Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: Atlus Co.
Developer: Takara Tomy
Release Date: September 9, 2008
As an Xbox 360 owner and an avid RPG fan, I'm very glad to see more of this oft-ignored genre coming to the system. Particularly pleasing was the fact that Atlus, a company that usually focused on the PlayStation and Nintendo DS, was lavishing its attention on the 360. Unfortunately, Atlus' releases have been mostly lackluster. Operation Darkness and Spectral Force 3 both suffered from being visually unimpressive and bland, but they had something over Zoids Assault, the latest offering from Atlus. They could be fun, which is more than anyone can say about Zoids Assault
The "story," such as it is in Zoids Assault, tells of a cold war between two fictional warring nations, which is threatened by the appearance of a new weapon that is capable of launching nuclear weapon strikes from a distance, something that was previously thought incapable. It seems like an interesting enough idea, but the actual story is dry and boring, and made even more so by the unbelievably lame way in which it is told. Instead of engaging characters and interesting backdrops, 90 percent of the story is told through still pictures with a long, drawn-out monologue recounting off-screen events. You don't even get to participate in many of these events. You play as Mace Squad, who spends most of its time just off-screen from the actual important characters. The other 10 percent of the story is told through still shots of newspapers with text superimposed over it, and it manages to be even duller than the still-picture monologues. The incredibly lackluster story line could be forgiven if the gameplay managed to be exciting, but Zoids Assault's gameplay is less interesting than the plot segments.
Your team in Zoids Assault is made up of five different pilots, each with a Zoid, which is basically a four-legged tank that's shaped like an animal. Each Zoid has a single weapon mounted on its back that the player can switch, although each of your five Zoids can only equip certain weapons. These weapon types — ranging from shotguns to rocket launchers to pile drivers — are interesting, but you'll pick a favorite rather quickly and slowly upgrade that weapon as new types become available. There's almost no customization to be done on your Zoids beyond this. You can choose between Light, Medium and Heavy Armor, but there were only a handful of occasions where I found it useful to switch away from the Medium armor, as Light tends to be too weak and Heavy tends to nuke your movement speed.
Your pilots are slightly more customizable, although not quite up to the level of any recent strategy game. Each of your five pilots has a different specialty: Two are good close- to medium-range fighters, two are good long-range fighters and one is your healing specialist. As you complete levels, these characters will gain new skills, which you can then equip onto the pilots, ranging from passive abilities that cause you to do additional damage or increase the effect of certain attacks, to active abilities that let you increase attack power in exchange for a weaker defense or to heal other Zoids. It's a neat idea in concept, but the actual function is pretty lame. Most of the abilities are borderline useless, and since you only have five members, you're going to end up with a very set line of abilities. There's extremely little room for customization, and the choices between your skills feel more like a concession to fans who expect to be able to choose their strategy in a SRPG instead of an actual gameplay element.
The combat in Zoids Assault is your bare-bones, grid-based SRPG combat. You take turns moving, based on your Zoid's speed stat, and shoot each other with your weapon. The major gimmick in Zoids Assault is the addition of the Scan system. Each Zoid has a passive scanning ability, which emits in a cone in front of them. When near an enemy, you instantly scan them, and the more Zoids that are scanning an enemy Zoid, the higher that Zoid's scan bar goes. For every one-third of the bar that is full, you gain a Support Attack on that particular Zoid. If a unit attacks a Zoid with at least one-third of its scan bar full and another Zoid is nearby who is also in range to attack, that Zoid also attacks for free. By planning your positioning and scanning, you can gain up to three additional attacks on a Zoid per attack, more than enough to destroy all but the strongest enemies in the game.
Combat is an incredibly boring and repetitive series of following the exact same movement patterns over … and over … and over again, due to the extremely limited options available to your Zoids and the Scan system. Bunch up your team for maximum scan, pound the enemies, repeat. There is almost no strategy involved, especially since your unchangeable five-man team each has very clearly marked specialties. The only real challenge in defeating foes comes from making sure you've got a clear line of sight, and once you get indirect attacks, a line of sight is no longer necessary. This is only exacerbated by the incredibly slow pace of the game. Even at its very fastest, you still have to spend an agonizingly long time watching poorly textured Zoids move into position and fire their weapon, and the more Zoids who join in on a Scan attack, the longer this goes on. To be fair, there are a couple of missions that almost approach interesting, usually missions where you have to defend multiple objectives or complete the missions within a time limit, but those only comprise an incredibly tiny fraction of the game's short length.
That is another problem with Zoids Assault. It's generally a short game, but it's incredibly short for a SRPG. There are only 14 missions, and many of those are fairly short. There are no real reasons to continue playing beyond that; there are a few optional unlocks, such as a new paint job or a new weapon, but there's nothing here that would change the face of the game. There are no skirmish maps between plot maps or anything that justifies playing the title more than once, if you can even bring yourself to finish it once. The entire game, at its longest, will probably take you a maximum of 10 hours, and it will be a long, tedious, grinding 10 hours that could be better spent on more enjoyable games.
It really doesn't help that Zoids Assault is so clearly a budget title. Even ignoring the completely awful story line segments, it isn't a good-looking game. It is bland and brown, with lackluster-looking Zoids models that are bafflingly uninteresting to see in motion. You'd think that Tomy could make a group of animal-shaped combat robots interesting, but instead they're dull, repeating the same handful of animations over and over again until you're frantically pounding on the "skip attack" button just so you don't have to watch the firing animation for the umpteenth time. The level design is unimaginative and boring, full of unmemorable brown battlefields that seem basically interchangeable. It looks slightly better than Operation Darkness but simultaneously manages to lack the variety and style that made Operation Darkness' sub-par graphics bearable.
The voice acting, at least what little there is of it, is reasonable, if not great. The female soldier who voices the monologues does an OK job, but her voice is neither interesting nor spirited enough to make the substandard writing shine. The members of Mace Squad basically all sound identical, and even after 14 missions with them, I couldn't tell them apart. Indeed, the only reason I remembered who the leader was happened to be because he was Mace 1, and not because I grew to know him as a character. The music and sound effects are as bland as they come.
In some ways, Zoids Assault is worse than a game that is actively terrible. Zoids Assault manages to be bug-free, but that is perhaps the kindest thing one can say about it. The boring repetitive gameplay, awful story, bland characters, unattractive visuals and short length all combine to make Zoids Assault possibly the worst RPG for the Xbox 360. It offers nothing, not even to die-hard fans of the Zoids series, and certainly not to Xbox 360 owners who are looking for an SRPG to tide them over. It's rare I say this, but Zoids Assault is a game to avoid at all costs. Xbox 360 owners who are truly desperate for a SRPG would be much better off with Atlus' older release, Operation Darkness or waiting for something better to come along.
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