There’s a strange lack of tension in Front Mission 4, considering that the Front Mission storyline is about nations perpetually warring with each other using bipedal tanks called Wanzers, and making battlefields out of inhabited cities. I couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was until I was most of the way through the game.
One time while playing, my girlfriend watched for a few minutes, and I asked her if she felt tense watching a city being made into a war zone. She pointed out that there’s a distinct lack of human element in the game; there’s no people running for their lives, no civilians to protect, not even any repercussions for hitting buildings with missiles on accident. Hell, there’s not even any vehicles on the side of the road!
The epiphany hit me like a ton of bricks. The previous installment – Front Mission 3, of course – for all the bad things I have to say about it, successfully made me feel as if my life was constantly in danger. It also made me feel like, by grace of piloting a Wanzer, I was constantly endangering other people who could care less about the pointless conflicts which spark the fuels of war. FM3‘s protagonists would always talk to new people in new villages and hear how they were handling themselves. Many of the side characters were war orphans. Enemies sometimes fought out of Wanzers. Even the city environments used for battles felt more real; there were actual signs of the places being inhabited, and players were allowed to destroy parts of the environment by shooting at it. Front Mission 4‘s exposition suffers heavily from never having its player consider the perspective of non-combatants.
Front Mission 4 occurs chronologically in the series after the events of the original game. It puts the player in the midst of two ongoing stories. The first of the two being the story of the Durandal, a U.K-based European Wanzer research team dedicated to studying all aspects of Wanzer combat, from physical to psychological.
This story is told from the perspective of Elsa, a French military graduate and new member of the team. Shortly after the story begins, unidentified Wanzers attack several armed fortresses in Germany, leaving no evidence of their origin. The European Commonwealth – a Supranation consisting of the majority of Europe as we know it – sends the Durandal to help Germany investigate the attacks, despite the fact that they’re not actually a combat unit.
The second of the two stories is told from the perspective of Darril and his squadron in the army of the Unified Continental States (U.C.S), a Supranation that consists of the entirety of North and South America. They are stationed in Venezuela to try and force the nation into submission after attempting to secede.
One day, while on patrol, Darril and his squadmates, Renges and Chaeffer, observe a plane crash. When they inspect the crash site, they find millions of dollars in gold, and decide that the best course of action would be to desert the U.C.S army and try and make it out of the Venezuela with their newfound, unearned bounty.
It’s a bit difficult to talk about the two as a complete story, because their relation is marginal at best. The Durandal plot arc is the meat of the story, as the Durandal works to uncover a conspiracy to sabotage the E.C’s resources and blame the attacks on the U.C.S, prompting a war between the two. The plot follows a very predictable path: the Durandal goes to places to investigate, comes home empty-handed, looks bad, and gets severely remprimanded. But, they of course keep getting second chances because the British Prime Minister trusts them implicitly.
The only thing that really ties the Durandal’s story arc with the U.C.S arc is that Darril and Elsa finally get into contact by chance, and Darril’s random antics have caused him to stumble upon critical evidence that will turn the situation around for Elsa and co. Naturally, they indeed get things going their way, and save the day.
We can see the plot’s every move coming a mile away; we know who’s behind everything from the very beginning, and we know every time the Durandal is being led into a trap. One could set their watch to the time when the Durandal’s luck suddenly changes and everything starts going wonderfully for them, and then, that’s it! There’s no real atmosphere to take in, and the individual members of the Durandal exist solely for the player to have a squadron of six to send into battle, rather than being imperative to the narrative device.
Darril’s story is another matter entirely. It’s kind of original, but it’s also deplorable; while on the Durandal side of things, the characters are boring, static dialogue manufacturers, Darril’s company has some personality, but it’s hard to get behind their cause for many reasons. For one, their motivation is just morally bankrupt. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing to see in a story, but it’s weird when juxtaposed against the otherwise good-natured personalities of Darril and his friends.
More importantly, though, it’s just plain stupid: even if they were to escape Venezuela, I have a hard time believing that the U.C.S government and military couldn’t track down and court martial three deserters. I find it even harder to believe that three military men with good heads on their shoulders could manage to let such possibilities slip their mind entirely.
The main theme of Front Mission 4 seems to be “If you are going to fight, make sure you’re fighting for something.” But, is that really a theme worth exploring? It seems juvenile when examining the main antagonists, all of which are combat veterans. They take to fighting with unusual fervor, and don’t seem to care about much else. They’re easy to hate, because they appear to be causing a lot of trouble for no good reason. Naturally, no one is going to argue that such a self-destructive lifestyle is ultimately better for a human being, so what the hell are we even examining such a thing for?
The core foundation of FM4‘s gameplay is your typical turn-based Tactics RPG: characters move in square grids, and all allies take their turn, followed by all hostiles. Any attack is subject to immediate counter-attack as long as the character is in range to counter, with the exception of long range attacks. As is typical of the Front Mission series, combat is done in Wanzers, and instead of characters having a job class, players can buy parts to make a Wanzer which specializes in a certain type of offense.
All attacks inflict damage at random to one of four Wanzer parts, each with their own max HP. Losing all HP in the legs reduces movement range to one square; losing the arms disables a weapon equipped on the arm; and losing the body removes the Wanzer from combat entirely. All actions in a turn are dictated by a character’s Action Points (AP), which are used for both movement and attacking. As such, players need to carefully balance movement and attacking during their turn.
The new perks of Front Mission 4‘s combat lie mostly in significant improvements to FM3‘s skill system. Instead of learning skills based on equipped parts, Wanzers have built-in skill lists with abilities they can choose to learn by spending Enhancement Points (EP) gained after battles. Skills still activate at random, but FM4 has thankfully done away with all the skills that could randomly screw your pilot over by activating at the wrong time.
Backpacks – accessories that allowed Wanzers to use items in combat or equip heavier weapons – have now been modified to include Backpacks which can repair Wanzer parts and induce status effects, amongst other things. The last major innovation to the combat is the Link System – before battle, players can choose to ‘link’ a character to one or more other allies, allowing them to attack in tandem during battle if other linked allies are in range.
Unfortunately, Front Mission 4 still winds up being a rough game to play for a few reasons. For one, it’s still obnoxious to have no control over which part of the Wanzer a pilot shoots (allowing them to do so breaks the game – the original Front Mission proved that years ago). I wish I could think of a solution to that, but after three FM games, I still come up with nothing.
The Link system doesn’t give you any option to have someone not join in the attack. This might sound like a silly complaint at first, but sometimes linked Wanzers will chime in when they have a low chance to hit from their position, essentially wasting their AP.
Enemy Wanzers are also extremely passive; if they can’t reach you from the spot they’re stationed at, they’ll just sit there and watch you kill off their friends. This is extremely abusable up until the final few battles, because you can just kill any Wanzers that rush you at the start, slowly repair your Wanzers, and systematically pick off the enemies while ensuring your team is always at full health.
At thirty hours, it’s hard to really say if Front Mission 4 is worth anyone’s time except die-hard fans. The story is half predictable and half pointless. The combat has some nice ideas, but the AI is so braindead that any strategy requiring critical thinking is unnecessary. What exactly is the point of making a Tactics RPG with combat so mindless, anyways? Is that really any different from making an RPG with hour-long random battles?