Front Mission is one of Squaresoft's more obscure series. It's also a long-running series, with the first Front Mission game coming out in 1995 for the Super Famicom. Since then, there have been a few Front Mission titles, most of which have been strategy-RPGs with a focus on tactical battles and mecha customization. The exception would be Front Mission Gun Hazard, an action-themed spin-off for the SNES in 1996. Gun Hazard was an excellent game, but it didn't have the same appeal as the complex strategy-RPG titles, and the series remained consistent in its genre choice afterward. Almost 15 years later, Square Enix is taking another shot at turning its tactical RPG into an action game with Front Mission Evolved, but this experiment was much less successful than Gun Hazard.
Front Mission Evolved is set in the not-so-distant future. The world has been divided into three blocs, roughly equivalent to America, China and Europe, although it's not quite that simple. The nations are in a state of unrest, with battles being fought with mechanical robots known as Walking Panzers, or "wanzers." The unrest threatens to become a full-scale war when an unknown terrorist group launches an attack on the USN's Space Elevator, which is located in New York City. This attack is just the first of many, and the three blocs are quick to discover that none of them is the culprit. Instead, a terrorist group called the Sword of Damocles is attempting to destroy the world's space elevators for unknown reasons. Caught in the middle of this is Dylan Ramsey, a civilian engineer working on E.D.G.E., a wanzer defense system that is crucial to the Sword's plans. Dylan's customized wanzer may be the only force that can stop them.
Instead of sticking to the somewhat-realistic military story lines of other Front Mission games, the developers of Evolved took their inspiration from Japanese anime — an odd choice when you consider that the developers are American. There are plots that appear to have been ripped directly from various Mobile Suit Gundam shows or Metal Gear Solid. The plot borders on incomprehensible, and I only have an idea of what's going on because I recognized the concepts that it was borrowing. Characters are introduced for seemingly no reason other than to pad out the cast. The plot moves from place to place without reason, and a lot of the story doesn't make sense if you think about it for a bit. There are only a few cut scenes throughout the entire game, and they're over relatively quickly. The characters are as bland as cardboard cutouts, and there isn't a notable one in the bunch, so it's difficult to care when they die in silly ways.
Front Mission Evolved is a rather traditional third-person shooter with a giant robot coating. You move and walk around pretty much as you would in most modern shooters, and your weapons are bound to the shoulder buttons. The triggers fire the weapons in your hands, and L1 and R1 fire your shoulder-mounted weapons. The gameplay is simple and easy to understand. The only notable gameplay mechanic is the ability to "skate." By pressing in the left analog stick, you boost around the area for a brief period of time, moving faster and doing more damage if you initiate a melee attack. You can also perform a quick boost dodge by pressing the Square button. Your boost is limited by your energy gauge, though, so the more you use it, the faster the gauge drains. If you use it too much, your wanzer will overheat, and you'll be unable to skate or dodge. This is a quick way to get shot to pieces if you're not careful.
Your main character's wanzer is equipped with E.D.G.E., which is a special defense system designed to boost a pilot's reaction time through neural connections. In game terms, it functions as bullet time. As you kill or damage enemies, your character's E.D.G.E. meter builds up. Once it is at least 25% full, you can activate E.D.G.E. to slow down enemies and do additional damage. If you wait until the meter is at least 75% full before activating it, your E.D.G.E. will gain a tremendous boost in power. It's a neat feature, but most players probably won't use it much. For one thing, it's unavailable through a good portion of the game. Because of the plot, you don't have E.D.G.E. for a chunk of the middle of the game, and by the time you get it back, you're so powerful that it's useless except against bosses. Despite being crucial to the plot, it feels shoehorned in, and the gameplay doesn't seem like it was designed to accommodate it. Using the E.D.G.E. against bosses lets you kill them before they can even initiate an attack.
While you spend most of Front Mission Evolved controlling a giant mechanical suit, there is very little in the game that makes you feel like it. The units have very little weight to them, and they zip around pretty much like a guy in armor. Even their skating ability feels like a glorified sprint button. The level design is very odd, as every area feels like it was designed to be wanzer-scale. There are some attempts at making you feel like you're in a giant suit, but most things are scaled so oddly that you rarely get that impression. Instead, you're ducking behind larger-than-normal crates or traveling through bizarrely huge sewer systems. If it weren't for the fact that you could lose limbs in battle, there'd be hardly any difference between your wanzer and a guy in a bulky suit.
One of the most bizarre design choices in Front Mission Evolved comes from the focus on body part damage. Early in the game, the tutorial indicates that you can aim for enemy limbs or legs to weaken or disable them. Throughout the game, there is never a single legitimate reason to do this. Every non-boss foe is weak enough that you can kill them faster by aiming at the torso or head. Aiming for limbs does nothing but make the battles last longer. In theory, boss fights should benefit from this, but like the regular fights, it's faster to aim for the torso.
Even weirder is the way your character's wanzer takes damage. You can lose your arms or legs in battle without it being destroyed. Instead, you … well, nothing much seems to happen. If your legs are destroyed, you move a little slower. Theoretically, destroyed arms lower your weapon accuracy, but the effect is negligible because you can continue to use the weapons equipped on your destroyed arms! Even stranger, your torso health regenerates, although no clear reason is given for this. It feels like there was the beginning of an in-depth system that encouraged targeting specific body parts and the developers didn't have time to complete that feature.
One of the most important things you can do in a Front Mission game is customize your wanzer. You can alter the arms, legs, torso, and various weapons to make it the most effective killing machine, but you also have to keep an eye on its weight. Every unit in the game has a certain power level, which determines the maximum weight your wanzer can support. You can raise it by equipping certain backpacks, legs and torsos. Every piece of equipment you can put on has a certain weight, so in order to put on your best gear, you need to make sure your wanzer has enough power. Otherwise, you have to trim some of the fat by leaving behind a weapon or using lighter legs. Some missions require certain loadouts, although for no clear reason.
