Friday, October 15, 2010

Front Mission Evolved Review

Front Mission Evolved, developed by Double Helix Games and published by Square Enix.
The Good: Extensive wanzer customization for various roles, useful melee attacks, quick “skating” movement speeds up combat
The Not So Good: Linear campaign, laggy and unbalanced multiplayer limited to eight players, gimmicky slow motion ability generally useless
What say you? This mechanized third-person combat game has simple thrills: 5/8

Giant fighting robots. That got your attention, didn't it? Yes, tanks are simply not good enough for some, as we require something more imposing and upright. The mechanized robot has been glorified in such games as MechWhatever and War World (talk about digging up an old review). Basically, you just want to feel like an unstoppable badass. Front Mission Evolved is the latest entry in a series I never heard of, released mainly in Japan on the PlayStation 2 (no wonder I never heard of it). This version goes for a more action-oriented approach, eschewing the tactical role-playing gameplay of the original series for third-person mayhem. Plus, this game lets me use the word “wanzer” (a “walking panzer,” obviously), which sounds like it might be sexual in nature. Bonus!

Front Mission Evolved features a fine presentation. The wanzers are finely detailed (my wanzer is finely detailed, too) and well animated, exhibiting visual damage as their armor is depleted. Since Front Mission Evolved originated as a console game, it is of course in third-person, which means your wanzer gets in the way (happens to me all the time), obscuring a significant portion of the screen. Yes, I know you want to show off all the animation work you did, but I still prefer viewing the action from a first person perspective. The game takes place in a variety of environments, from urban to snowy to slightly different urban. I like how the cut scenes use your custom paint job you have painstakingly designed. Overall, I was pleased with the graphics. The sound design is standard fare: decent voice acting, good combat effects, and subtle music I didn’t even notice most of the time, possibly because it fit the on-screen action well.

Front Mission Evolved has you manning a giant robot armed to the teeth, bent on revenge for the death of your father (*spoiler alert*…wait, are you supposed to say that before the spoiler?). The single player campaign (no cooperative options) features sixteen missions and a brief tutorial that addresses the basics of wanzer control (heh heh). The campaign requires only one play through, as the linear, scripted enemy encounters don’t vary. The game follows a recycled tradition of moving to a new area, encountering a bunch of enemy units, and then moving on to another area. You will occasionally encounter allies, but you can’t issue them any orders or coordinate in any significant way; more often than not, they just follow your lead and eliminate a couple of enemy units. The boss battles are drawn-out, tedious exercises in slowly accumulated damage. Front Mission Evolved also features rail shooter sequences and parts on foot, playing more like a traditional third person shooter. The checkpoint saves are fairly frequent, and some missions require certain customization options to be selected. While it is fun to blow stuff up, it does get repetitive thanks to the limited variety featured in the campaign.

Multiplayer offers up eight players for robot domination. Why only eight players? Well, Front Mission Evolved sadly features peer-to-peer connections for online play, which results in laggy, unpredictable connections and a less than stellar online experience. Your opponents for ranked matches are picked at random, preventing you from playing with or against friends. Four traditional game modes are offered: deathmatch, team deathmatch, domination (where you fight for control of three turrets), and supremacy (where you fight for control of one turret at a time). You’ll want to stick to the randomized ranked matches (despite being put up against players with significantly more experience) because that’s the only way to unlock new weapons. Yes, the bane of my online existence, locked content, rears its ugly head here. Beginners can access a number of pre-built loadouts, but this is a minor consolation prize. Other online titles such as Section 8 are fair to everyone, but not so in the world of Front Mission Evolved. Multiplayer also suffers from a bit of unbalance, as sniper rifles and missiles are quite the powerful weapons. However, it’s not all bad: I really like how the maps are set up to give you more skating power, reducing the time to get around the maps. Other than that, though, it’s a pretty bleak picture with unoriginal online features.

