Yes, something as new as new gets. As recent as your last breath. As…. current as a box of currants…..
Anyway, I picked up a copy of Front Mission Evolved this weekend, developed by Square Enix. What is it? Why did I get it? I would not be surprised if many people had not heard of the Front Mission games, as they have not been rapid with their releases over the years, but their origins can be traced back to the likes of the SNES console, but mainly in Japan and the US. The only Front Mission games I have seen in the UK have been Front Mission 3 and also a reboot of that game for the Nintendo DS, simply called Front Mission.
Essentially, if you like giant mechs with huge machine guns spitting bullets the size of a fat person from a gun the size of a truck then this is for you.
Front Mission 3 was my only other experience of this game on the PlayStation many years ago and took a prideful place among Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil Nemesis as well as one or two other titles from my old PlayStation library when I got a PS2. I kept them for the backwards compatibility and disposed of the other games I was not interested in. The story is set in the future of Japan where the main character is an engineer for a weapons contractor delivering a prototype WANZER (ohh wait, not that Wanzer, these are a Walking Panzer) to the JSDF when all hell breaks lose and the base is attacked by unmarked forces.
It was one of the few games where you had some limited differences in story based on decisions you make in the game. Early you were presented with the option of staying put and keeping out of the fight, only to be dragged in by one faction, or heading for the front lines in search of your sister who works on the base, and getting tangled up with another faction. From that point your opponents would differ and the story would be told from a different perspective, only to join together near the end with a different ending. And even during game play, where you are going through the story, you could be given a choice such as the left path or right path in the road, and face different odds, though your end point was the same regardless and only the fight was different.
The combat was turn based, you could equip your Wanzer and the Wanzers of other team members between phases in the story, you could visit bars looking for work on occasion or to catch up on gossip or look for key characters and intel, and by or sell Wanzers and weapons at black market and official merchants depending on your character’s path so far. There were RPG elements too, with characters gaining experience points and levelling up, training skills and getting better at fighting. You could capture enemy Wanzers and break them down for parts, or blow bits of them to make them impotent in combat. Pilots would eject from their Wanzers too and be vulnerable, and it was sometimes required for the mission to do this, by either activating something on ground level or even capturing a Wanzer.
So, when I heard about Front Mission Evolved last year I kept an eye out for it. So far I have not been disappointed, save for a couple of small issues with the game, and one large one that I discovered not long ago as I played through more.
It has much of the same game play as the last game on the PlayStation, with the combat feeling very inch of it’s size. But there is one crucial difference and that is the combat is simply live action rather than turn based. Also you do not control the whole team like you could in FM3, and the other Wanzers in your squad are controlled by the computer. However you can still blow off chunks of the enemy like their legs to slow them down, or their arms to reduce their accuracy and damage with the mounted weapons. Aim for the torso and you blow them away completely etc etc. There are even sections where you leave your Wanzer and go into a building.
Now when this first happened, and I knew it would since I had seen the screenshots of over the shoulder shooter sections, I was steeling myself for major disappointment. Like ‘OK the Wanzer combat was good, so this is most likely going to be the steamy turd on the delicious cheese cake.’ We all know what this is like when we played Mass Effect and ‘Woah we can drive around in a tank dropped from the air? Sweet!’ and the inevitable ‘Urgh…. these controls really really blow!’ thing. However, the game developers at Square Enix have done as good a job of the combat on the ground as they have in the Wanzers. (Saying Wanzer never gets old btw) Especially a moment when an enemy Wanzer come storming into a hangar while you are looking for something and begins ripping the place up with a machine gun as big as a car. You really o feel naked and vulnerable, except for your missile launcher slung over your back.
However, the storyline is on rails and I have not encountered any character choices to be made by me in the occasional cut scene between fighting. And the story starts pretty much the same. Wanzer test pilot working on a prototype when New York is attacked by unmarked forces and you go looking for your Dad who works at a government military building. You are drafted into the military quickly after assisting some Wanzer army units heading in your direction and encounter a boss fight with a mercenary Wanzer piloted by a cocky and talkative arsehole who gives way too much away with his gloating. So the story does suffer a little from elements like this. Not to mention the obvious romantic subplot that emerges between the main character and the female army Wanzer pilot giving jealous looks at the pretty and intelligent engineer from the testing labs.
And it seems even zombies cannot keep their noses out of futuristic giant mech shooters when the merc leader shows up and somehow uses a system that you also have in your Wanzer, called EDGE, to resurrect and control the dead Wanzers around you. Not bad for a module that is meant to slow down time a little (or rather increase pilot awareness and reflexes, but slowing down the game is a gameplay mechanic used to simulate this). Also, when you shoot a Wanzer until it explodes, I expect that the machine cannot function due to physical breakage… so how they suddenly got up and fought on is a mystery to me. Finally, the female army pilot seems to have some kind of secret and horrible past she does not like to talk about and gets overly dramatic about as she has panic attacks every time the merc leader shows up. The drama is pretty overblown all round with two of the mercs being evil baby-eating kitten-strangling gibbering psychos talking about the symphony of destruction or the coming of the Valkyries.
