Review: Front Mission Evolved (PS3)

Title: Front Mission Evolved
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: September 28, 2010
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Double Helix Games
Price: $59.99

As soon as we are old enough to cut up cardboard boxes and wrap them in tinfoil we want to be robots. As small children we may look like a cross between a broken vacuum and a walking refrigerator, but we could care less. We are robots and we are awesome. This penchant for giant, mechanical avatars is generally frowned upon as one gets older. However, we can still indulge our childhood fantasies with mechs, in movies, anime, and of course videogames. Few games provide the visceral sense of overwhelming power that mechs bring to the fore. Unfortunately, the history of mech games is littered with many more failures then successes and Front Mission Evolved, the latest in the long running Front Mission series from Square Enix, is a title that demonstrates tremendous promise, but unfocused design.

Mech games as a sub-genre can be divided into two general types. The first is an arcade experience that focuses on speed, health and weapon pickups, and a limited, well-defined arsenal of moves. The Zone of the Enders (Z.O.E.) series ably demonstrates this type of mech game, with its unfettered movement and flying, and handful of devastating attacks. Simulation is the other flavor of mech games. Its focus is customization, batteries of distinct weapons, and a progression system that doles out new parts and weapons at regular intervals. The long running Armored Core franchise is the standard bearer for this mech experience, and appears to have heavily influenced Evolved’s design.

Admirably Front Mission Evolved attempts to blend these two types of games into a cohesive whole that combines the best of both worlds. Players begin the single player game with a fairly standard wanzer (Front Mission’s name for mechs), sporting a machine gun, missile launcher, and robotic brass knuckles. As you roll through the various missions you gain access to additional parts, weapons, and backpacks, which provide special abilities like diminishing missile lock-ons and slowly repairing your armor. Every mission you complete earns you cash that you use to buy these newly available weapons. Each mech is composed of a torso, left and right arms and legs, a weapon for each hand and shoulder, and a backpack. Often you will have to stick to a particular style of play and build your mech around that theme. You need to decide with each mission should you pilot a speedy, lightly armored mech that excels at close quarters combat or play the distance game with a more ponderous, heavily armored build that sports long range weapons. However, this focus on customization is hampered in certain missions as you are forced to add specific parts to your wanzer. They give you the keys to an armory and then hand you a slingshot. For the aesthetically focused, you can customize the look of each individual wanzer body part and make a truly unique mechanical merchant of death and destruction. While these aspects of Evolved borrow heavily from other mech simulations, the controls and environments wear their arcade heritage on their sleeve.

Compared to simulation style games Evolved moves at a lightning pace with a quickly refilling boost meter that can be used to rocket you over the landscape or have you hover about twenty feet off the ground. This limited vertical component to the game is disappointing, as it restricts you to moving only on the ground with short hops in between, effectively removing height from gameplay strategy. Within the environment there are weapon ammo and armor pickups. In most stages these are so plentiful that holding back your ammunition is a waste, as another refill is just around the corner. While this limits the frustration of being deep into a mission and having your ammo supply completely dry up, it also removes the inherent tension of having only a few more rounds to take on the last of an enemy force. Also, this reliance on ammo and armor pickups hamstrings you late in the single player campaign. The last few levels are nothing more than increasingly difficult boss battles. Difficult is truly an understatement for these encounters. Many of your foes will have such devastating weapons and impenetrable armor that you will find yourself simply running patterns between the various pickups and squeezing off a few rounds in between. Ironically, Evolved’s gameplay actually devolves as you progress towards the finale of the campaign.

Luckily, when facing these behemoth bosses you have a lot of firepower at your fingertips. The button layout is streamlined and arcade-like with L1 and R1 controlling the respective hand weapons and L2 and R2 handling your shoulder-mounted armaments. This design allows you to literally fire all of your guns at once, but with the limited vertical movement you sadly cannot explode into space. The left analog stick is used for movement, while the right stick handles the camera controls. Oddly, boost can be activated either by pressing in the left stick, L3, or hitting circle. Both of these are bad choices. Using L3 makes it difficult to control when you are initiating and disabling boost, often reducing your meter to zero in the process and having you endure a recharging period. This can prove deadly in some encounters later in the campaign. Circle is no better, as hitting it with your right thumb means you have taken it off the right analog stick and now have no control of the camera. Honestly, given that the well thought out weapon controls, which I love, require the rest of your digits I can’t think of how this boost could be better implemented. Though given that boosting properly is key to success, something needs to be done, or everyone who wants to play this game needs to grow more fingers.

A third component in this witch’s brew of a mech game is its Front Mission heritage. The long running Front Mission series has appeared only twice previously on Sony systems in the United States, Front Mission 3 for the PlayStation and Front Mission 4 for the PlayStation 2. Both of these games, and indeed all Front Mission games prior to Evolved, have been turned-based strategy RPGs with an isometric perspective. So Evolved, as an action title with a third-person perspective, represents a major deviation in the series history. However, some of the unique touches from past games have survived this transition. The aspect that set the strategic Front Missions’ from other RPGs was its unique damage system. All parts of a wanzer have hit points, and eliminating any part can compromise their ability to function. Destroy their legs and they have reduced movement. Blow off an arm and the weapons that are attached no longer function. Destroy their torso and everything blows up. This feature is implemented in Evolved as well, with both your own wanzer and your opponents being able to fall victim to such selective damage. However, this impacts your wanzer more often than the foes you will face. Generally, when facing enemies it is best to just unload as much ordinance in their direction as possible, with no regard for where you are hitting them until the damage to their torso is so great that they explode. Your wanzer will often take damage in select areas, but based on the opponent catching you from a particular angle, not from a strategic desire to cripple you. If this feature was utilized in Evolved in the strategic, chess-like way of past Front Mission games it could add an interesting new element to the action mech genre, but right now it is underdeveloped and makes minimal impact in game.

