Review: Front Mission Evolved

Front Mission may be considered one of the premier giant robot game franchises, but it hasn’t exactly had a smooth ride among Western gamers. Lukewarm commercial reception for Front Mission 3 on the first PlayStation and Front Mission 4 on the PlayStation 2 more or less torpedoed the overseas chances for Front Mission 5, the series’ latest – and possibly last – iteration as a turn-based strategy title.

That in mind, it’s unsurprising that Square Enix would try a different angle from which to hopefully drive a pile into the overseas gamer’s consciousness. It even went so far as to tap a western studio, Double Helix games, to develop the next Front Mission game, Front Mission Evolved. And not as a turn-based strategy RPG, but as a real-time action shooter.

But was it a success? Is Front Mission Evolved a bright new future for the series, or a few steps backward?

Front Mission may be considered one of the premier giant robot game franchises, but it hasn’t exactly had a smooth ride among Western gamers. Lukewarm commercial reception for Front Mission 3 on the first PlayStation and Front Mission 4 on the PlayStation 2 more or less torpedoed the overseas chances for Front Mission 5, the series’ latest – and possibly last – iteration as a turn-based strategy title.

That in mind, it’s unsurprising that Square Enix would try a different angle from which to hopefully drive a pile into the overseas gamer’s consciousness. It even went so far as to tap a western studio, Double Helix games, to develop the next Front Mission game, Front Mission Evolved. And not as a turn-based strategy RPG, but as a real-time action shooter.

But was it a success? Is Front Mission Evolved a bright new future for the series, or a few steps backward?

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Front Mission Evolved (PlayStation 3 [Reviewed], Xbox 360, PC)
Developer: Double Helix Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: September 28, 2010
MSRP: $59.99

The people of Front Mission‘s world speak in acronyms. The global power blocs of the D.H.Z., O.C.U., and U.C.S. vie for control of the world’s orbital elevators, but a bunch of S.O.B.s from the S.O.D. would rather that the expensive Babel-alikes be blown to H.E.L.L. via some W.M.D.s, with the mysterious S.C.I.O.N. plotting in the shadows. In the midst of it all is a young test pilot, Dylan Ramsey, and his techno-magical defense system, E.D.G.E.

That said, the story largely jettisons the need to be familiar with the series’ dense lore. Set fifty years after the most chronologically forward Front Mission title, you won’t really need to know much beyond the fact that a “Wanzer” is apparently what people decided to call a forty-foot-tall walking death-machine of the war-torn future-present. Unfortunately, that grab for narrative accessibility also jettisons much of Front Mission‘s signature geopolitical complexity and moral ambiguity. You’ll never be questioning who’s really in the right during Dylan’s adventure. As a result, the dry, newsman-like exposition that narrates the various military maneuvers that take place between the regular missions feels out-of-place and distracting, ultimately irrelevant to what’s actually taking place during the missions and in the cutscenes.

Speaking of cutscenes, most occur via the in-game engine during missions, and are full of middling voice performances and dramatic pantomime, all taking place between characters locked within their individual cockpits. It’s like watching two theater actors spouting lines and gesticulating at each other from phone booths set on opposite sides of the street. It is doubtless entertaining, but more than a bit awkward.

Each of Front Mission Evolved‘s stages is a strictly linear point-to-point journey, destroying the legions of enemy wanzers, tanks, turrets and helicopters that stand between you and the next cutscene. The pace of battle is much faster than one might initially expect from a game about giant robot warfare, as all wanzers are equipped with jet-powered “skates” that allow them to zip to and fro at high speed, clearing long jumps and closing distances, governed only by a thrust meter that depletes with use. With the right equipment, side-strafing and brief midair hovering is also possible. Individual parts can be targeted, such attacking legs to impede mobility or damaging arms to reduce accuracy. Given the pace of combat, though, that level of subtle tactics is unnecessary except at higher difficulty settings. It’s simply more expedient to go for the center mass, aiming to kill rather than disable. Killing enemies and damaging bosses also builds up an “E.D.G.E. meter”, which when triggered engages what is essentially mecha bullet time, slowing down surrounding enemies, applying a damage multiplier, and turning everything monochrome and shiny for a while.