Front Mission Evolved features extensive options for customizing your wanzer (heh heh). Your are prevented from loading out each and every available weapon by the power rating of your chassis; this means you’ll have to pick and choose which weapons fit your overall strategy the best. There are various torsos, arms, and legs you can equip that offer varying levels of armor and movement capabilities. Weapons can be handheld (machine guns, shotguns, rifles, bazookas, and melee items) or placed on a shoulder (missiles, rockets, grenade launchers, and gatling guns). You can also endow yourself with shields for added protection and backpacks for special abilities (added power or agility, missile countermeasures, electromagnetic pulses, and repair tools). You can also unlock weapon-specific battle skills that have a percentage change of activating, which improve damage over time, the rate of fire, and other small enhancements. If all of these options are too daunting, you can opt for a pre-designed wanzer: sniper, assault, brawler, engineer, or projectile specialist. I like how Front Mission Evolved allows you to pick and choose just how your wanzer is going to excel on the battlefield.

Controlling a giant robot is similar in nature to any other shooter game, although there are a couple of significant nuances in Front Mission Evolved. Four button are used to fire the weapons, and you can’t keep them held down: they will overheat with increased use. You can enter a zoomed mode for more precise aiming and enable your special backpack abilities during combat. The robots move slowly most of the time, but you can dodge to the site to avoid missiles, jump and hover, and (most notably) “skate” using regenerative energy for quick movement. Skating is useful in traversing the levels (normal movement would take way too long), and you can also use skating in conjunction with melee attacks for a more powerful assault. Front Mission Evolved also includes everyone’s favorite gimmick: slow motion. Here, the EDGE system is very pointless: wanzers take so much damage that you usually can’t destroy them completely in a single event, so why have it in the first place? It’s usually easier just to queue up a bunch of missiles (which have homing capabilities) than to pick off enemies in slow motion. Another complaint is the radar: it does not indicate whether objects are above or below your line-of-sight, a problem since airborne and ground-based enemies are common.

Front Mission Evolved gives you a couple of options for disposing of the enemies. You can opt for missiles and rockets, but they have limited ammunition. Granted, there are usually tons of pick-ups to be found scattered around the maps to replenish your cache, but the concern is still there. It’s usually better to go for a mix of ballistic weapons and conventional medium-range machine guns. Of course, you can also go for melee attacks, once you unlock the more powerful options there. Melee attacks are actually quite useful in Front Mission Evolved, especially in combination with skating when finishing off an enemy. Keeping alive is easy, as health regenerates automatically when you hide; as long as you aren’t surrounded by enemies, dying is occasional at best. You (and your opponents) suffer appendage–specific damage, but you can still use a part that’s been “destroyed,” just at a slower rate: odd. Most of the levels come scattered with copious amounts of cover, but you can’t crouch or hide behind them; they just reduce the number of shots you are likely to receive from the AI. The AI does a decent job, sticking to its wanzer type and playing to its strengths: brawlers like it up close, while ballistic wanzers will attack from a distance. Part of this has to do with scripting the initial enemy spawn locations, but it’s still nice to have some challenge during the campaign. Front Mission Evolved does rely heavily on pitting you up against superior numbers of enemies, and you’ll never confuse opposing wanzers for human-controlled opponents, but the game would be less fun at a higher difficulty balance.

Front Mission Evolved is hardly groundbreaking, but I did have some fun plowing through the game’s linear levels and online features. Sure, the enemies have predictable behaviors based on their wanzer type and there’s no reason to play through the campaign more than once due to scripted encounters, but it can be enjoyable to pimp out your ride (actual pimp optional) and lay waste to lots of machines. There are a lot of options for customization, and everyone will find a play style and loadout to suit their skills, from long-range sniper to support engineer to close-combat brawler. I liked the use of “skating” for rapid movement, but found slow motion to be worthless. Melee combat is effective for finishing off foes if you can get close enough without dying. The game relies a lot on giving the enemy vastly superior numbers; allies show up randomly during missions and can’t be issued orders. There are also other minor oddities with the combat, like being able to use appendages that have been destroyed and regenerative health that makes most encounters trivially easy unless you get surrounded. Taking these robots online is a bit disappointing, as the game is poorly balanced when it comes to some weapons and the peer-to-peer connections stink. Additionally, you have to unlock the better weapons or use the default loadouts to stand a chance against more experienced players. While I certainly did have moments of joy piloting a giant robot armed to the teeth with tailored weapons, Front Mission Evolved doesn’t offer enough of a well-rounded experience to make it a fully recommended action title.