly allows the game’s wonderful diversity of gamestyles to come into effect. It allows certain weapons to be simply better than others, while still making every weapon viable. If you manage to get you hands on a pump-action shotgun, arguably the most powerful short-range weapon in the game, you better rake in those kills, since you have to work more than twice as hard as the guy wielding a pistol. The game encourages you to try more challenging and difficult approaches, it encourages you to grab those wimpy Derringer pistols and give them a spin. Notoriety points even tie in with the theme beautifully. Fistful of Frags isn’t about simply killing the most people, it’s about being the most notorious badass the West has ever seen.
Another stroke of genius can be found in the game’s gamemodes. Currently there are three available: Shootout, which is just your plain free-for-all, Team Shootout, and 4-Team Shootout. The last one is the most interesting of the bunch, and the one I play the most. Even though the name implies differently, the 4-team Shootout isn’t just a 4-way team deathmatch, but instead the scoring works just as it does in free-for-all, every man for themselves. You still do have your teammates who won’t be able to hurt you, but the dynamic is very different from normal TDM. Bunching up as a posse isn’t really encouraged, since you won’t get many points that way, but you still have allies who you can rely to at least act as bullet sponges while you reload. The game also tries to spawn you near friendly players, so getting shot right as you spawn is not very common.
It pays to keep in mind that firefights in FoF tend to last several seconds, so the diversity of scenarios that can arise from having these four teams on the map at once is much wider than in classic FFA or TDM. If we disregard one-on-one encounters, FFA and TDM each offer only one different kind of encounter. For FFA, it’s the total chaos of having three or more people all shooting at each other, while in TDM it’s usually one person getting outnumbered by several. The 4-team Shootout offers both of these options, and in addition more complex situations. The possible combinations of teams meeting in different areas of maps are numerous, and this makes the game feel surprising and tense.
In a game as thematic as this, presentation is important. The game certainly looks the part, even though it’s nature as a Half Life 2 mod sometimes shines through. The character animations are stiff, and the map geometry is clearly bound to primary axles, a well known hurdle in the Hammer editor. The designs of the four official maps are rather good however, and it’s obvious that a plenty of thought has been put to them. The modelling work is very decent, and a lot of care has been put especially to the weapon models and animations. Sound design plays always a big part in an FPS game, and this is where Fistful of Frags really delivers. The gunshots are wonderful, powerful blasts. Voice acting is hilarious, and the cheesy oneliners really work towards making the theme work. The game manages just enough polish not to look amateurish, merely constrained of resources.
I find myself often playing games for their progression, just to get some more XP, just to unlock a new piece of content. Once I’ve reached top level, once I’ve unlocked the final piece of kit, these games tend to feel strangely hollow. With no goal to pursue, it becomes impossible to ignore the faults of the system. It is then very refreshing to find a game which I want to play just for the sake of it, just for the gameplay alone. Fistful of Frags is a wonderful game, a reminder that a good FPS doesn’t need progress bars to keep people playing. The sheer amount of diversity and clever decisions that have been crammed into this game never cease to impress me. I definitely urge you to give it a spin.
Oh, and PASS THE WHISKEY.