Front Mission Evolved's problem is that the customization looks in-depth but is quite simplistic. There's no real thought necessary to equip a wanzer; you just stick on the best gear that you can. There's no real sense of choice because the default Zephyr equipment provides perfectly adequate accuracy, armor, mobility and power. Instead of trying to make the best unit you can within your limitations, you pick the highest numbers and set off. The game tries to limit your choices somewhat with a money system. Killing enemies or completing objectives earns money, but the money isn't spent as you buy new gear. Instead, it represents the highest possible amount that you can spend on your upgrades. It's more akin to a leveling system than anything else. If you choose to downgrade, you get all your money back. If you upgrade, the cost is the difference between your current equipment and the new equipment. Even if you ignore the optional money-earning objectives, you'll still be able to afford to trick out your wanzer.
Another bit of frustration with Evolved's customization is that the weapon balance is way off. Some weapons are ridiculously overpowered while others can't keep up. There's no downside to the best weapons and no thought necessary in choosing your loadout. The rifle weapons are insanely powerful with amazing accuracy and can one- or two-shot basically every non-boss foe in the game. Rifles have tons of ammo, and you'll never come close to running out. By the time I reached the final boss, I was using the sniper rifle and nothing else because I didn't need any other weapons. It feels like the strengths and weaknesses of weapons were decided almost randomly. Certain weapons, like the shotgun, scale incredibly oddly. Early on, a point-blank shotgun blast is as effective as a flea bite, but midway through the game, it's so powerful that it makes you wonder why you'd bother with the more limited melee weapons.
The game also has a backpack system in place, and you can give your wanzer new abilities by replacing its backpack. You can discharge EMP blasts, heal nearby wanzers or increase your unit's power output. This aspect feels clearly designed for multiplayer, as the majority of backpacks is nearly useless in single-player. The default Agility backpack should probably never be unequipped because none of the other backpacks offer a benefit that's nearly as good as the skating ability boost, and the game feels like it was designed around using skating as much as possible. Certain late-game bosses even feel like they were designed to be battled with the Agility backpack.
The worst areas in Front Mission Evolved are where the game takes you out of the wanzer, at which point it changes to a traditional third-person shooter. Dylan grabs a machine gun and takes on enemies, although the cover mechanics consist of crouching behind a box instead of sticking to it. Everything about these segments is the anthesis of fun. The enemies are brain-dead and just sit there, shooting at you and waiting to get popped in the head. Occasionally, you'll get one or two that try to move forward, but this amounts to them walking into your machine gun fire. You don't have much weapon variety — just a machine gun, rocket launcher and shotgun. Considering the enemies are basically helpless targets, it doesn't matter what you use to kill them. The other enemies are the occasional helicopters, who die if you fire a rocket in their general vicinity. Once or twice, enemy wanzers pop up, but your rocket launcher kills them in a few hits, and they're not more of a threat than the foot soldiers. These on-foot segments are not overly long, but they feel like it because they're so tedious.
Evolved's campaign is fairly short and rather repetitive. There are only a few chapters, and there isn't much variety between the chapters, so you can probably burn through the game in a single night. The boss fights are few and far between, and you fight the same bosses again and again. Sometimes you fight more than one of the bosses at once, but they're still the same recycled foes. A bigger problem is the game's low difficulty. Even on Hard, it's only challenging during a few unbalanced boss battles. Otherwise, the enemies are weak, and the gameplay isn't fun enough to make up for the lack of challenge. The game is also ridiculously liberal with its power-ups. Ammo and health-restoring items are found in practically every corner, and they even respawn within seconds during boss fights. Between that and the torso's regenerating health, death can only come from instant-kill enemy attacks.
Front Mission Evolved features multiplayer, but like the rest of the game, it doesn't appear to have seen any balancing. It has the traditional modes, such as Deathmatch, and feels like a pretty by-the-numbers online competitive multiplayer mode. You can customize a wanzer and take it online, but some wanzer loadouts are so powerful that they make picking your favorite feel rather pointless. Early on, it's best to stick to the game's pre-created wanzers, which are better than ones you can build. This might be more forgivable if the multiplayer was more interesting, but it's rather bland. There is a Call of Duty-style experience system, but it's hard to see the game retaining the necessary player base for any but the most hardcore of Front Mission fans.
Front Mission Evolved is one of the more dated-looking games I've seen Square Enix release. War-torn New York looks like a bunch of boxy buildings and near-identical rubble. The wanzers are OK, but very little care was put into their animations. They move like human beings in suits in many of the cut scenes and don't seem very "mechanical." The explosions and special effects are dull, and the character models for the wanzer pilots and on-foot segments look weird. They attempt to be realistic, but they look plastic and fake instead. The audio isn't much better. The soundtrack is uninspiring, and none of the songs are the least bit memorable or exciting. The voice acting is quite bad, and the actors don't seem to get the context for many of their lines.
Front Mission Evolved has some interesting ideas, but none of them are polished. The ideas that should have gotten more development are left to languish in favor of terrible on-foot sequences and lackluster multiplayer. There is the core of a somewhat interesting robot game here, but it didn't pan out. If you're a fan of the Front Mission series, the sudden change in genre won't appeal to you, but the action-focused gameplay isn't good enough for newcomers, either. There's little to set apart Evolved, even if you can ignore its many flaws. If you wanted to skate around and shoot robots in over-the-top ways, Vanquish is due out in a few weeks. If you're an absolute die-hard fan of robots and blowing up things, Front Mission Evolved might hold some fun in a rental.
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