By all accounts, the Front Mission series games should have had more success in North America, especially during the PlayStation era. A strategy game from the same developer that made Final Fantasy Tactics, it replaced the common medieval fantasy setting with a more futuristic one, featuring mechs and became a wildly popular series in its home country. The series was never more than a blip on the radar here, resulting in a few games never being published in North America due to expected low sales. For the current generation of consoles, Square Enix has decided to give the series another shot. Instead of going with the realm of strategy RPG, the publisher decided to go with an approach that would appeal to Western audiences and asked developer Double Helix to help them accomplish that task. Front Mission Evolved is now an action shooter, and while some may not like the genre change, others may have been expecting more from the game.
The plot seems familiar to anyone who has been an anime fan for the last few years. In the future, the world governments have consolidated into three super-nations: the UCS (North and South America), the OCS (the European Union and Australia), and the Republic of the DNZ (China and other Asian countries). For years, the three super-nations have had an uneasy peace as they try to police their space and try to prevent wars. However, that peace is easily broken when a space elevator in New York City is attacked by what would appear to be OCS forces.
You play the role of Dylan Ramsey, a civilian mechanic who was working on the latest prototype wanzer (short for walking panzers or mechs) when the attack happened. Since your father died in the attack, you take it upon yourself to go to the scene and investigate. You begin your journey, enlist in the UCS army, try to find out who was behind the attack and discover the purpose behind the actions of the terrorist group The Sword of Damocles.
Right off the bat, the story is a mess. The idea of a common civilian being the savior of the universe is one that has been done countless times, and this version doesn't add anything to the common structure. The conclusion is pretty predictable, as are the major plot points. The characters aren't very memorable. The hero, for example, doesn't have much of a personality aside from wanting revenge, and the strong female lead with a haunted past is an anime cliché. The main enemy doesn't appear too much, and while his cause is grand, he doesn't pose much of a threat.
The story also makes the mistake of trying to introduce too many characters who do nothing. The three female villains, for example, may have some character (one is overtly religious, one is crazy, and the other is oversexed), but because they are introduced so late in the game without any real background, there isn't a reason to care about them. A bad story can be ignored in favor of good action, but it's a disappointment when it occurs in the Front Mission series, which has always prided itself on good plots.
The single-player portion consists only of the Campaign mode, which is split up into three different gameplay sections. The first section, and the one that takes up a majority of the game time, is wanzer combat. With the exception of a few missions, where certain parts become necessary (i.e., quad legs and a hover system), you can customize your wanzer in a few areas. Machine guns, melee weaponry, shotguns and sniper rifles are some of the handheld weapons that you can have; shoulder-mounted weaponry includes Gatling guns, homing missiles and rocket launchers. New parts and weaponry can be purchased with cash earned after each mission or found in cases from the battlefield.
You only need to pay attention to the overall weight of your wanzer and its power output. As long as the weight doesn't distress the power levels, you can go into combat. While fighting, your wanzer won't move very quickly, but you have the ability to dodge attacks with an energy-powered boost. If you have the right backpack applied, you can skate across the ground, an equivalent to a sprint move, to get to locations quickly or avoid enemy fire. You also have access to an ability called EDGE, which is the equivalent to a bullet-time mode from other third-person shooters. It can be built up by destroying enemies, but since the ability is unavailable for much of the game, don't expect to use it very much.
Oddly enough, the parts damage component doesn't feel very effective. When arms are completely destroyed, the aim isn't affected. You get arms that are on fire but are fully operational and can still provide lethal melee attacks and no loss in weapon effectiveness. Leg damage feels substantial, though, as skate maneuvers and simple walking suffer if the leg armor is compromised. Other body parts don't have that ability, but wanzer torsos regenerate health over time. The parts damage is the same for enemy wanzers, so it's futile to go for the limbs instead of aiming for the body. Considering how precise you have to be to destroy any limbs on enemy wanzers, you may never get to exploit the feature by the time you complete the game.
Mounted helicopter combat is the second section of gameplay, though it is a relatively short section. No matter what kind of wanzer you have, you'll always be sporting two machine guns and two sets of rocket launchers, each with cooldown meters to balance their infinite ammunition. The sections are enjoyable for those who want to dish out wanton destruction on the field. Interestingly, this is one of the few sections where the player doesn't have a regenerative health system, so players who take too many bullets will ensure a quick death before reaching the end of the segment.
The final section of gameplay takes Front Mission players to unexplored territory. For the first time, players can engage in combat outside of the wanzers, and it plays much like any third-person shooter on the market, complete with the over-the-shoulder camera view. Unlike your wanzers, you can only tuck and roll instead of jump, and your default layout will always consist of a machine gun, rocket launcher and grenades, though you can pick up a shotgun if you wish. The basic mechanics work well enough, but one thing that seems to be missing is a cover system. The only way to perform any cover is to use the old mechanic of ducking behind objects. The game never gets to the point in combat where you lament the lack of a proper cover system, but it is surprising to see a modern third-person shooter without this basic mechanic in place.