There’s a bit of a problem with that E.D.G.E. gimmick, though. Since most regular enemies are easy to kill, they’re not worth wasting it on. At the same time, even at its highest level, it doesn’t last long enough or increase damage output enough to make boss fights less of a giant slog, with you trapped with them in a closed arena, dodging their patterns and lunging for periodically respawning health and ammo pickups every so often. Oh, and did I mention that the game uses health and ammo pickups scattered about the level, in addition to adding regenerating health for your wanzer’s main torso? Well, it does. So much for realism, and so much for making the optional repair or ammo backpacks useful.

If nothing else, Front Mission Evolved does preserve the series’ extensive customization system. You can spend money (earned for kills and completing objectives) to buy and sell parts and weapons to mount in nearly any combination to make up a walking death-machine of your very own, carefully balancing the weight of your big stompy bits with the power output of your selected torso. Zippy little robots that dash and hop wielding dual machine guns, four-legged behemoths mounting guided missile launchers and heavy bazookas, melee monsters with clubs and pile bunkers, or long-range sniper duelists with scoped robo-rifles, all are within your grasp. Or, if you’re not into all the tweaking and tinkering, a handful of prebuilt setups are also on offer. “Battle Skills” can also be equipped to individual weapons, and have a random chance to activate properties such as damage amplification or accelerated lock-on times. Double Helix seems to understand that the customization angle is easily Front Mission Evolved‘s strongest suite, and they’ve made smart decisions that make tweaking your ride convenient. You can enter the garage between missions, and the game over screen allows you to re-customize your wanzer and start the mission from the last checkpoint. That’s particularly helpful for dealing with bosses. Getting killed on-mission isn’t a complete chore, since you can always return to the garage to try a different approach, perhaps one with more missiles or shoulder-mounted gatling guns.

Occasionally Dylan and crew will need to dismount their wanzers and go on foot to shoot some dudes with assault rifles. These are easily the game’s weakest moments, when it transitions from a serviceable mech action game into a barely adequate third-person infantry shooter. There’s no cover system, enemies take too many bullets to kill, ammo is too scarce, and the sections are simply too bland. What these sections do have going for them, however, is that they are are the points in the game where there’s an actual sense of scale, as some battles require Dylan to fire rockets at wanzers or other wanzer-sized enemies. Narrowly avoiding bullets the size of one’s torso to pop off a few shots with a rocket launcher can feel quite harrowing. Overall, the on-foot sections are short enough that they don’t detract too much from the overall experience.

Graphically, the game is unimpressive, showing bland environments and muted textures. The robot models are detailed, but pace of the game leaves little breathing room to admire them outside of cutscenes or the garage. The sound design, though, is exceptional. Weapons have a loud report and distinct sounds. Actuators whine, jets roar, and close-range explosions threaten to blow out your subwoofer. In a way, the wanzers deliver a more impressive “vocal” performance than the voice actors.

I was unable to adequately test the multiplayer as it was difficult to find anyone to play with even three weeks past release. The few matches I did play, however, revealed an adequate selection of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and control-point game types. Custom setups can of course be taken online, where one will likely find much more creative opposition than in the solo campaign.

In the end, Front Mission Evolved feels like more of a lateral step. As a mech shooter, it’s functional, but unremarkable. As a part of the greater Front Mission canon, though, it may as well not exist. And yet, with all that in mind, there is still an almost primal nerd thrill in being able to point your crosshairs at a target and hold down all of the shoulder buttons on your controller, then see (and hear) four distinct weapons all let loose simultaneously. That kind of alpha strike excitement is the sort you can only really get from a mecha game, no matter how bland in the greater scheme of things. Given the relative scarcity of halfway-decent mech games, that alone would probably justify a weekend rental.

Score: 5.0 — Mediocre (5s are an exercise in apathy, neither Solid nor Liquid. Not exactly bad, but not very good either. Just a bit “meh,” really.)

Josh Tolentino
When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh served as Managing Editor for Japanator. Now he mostly writes for Destructoid's buddies at Siliconera, but pops back in on occasion.