Extra Disclosure: A slightly modified version of this review (which I did write) was posted here on 10/23. This is the original, unmodified text. Enjoy. :)
Full disclosure: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, played on a 720p LCD television (component video) and 5.1 stereo (optical audio). The reviewer’s Xbox 360 is a launch Elite unit that has RRODed once.
Front Mission Evolved was released in September for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC. It was developed by Double Helix (known primarily for licensed titles), and published by Square-Enix. The most recent addition in the Front Mission series, and breaks the series tradition as a tactical strategy RPG, instead coming out as a third-person shooter.
Front Mission Evolved is set in a future Earth that is divided by politics and warfare. Taking place decades after other entries in the series, the nations have expanded into space using orbital elevators and networks of satellites, an uneasy truce stands between the nations until an unknown group attacks New York city and destroys the orbital elevator. The story follows Dylan Ramsey, an engineer and wanzer test-pilot, during the attack as he tries to find his father, a scientist who disappeared in the attack. Shortly after he is drafted into the military and joins in the battle against a terrorist force bent on making peace in the world, preferably by force.
To be completely honest, the story, while smarter and more mature than average, is still every kind of sci-fi fluff gamers and otaku have come to expect from Japanese writing. Though it is nice that they tried to put in a Kojima-esque plot twist near the end, it really doesn’t seem to be much more than a justification for a piece of plot that is preposterous within the context of the story. Front Mission has always been about the politics, and this story forgets about it halfway through.
Front Mission’s combat takes place primarily with mechs called Wanzers (from the German “Wanderpanzer”, meaning “walking tank”), with a few short sections taking place on foot. This action takes places as a third-person shooter, skewing the standard over-the-shoulder perspective for over-the-head, switching to over-the-shoulder during the on-foot missions.
What sets the gameplay apart from other shooters is the wanzers. While the idea of giant mechs are generally unrealistic, the wanzers themselves are more realistically built than most other mechs found in anime and games. Rather than being fast and fragile, the wanzers, true to their name, are big lumbering machines that won’t go down fast or easily. Wanzers can “skate” around areas quickly. The wanzers are customizable with modular parts, body, arms, and legs that can be switched out between missions into almost any configuration. This allows players many options for how they outfit their wanzer. Each part has its own health, and destroying each does something different: legs lower movement speed and restrict boost time, while arms lower accuracy.
The combat is where Front Mission Evolved shines. As stated earlier, these are not the standard anime mechs. They look and control like big, heavy machines. The steps are small and slow while the skate lets the wanzer move around quickly while the energy gauge has energy, allowing the player to be more mobile by moving into melee position, or dodging incoming attacks. Up to four weapons of various types can be equipped, from machine guns to missiles and (brass) knuckles, and all of them are at their fingertips, with hand weapons on the shoulder triggers, shoulder weapons on the bumpers. While movement speed can be slow, turning and aiming is fast and responsive, with a limited amount of aim-assist, and all weapons except melee can be fired independently and simultaneously with the other weapons.
Encounters are designed around enclosed areas with many obstacles to dodge around. The only real issue is there are very few types of enemies, which are upgraded as the game progresses to match the improved weaponry and parts the player receives. The AI, while smart enough to dodge behind obstacles themselves, are not that intelligent, having only really one AI script based on their type. Brawlers melee, Snipers snipe, Assaults shoot from ranges based on their weight class. Just like your wanzer, enemy units can have their arms and legs damaged, while destroying the body destroys them mech. Despite the limited enemy types and AI, all the fun is in the large scale battles with loads of bullets and missiles coming at you and your AI teammates.
One downfall is the handful of boss encounters. While the normal encounters take place in varied environments against large groups of enemies, the boss encounters take place in open, static arenas against single enemies. With two exceptions, these battles are against other wanzers that completely break the rules the game sets for the construction of wanzers. The use parts that are unavailable to the player, loadouts that are too heavy for all but the heaviest unit the player could build, the parts can’t be destroyed, and their armor is absurdly high. The bosses have no AI, instead being pattern based. The fights devolve into battles of attrition, the player moving between armor and ammo pickups in order to survive. Only the mid and end boss try something different, with encounters against large machines that don‘t need to meet the rules. They provide situations that the other bosses can’t hope to provide, and the game would have been better with more encounters like these.