The campaign mode's overall length and level of difficulty round out the list of general problems. The game has 15 levels to traverse, and while that might seem like a healthy number, the overall length clocks in at six hours on normal difficulty, give or take a few restarts due to boss battles and seemingly good sniper wanzer shots. No matter the difficulty level, it always seems to be buffered or amplified by two separate factors. The first is the AI, which is lacking on both sides. Enemy wanzers and soldiers seem to appreciate being bullet sponges; they sometimes stand out in the open and wait to be shot or stay put, even when a grenade lands next to them. On the other hand, your allies have no trouble getting in the way of your shots, absorbing missiles and gunfire you dish out while doing nothing on their own to weaken enemy forces.
The second factor that affects the game is the presence of power-ups. Thanks to the abundance of power-ups that litter the field, you rarely have to worry about losing too much health or running out of ammo. Boss fights might have been the only time you would worry about those things, but with power-ups respawning at the same locations after a few seconds, it makes the fights easier than they should be.
While the single-player portion is fairly short, the multiplayer component can make the game last a while. There are four different modes, each one restricted to the use of wanzers and each one with an eight-player cap. Like most online games, you have standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes with variable time and kill limits. Domination is a team-based game where you take control of as many turrets on the map as possible. Captured turrets help destroy members of the opposing team that are trying to capture the territory, and points are given based on how long a team can hold on to their captured turrets. Supremacy plays out similarly, except that the captured nodes do nothing against enemy forces.
The modes seem to be getting an even amount of playtime, though Domination produces much longer matches than normal due to the nature of the game and the use of turrets as extra players in the match. Like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the game rewards players with experience points instead of cash, and going up in the ranks rewards players with access to better weapons and parts for their custom wanzers.
The ranking system translates well, especially since they've also adopted ways to earn experience outside of winning matches and kills, such as using your skate ability for certain distance milestones, destroying wanzer parts before the torso explodes, or using some weapons a certain number of times. The high level cap (70) ensures people will be playing for a while if they want to unlock every single part and decal for their wanzer. The online performance is good, with voice chat coming in clearly and no hint of lag. It's a good component overall and will likely appeal to players craving online mech action.
Graphically, Front Mission Evolved isn't spectacular, but it reaches what one would expect from an average title in the current console generation. The mechs look good and animate fine. The particle effects from their weapons look fine, though the fire effect when a body part is close to being fully damaged isn't the best. The same can be said for the environments, which look very good and sport some nice details but feel lifeless in cities due to a lack of bystanders fleeing from the scene. The character models also look good, even if they don't have anything that makes them stand out among other character models.
The sense that the graphical package is average stems from the lack of anti-aliasing. Jagged lines show up almost everywhere and become a distraction. Another hint of the graphics quality comes from the cut scenes. The facial animations may overdo things, but they animate nicely. What doesn't look so good is the use of lower-resolution textures for the uniforms and, in some cases, wanzers. Uniform lines and insignias are blurry and blocky when seen up close, and the camera is pretty close in these scenes. With the skin textures being more detailed, it is a shame that the rest of the objects don't get the same texturing treatment.
The sound walks a fine line between good and awful. The effects are loud and booming, with every explosion blasting through your speakers with some clarity. The sound of the wanzers walking is similar to how the Transformers move in the films, so it almost feels like every servo and gear can be heard. The music is sparse and only come in through the menus and cut scenes, but the orchestrated tunes complement the scenery and situations. This provides some balance to the voice acting, which is laughably bad. Dylan isn't too bad, but he only stands out because he is one of the few characters to act normally. Your various co-pilots walk the gamut from wooden delivery to misplaced emotion, while the other friendly characters try to be too dramatic when delivering normal sentences. Your enemies fare no better, as they deliver some bad lines with even worse acting by overplaying their roles or adding too much emphasis where none is needed. By default, the volume of the game is much louder than your normal volume output. This is one of the few times where you'll want to turn down the volume on your speaker system or options menu just to get sound levels back to normal. On top of that, the opening CG cut scene is rife with buzzed clicks; it doesn't occur in any other scene, but it's still an annoyance.
The controls are fine. Your trigger and bumper buttons all correspond to the weapons located on the wanzer. Hitting the left bumper fires the weapon on your left shoulder, so it becomes quite easy to remember. The A button makes the wanzer jump, the X button initiates a dodge, the B button initiates the skate option if the wanzer configuration has the ability, and clicking in the right stick initiates the zoom. The only knock is that the machine can't stop on a dime, so even slight steps take you further than you anticipated. It's problematic if you're trying to get a precise shot on nodes, but considering that almost all of your targets are also quite large, it doesn't turn out to be much of a problem. On foot, the controls are similar to Gears of War minus the cover system.
As it stands, Front Mission Evolved is a decent entry in the series. The use of wanzers is still appealing since we haven't been inundated with too many games using them, and the multiplayer component is quite strong. The controls are good, and while the sound and graphics could have been stronger, they hold their own. The campaign mode and weak story drag down the game. As a complete package, Front Mission Evolved makes for a good weekend rental, but unless you plan on playing a ton of multiplayer matches, it's not worth buying at full retail price.
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