The single player story of Front Mission Evolved harkens back to the tropes and themes of past Front Mission titles, specifically, personal drama set against the backdrop of global conflict. You are cast as Dylan Ramsey, a rookie engineer, who searches for his father in the wake of a surprise attack on the east coast of North America. From there you become embroiled in a globetrotting conflict that will take you from Manhattan to Antarctica, and even into space. For those who played Front Mission 3 back in the PS1 days this should sound familiar, as the character setup, a missing family member leading you into international intrigue between global factions, is pulled from the same playbook. Honestly, the story, told primarily through cut scenes at the beginning and end of boss battles and missions is not compelling. Within the first few missions you have so many acronyms thrown at you that your eyes will glaze over unless you are deeply involved in Front Mission lore, which is difficult given how few of the titles in the series made it to the States.

Overall, the combination of arcade and simulation gameplay in Evolved is less like the delicious combo of chocolate and peanut butter found in a Reese’s Pieces and more of a Frankenstein’s monster. Components from both are pulling you in different directions, not complimenting each other. The systems here can be fun in short doses, but the control problems, underdeveloped strategic damage system, and forgettable story cause this potentially great game to flounder.

Front Mission Evolved sports the clean look that mech games are known for. However, this leaves the environments feeling sterile and artificial. While the scenery changes from cityscapes to arctic wastelands to orbiting stations you are always left with the feeling that you are being herded down corridors. There is no illusion of an open world.

The individual wanzer models change to reflect your various load outs of body parts, weapons, and color schemes. However, beyond the aesthetic there are no advantages to particular camouflage patterns or color schemes. If you are trying to take on a snowy fortress the game doesn’t care if you are wearing subdued whites or every color of the rainbow. Your wanzer’s heads up display is simple and uncluttered. A mini map, your ammo totals, and armor ratings are all that you need to know about and it’s all that’s displayed. Special effects in Evolved are appropriately grandiose. With missile volleys and muzzle flashes that impress and help draw you into the action.

Customization is a central part of both the single player campaign and online battles. However, the squint inducing font size of weapon stats make it very difficult to figure out exactly where your currency is best spent. Often I would just scroll down to the most expensive weapon I could afford in a particular class and choose that one. For as much as Evolved pushes you to spend time outfitting your wanzer, they provide you with a menu system that is poorly laid out and actually encouraged me to just use the preloaded builds. This is a simple mistake that hobbles customization, one of the most promising aspects of the game.

Evolved’s soundtrack and sound effects are standard fair for the genre. Mostly relegated to explosions and objectives being barked at you through your radio. The cinematics attempt to add to the campaign’s story, but end up coming off as melodramatic and cheesy. Voice acting is equally wince inducing. None of the performances really capture your attention or make you root for the characters and their struggles. With its acting Evolved clearly is trying to ape mech-based animated films, of which there are tons. Unfortunately, it follows this template too closely and comes off as nothing more than bad anime.

An online community being built around this game could have saved it from its linear, 6-10 hour campaign and really given it legs. Unfortunately, as with most multiplayer games not sporting names like Call of Duty or Uncharted, any such community has been stillborn. Matches are four vs. four affairs and I was never able to get a complete set of eight in any of the games I played. This initially puzzled me until I actually got into a few matches. Quickly you learn that there is no matchmaking, so in your first outing you could be put up against someone dozens of levels ahead of you. This wouldn’t be as bad if you all had access to the same weapons, but weapons only unlock as you gain online levels. So good luck trying to take down an opponent outfitted with the best armor and missiles with your starting load out, which will probably remind you of the flimsy, tinfoil robot costumes of your childhood.

To the game’s credit they try to liven things up with a few distinct modes. Evolved sports deathmatch, team deathmatch, domination, where you control turrets and destroy your enemies’, and supremacy, where you attempt to control a capture point that periodically moves around the map. These game types may sound fun initially, until you realize that the capture point in supremacy only changes between two locations and that in all modes you can easily camp both health and ammo. Most of the matches I played, regardless of game type, ended up as blowouts. The more experienced players simply sat on health pickups, occasionally boosted over to grab ammo, and then preceded to rain down fiery death on me and my teammates.

Front Mission Evolved attempted to forge a new type of mech game using the best elements of its arcade and simulation predecessors. This grand experiment failed. While many of the systems are in place for a great game, none of them are as developed as they need to be. The story is not engaging and many of the subtleties in the gameplay mechanics are downplayed or ignored. This new direction for Front Mission is an interesting one and in a future sequel they maybe able to iron out all the kinks, but this game’s faults are still on display for all to see. Even given these shortcomings a robust and engaging online community could have kept this game alive. However, the punishing online environment has scared away everyone except the most masochistic players. If you love mechs and want to see a potentially new direction for this genre, give Front Mission Evolved a rent, otherwise check back in with this series in a few years. It needs time to head back to the hangar and tuneup.


Written by Justin Spielmann

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