Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: Front Mission Evolved

Platform: PS3 (also on Xbox 360, PC)

Developer: Double Helix Games

Publisher: Square Enix

# of Players: 1 (online 2-8)

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score: B+

While there have been a handful of action-based Front Mission games on older consoles, the long-running franchise is primarily known for its solid turn-based gameplay, large cast of characters and near infinite customization options. Taking the series into the current generation, Front Mission Evolved hits the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC as the most accessible FM to date, provided you don't mind the big switch to faster-paced mech action reminiscent of Armored Core with a dash of Mechwarrior for good measure. The game manages to take familiar locations, mechs and gear from the series, ditch the more tactical grid-based strategic play in favor of offline and online combat while being quite a blast to play in either mode. The campaign isn't anywhere as lengthy as any of the turn-based games (that's a given when you're blasting away at enemies in real time as opposed to planning out your moves), but the game looks and controls great overall. Online play has a few hitches, but is quite a bit of fun when you find the right group of folks to play with.

Like previous FM titles, you'll end up meeting and teaming up with or battling against a variety of characters, but this time out, your compatriots are strictly AI controlled and most boss battles have you alone and/or outgunned, forcing you to think fast, move and shoot faster. You play as Dylan Ramsey, a young wanzer pilot who, while testing out an experimental mech, gets thrust into a large scale conflict after New York is attacked by an enemy hell-bent on starting up a new world war. Dylan's father, a scientist caught up in the initial battle is presumed dead, so our now revenge-minded hero ends up as part of a group of military wanzer jockeys that sets out to get to the bottom of things. This of course, involves turning a whole lot of enemy wanzers into scrap metal, lots of melodramatic cut scenes, a sprinkling of humor and the aforementioned boss battles. Sure, there's a bit of predictable plot points here and there, a love interest and an overly hammy boss or three in the mix, but it all gels if you're in the right mood.

FME has three combat modes, Wanzer, on foot and "on rails" shooting from a wanzer carrying airship. Controls in all three modes are great and players who want a hefty challenge will find the lack of auto-aiming a relief from many other shooters that assist a wee bit too much with the shooting. Other than homing missiles (that require a few seconds to lock on) and sniping (which can make a few areas easy), the game offers up enough in the way of weapons that players can tailor the gameplay to how they want to play. Customization is about as deep as in the strategy-based FM games, although you're limited to tricking out only Dylan's wanzer. nevertheless, the amount of parts, weapons, decals and other gear increases to the point where you can replay missions over and over using different setups.

Actually, unless you've an eagle eye, superb aim and lightning reflexes, it's entirely possible that you'll be replaying missions just to track down all the hidden enemy sensors, icons and gold caches often socked away in tricky to reach locations. Shooting or collecting these items adds more gold or decals to your collection and given the cost of upgrades, it's best to do as much as you can to make as much loot as possible. FM gripers who miss the tactical aspect might be surprised to know that there's actually some strategy involved in terms of figuring out which weapons and wanzer parts work best for certain missions and yes, boss fights. Set the game to Hard and be prepared to go down in a flaming heap against a few of the tougher foes within a few seconds.

Dodging, blocking and random skill attacks pay off, but Dylan also has an E.D.G.E. mode that allows him to slow down time in order to get in additional damage. This skill isn't unlimited and in fact, can only be activated after dealing a certain amount of damage to enemies. It also drains quickly, but can be turned on and off as long as the meter has some juice. Additionally, energy reserves can be used (with the appropriate parts or backpacks) to "skate" around the battlefield or fly short distances. Combining the skate burst and flying moves will allow access to a bunch of well-hidden items or sensors you'd have normally missed out on, so it's best to keep an eye peeled in every direction as you go through the game. Some stages are timed sections or areas where any hidden items need to be nabbed rather quickly before a cut scene sends you onto the next mission. Fortunately, you can select and replay stages in any order once you've cleared them if you're interested in hunting down every last collectible.

Part damage is similar to older FM games, but to keep the action going, you and your enemies are only slowed down or have your aim and range hampered dramatically is arms or legs are wrecked. You can't "completely" destroy anything other than an enemy's torso, but trust me, it stinks when a boss blows out your legs and you lose something like 70% of your mobility. Avoiding taking damage allows your torso section to auto heal over time, but you'll need to seek out armor pickups to regenerate any damage. Ammo is plentiful, thanks to enemies dropping it when destroyed, but some areas and boss battles only have a few armor caches that need to be used very wisely or you're a pile of metal toast.

Although Double Helix has "westernized" the FM experience (Yoshitaka Amano's more fanciful art style was a hallmark of the earlier FM games), there's still a bit of Japanese-style flair to the game. Characters and cinemas exhibit that certain "look" to them, the voice acting sounds like it should (RPG central casting!) and of course, the assorted wanzers and weapons are suitably to exactly similar to their 2D and earlier 3D counterparts. In-game, the frame rate is stable even with multiple mechs on screen, explosions and other effects taking place. You'll also find destructible objects in the environments, but these are limited to trees, vehicles, assorted street furniture and unfortunate enemy troops (ouch). It would have been great to be able to take down a few buildings (as in the Earth Defense Force games), but I guess we'll have to see if this makes it into the next installment. While most levels are laid out in a mostly linear fashion, you'll find a wide variety of maps throughout the game along with plenty of ground to cover as missions get tougher.

On foot portions feature "run & gun" themed combat with the ability to duck, roll away from trouble or hide behind objects for cover. However, this isn't one of those games where you'll be trapped into "sticky" walls or other surfaces as you're pinned down by mobs of bobbing and weaving AI troops that are hard to kill. You can use a small assortment of guns, toss grenades or fire your trusty bazooka to get rid of any opposing forces, but definitely save a few of those explosive rounds for the occasional Dylan vs. wanzer battle. It would have been nice to see more destructibility in these sections as well, but overall, the on foot portions are fun to play and over fairly quickly. You won't need to fret about overheating weapons like in the wanzer or transport shooting sections, but getting blasted by an enemy soldier's rocket launcher or a wanzer's machine gun is no picnic, that's for sure.

If I had a major complaint about the game it would be with the way too small typeface used in the menus. If you happen to have a bigger HD setup, you're golden, but I'd say anyone with a TV under 32" or still using a standard definition TV will need a pair of reading glasses glued to a pair of binoculars in order to figure out which buttons to press even with the on screen prompts. Too many games this console cycle have no scalable text, a bad thing for those that haven't yet upgraded to HD (or worse, have upgraded but haven't bought the proper HD video cables). I'm not sure if this can be patched, but it's definitely something to consider for any future FM (or other) games.

Online play is decent and petty active from what I got to play. I did notice some lag and the occasional connection issue, but this could have been due to a number of factors such as the time I logged on and the amount of people playing matches or looking for matches. Online opponents are pretty tough and between all the heavy ordinance and trash talking going around, I was pretty outmatched most of the time. Yes, I'm more of a solo player than a hard core shooting guy, but some folks are really having a grand time blasting other live players into junk over and over. The game is also supposed to support DLC at some point, but I didn't see any content available just yet. I'm sure it's on the way, though, as Square has a legion of FM die-hards out there who want more wanzer action.

While FME is a solid entry in the franchise and I like the more action-oriented direction here, I'm actually keeping my fingers crossed that we'll see another turn-based FM or eventually see a US version of/sequel to Front Mission Alternative, the Japan-only PSOne action/RTS hybrid side story that allowed players to control a few squads of wanzers across a wide selection of maps. Perhaps even Double Helix can tackle the job, given how well this game turned out. Whatever the next installment is, I'll definitely be on board and ready for duty as soon as it hits the shops.

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