The other downfall is the on foot missions. They work, but they’re not good. They’re meant to tell portions of the story where the characters can’t use their wanzers. The game changes to a simple Gears of War wannabe that gets the basic functions right, but provides none of speed, excitement, or variety of the games it tries to be, or even the wanzer portions of the game. The areas are not interesting to fight in, and there are only 3 enemies and weapons. It’s fuctional and nothing more. Thankfully they’re only three of these sections, and they’re short.
There really isn’t much to say here. Either there’s something wrong with my sound system (not likely, movies always play properly), but it has long been my belief that most developers are terrible at implementing 5.1 audio mixes into their games. Directional sound effects are good, but any music and voice-over work that does not come from a definite source are typically drowned out. The music is not always much of a loss, but developers need to learn to play directionless voice-over through the center channel. Thankfully, Double Helix has managed to learn that. Now if only the writing was better, because the actual voice-overs range in quality from relatively good, to pretty cheesy. At least none of them are flat.
But the explosions, oh boy. They look big on the screen, and they sound big on the speakers While not always original, the sound effects are loud and appropriate for the weapons. The wanzers seem to have stolen all of their movements sounds from the live-action Transformers movies, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though you’d think big machines would be louder.
Front Mission features online play in the form competitive multiplayer. The modes are Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Conquest, and King of the Hill modes. The customization aspect is brought in, allowing for a wide range of potential wanzers.
This is where my primary beef with the game lies. Multiplayer represents the game’s best aspects combined with technical issues that left this reviewer in a controller chucking mood. The available modes aren’t that interesting, but integrating the wanzer customization turn it into something else entirely. Playing against the AI is nothing compared to playing against other people. Matches can be fast and furious.
Provided you can actually get a game. There’s already an issue that this is a rather niche title, so not all that many people will be playing it online, but that’s not the problem. The problems lie in the backend. With such a small player base, matchmaking is practically non-existent. With all the high ranking players always on the same team against lower ranking players, games that should be evenly matched end up becoming complete bloodbaths. The unlocks are based on player rank, and are not balanced at all. Higher ranks have a definite advantage regardless of skill, unlike other games where high rankers have more options but skilled low rankers can still be competitive. Here, low ranked players might be able to occasionally leech a kill or some assist points, but its several ranks before players have access to equipment that is even remotely competitive. As well, certain weapon combinations and strategies are overpowered, and can’t be easily countered. Loadouts, whether prebuilt or custom, can’t be changed in match, making it hard to counter some of those unbalanced loadouts.
There is no apparent host priority, no host migration, players can’t join matches in progress, and dropouts can happen quite easily. But this reviewers most often seen problem is the game’s propensity to freeze. It happened occasionally during single-player, but not often enough to be anything more than system hiccups. But something noticed every freeze during multiplayer came when transitioning from game lobby to game, or game to lobby, usually the latter. Backing up save files is almost needed as the transition loads happen at the same time as the autosave, and can corrupt them.
I’ll switch to first person here. Simply put I like this game, but I want to love it. A lot people like third person shooters, but not everyone likes mech combat games, regardless of form, so this game isn’t for everyone. But, it has it where it counts, the gameplay, and that’s the part I love. Guns firing, missiles exploding, wanzers going every which way, and it gets better in multiplayer. But the technical issues with the multiplayer soured my opinions. I’ve seen single players dominate entire matches, and even concerted efforts have trouble taking them down. I personally, am an average player but have ended up the fodder for guys with a shield (shields are overpowered) and rockets multiple times. The most egregious though was the freezing. Having to back up save files for any reason other than transporting them shouldn’t be necessary with how ubiquitous autosaving has become, but the autosave also occurs during loading, any loading is where all my freezes have occurred. I twice lost my single player save file, as well as several ranks worth of XP to freezes when loading into the postgame lobby.
So if you like mech combat games, you can’t really go wrong, because the gameplay itself it absolutely solid. But with the issues I had, I can’t really recommend it, at least not at full price anyways. If the online was fixed, or at least less prone to freezing, then I would call this a buy, but I can’t. Rent it, or buy after discounted, but don’t expect any except the hardcore players to still be playing online at that point.