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Producer Square-Enix’s Front Mission is a long running turn-based strategy game in which giant bipedal robots are the primary tools of militaries the world over. Known as Wanzers, these combat mechs are powerful and versatile in many combat situations. A product of Double Helix Games, Front Mission Evolved continues the story that is left off in Front Mission 5: Scars of the War, but changes the focus and gameplay style from strategy to an over-the-shoulder third-person shooter, similar to Armored Core. However, as in each incarnation, Front Mission has had a large and involving plot with anime-inspired cutscenes and characters.
In Front Mission Evolved, 22nd century governments of the world have begun expanding into space by the use of great orbital elevators. The player takes on the role of a military contractor whose father is believed killed in an attack on an elevator based in New York; with the assailant unknown and the situation getting worse by the moment, the player acquires an experimental wanzer that was being developed with the aim of tracking down his father’s assailants. There is a great amount of story being told at you from a narrator, and the action takes place between large time gaps meaning that you often don’t know what you’re fighting against or why. The story is complicated (acronyms everywhere) and often redundant, with mostly forgettable characters and an otherwise uninspiring plot that lacks any great emotion. The characters themselves are fairly one-dimensional and don’t really lend themselves to great storytelling as they are either attempting to explain the plot or throwing one-liners at each other. The boss enemies are onscreen long enough to threaten you, and for you to wreck them takes way too long; often 6 minute battles repeating the same 5-second patterns to whittle down their HP. Plus, if you didn’t enjoy beating on them for those prolonged encounters, you get to fight the same bosses for each boss battle (up to 4 times for one). If you didn’t get used to and bored by them the first time, I’m sure you will by the fourth. What’s more, there’s little to involve the player in the story other than the fact that he happens to have a wanzer and there are enemies to fight.
A big part of the series is the ability to customize your Wanzers with new parts, weapons, and equipment. Evolved still maintains that customization, requiring players to balance power, speed and weight so as not to leave your wanzer with a crippling weakness. However, the selections are fairly streamlined and straightforward, with only the torso, arms and legs available for customization. This aspect of the game is much like Armored Core’s, as many of the options are similar; legs can vary between bipedal, hoverpad, quad or reverse joint, each with their own speeds and weight tolerances. Unlike AC, there are only two limiters to part selection, mainly being weight and power. Power is a standing capacity for parts, equipment and weapons; weight is the way of determining the strength of a particular part or item. In order to effectively use the power capacity, players must weigh the strength of the weapons they wish to use against the mobility of the machine. In this way the game forces you to choose between a lightly armed speed demon and a slow, lumbering maelstrom of fiery death.
Front Mission Evolved has become a whole new experience for the Front Mission series, as the action has shifted into real-time, on the ground combat. These changes may alienate players used to the slower, tactical chess games of the normal top-down field of view. This original strategy-game format, while popular in Japan, only found small success in the west and so a spinoff title was created to capitalize on the more US-friendly action formats to fill that gap. The game has a low learning curve, as it’s not difficult to understand and utilize the controls quickly. The missions are varied and interesting, as the player has many roles to fill fighting off enemies. Several stages includes manning gun turrets while another forces the player to escape a crumbling area. However, this attempt at action games with the Front Mission brand has some serious problems. The graphics of this incarnation are mediocre, at best; they focus on making the characters look adequate at the expense of environment. The game reminds me of Fighting Force or ONI, fighting beat-em-up titles in which the player must clear a room of enemies to continue, over and over. It becomes a drudge as the same few enemy types are thrown at you over the length of the game. The sense of scale isn’t really that evident; the giant robots you use are perfectly suited to the areas they traverse and there are few interactions between humans and robot to help develop that sense. In between the wanzer fighting the player gets out in order to accomplish more human sized tasks, which is more often than not clearing rooms of enemies. This aspect of the game is much like Mass Effect’s combat, except that it feels rushed and unpolished. Its times like these when I realize how much Mass Effect’s cover system is an integral asset to the gameplay, as often in Evolved looking out to see where to shoot means getting hit. It’s clear that Front Mission Evolved is meant to be a plot-simple excuse to have giant robots fight each other, which admittedly it does excellently. The combat is smooth and the simple targeting system allows you to put out a surprising amount of ordnance while evading attacks; again, if you're familiar with Armored Core, the combat is very similar.
The gameplay is very much like an old-school arcade coin-op beat-em-up and feels shallow in that respect. There are bonus objectives scattered around each stage, and the sheer investment of time locating all of them while being harassed for being slow hurts the pacing of the story a bit as well as the action. The distraction ultimately makes it feel like a make-work project. There are often up to five different types of collectables on each stage, with some requiring you to collect up to 20 of some of them. Unfortunately, the game makes some of this collection required, as money becomes too tight to develop your wanzer effectively without them.
Square-Enix’s Front Mission Evolved is a short and entertaining action game spinoff to a series that is much more effective at presenting the player with slow and tactical decisions. It takes many conventions from other games in the genre, but ultimately comes off as a B title that doesn’t push any boundaries and has a forgettable plot. It does shine in making you feel in charge of a powerful robot beast, but doesn’t go for the hard sci-fi of Armored Core. Good for a try, or rental, but lacks the staying power or replay value due to its simple design. Initially released in Japan on September 16th, Front Mission Evolved is available in North America on September 28th and Europe October 8th.