Despite the odd storytelling and character types the controls are very good, though the aim speed is a little too fast for my liking on the XBox. This is where the PC version might be better with a mouse as movement speed is constant anyway so the digital input of a keyboard is no issue there.
However, after the stars in my eyes vanished I could see a few little problems. They do not emerge until you get a short way into the game, and you are moving through a mountain road with lots of trees around you. When you turn sideways the trees get in the way of the camera, even when you zoom in with the precise aim mode, and you cannot see what is happening. Not good when the road turns 90 degrees and enemies are waiting for you. Also, you do not have the options to capture enemy Wanzers and break them down, and the available body parts and weapons increase only as the story advances. So it seems more like you are simply being given these things because you will need them, and not because you captured them and earned them. It makes this part of the game tat I loved in FM3 seem unfocused and shallow and they really might as well have left you with one single Wanzer type and ask you if you would like dual machine guns, a rocket launcher or the rifle and send you on your merry way.
Now comes the huge problem that made me see red when it emerged. So far I had done the first couple of chapters and spent a little time upgrading my Wanzer between fights before the story moved on and I did not notice that the game resets your Wanzer and configures it for you at the start of a mission. In FM3 your Wanzer would not change unless you changed it and you had to hope it was good enough to get you through the next combat phase. If not then go back and reconfigure and try again with what you have. However, while this is a little annoying and tolerable, since each time you would make changes anyway to kit out the new stuff you have been given, the real wet fart in the face came when I found the default setting of one mission – a rifle, missile launcher and agility backpack – was useless and I craved my twin machine gun, twin missile launcher configuration back. But when I did this and tried for the 5th time to beat this opening engagement it would not let me fight unless I had the rifle. No you must have the rifle! How else would know what fighting with a rifle is like?
It sucks! That is what it is like. My launcher takes out the ranged targets on the shore better than the rifle, and I know two machine gins will not reach them but they will chew up the Wanzers air dropped on top of us as well as the gunships flying over head better than both. Let me have it my way!
Same goes with the hover and quad leg attachments. OK the one mission where you need the hover legs, because there will be a need to cross water, leads you into using them in the pre-mission cutscene with a logical argument. So you kind of go ‘Yeah ok, I will use those. It sounds cool.’ and don’t even notice you cannot use anything but those unless you try to change them. However, when a mission forced me to use the quad legs when they were introduced, the argument was ‘you can carry more guns’ given their power system boost. Again, I saw this as a good thing but the quad legs are slower with a shorter skate time. (Skating being a fast means of movement and strafing) But when I passed this mission I wanted to get rid of them and back onto two legs that I was used to. After all, bipedal mechs are why people buy these kinds of games in the first place. And for no logical reason I could determine, I was not permitted to use the two leg system. This, again, sucked.
Seems some games try to behave like your mother and still try to feed you sprouts. You get what you are given, and you clean your plate! Want does not enter into it. So as I said, the game might as well give you a pre-built Wanzer to do each mission with and drop the pretence of being able to customise them beyond the weapons you can take, based on certain restrictions like power and funds. I don’t find myself mixing and matching the same as I did with FM3, and last night I realised why not. In FM3 different Wanzer parts were good for different things like close combat vs machine guns, vs rifles etc. Some bodies gave boosts to ranged accuracy while others gave power increases or critical hit and stun chance modifiers to power fists and batons. And while some of this is still present, it has been watered down heavily.
You can equip weapon mods called ‘battle skills’ where a chance based activation gives different properties to your weapons like more damage, EMP stun, extra limb damage and so on. It is kind of like Mass Effect’s weapon mod system with multiple slots available on higher class weapons. And while some arms have increased accuracy over others, the worst in class do not drop below 90% which is something I can live with if it means I have more armour and can carry the weapons I wish. Again, this makes picking arm A over arm B a done thing an there is a clear line of good, better and best between them. The configuration sections seems more like busy work and useless labour, even if it does not feel like one of the circles of hell as such it is not a good thing either.
One final thing as I have been playing and writing this breakdown. Have you ever played one of those games where you have NPC allies but every enemy on the map seems like they are only interested in you and you alone? And your allies are completely useless in causing damage to your enemies and you have the sole task of killing everything that hits the map? If you find these as annoying as I do then you will be annoyed with Front Mission Evolved since is does this too. Maybe it is because I launched right into the hardest setting that does this and when I reply to unlock more of the hidden stuff it might be a different story. But as someone that values a little realism in my gaming I find these mechanics to break the credibility of a game.
Overall, Front Mission Evolved is not quite the game it succeeds from a few years ago, and in some ways it is a good thing, though I cannot help but feel if they re-jigged the old game to modern standards, even with turn based combat, and kept the depth of character building and Wanzer capturing,as well as the meaning behind the customisation process, it would not have been worse. Was this ultimately a bad reunion for me with an old friend? Not really, no. The pace is fast in fire fights which keeps you thinking and moving and the chunky feel of the heavy metal combat is something that can only be rivalled by the imagination of a child playing with his robot toy collection stomping all over the small plastic army men and tanks.