The Front Mission series, which is normally Japan-exclusive, has tested the international market with mixed results. Front Missions 3 and 4 received lukewarm reviews and failed to make an impression outside of Japan. Double Helix Games, best known for Silent Hill: Homecoming, has changed the gameplay altogether and released Front Mission Evolved for the entire world to play. The ambition behind Front Mission Evolved is evident and the combat is a lot of fun, but it always trips over its own embarrassing story and voice acting.
The Front Mission series takes place on an Earth divided into military superpowers that make war with the use of giant mechanical robots known as wanzers. If this is already sounding generic, you haven’t seen anything yet. The narrative of Front Mission Evolved is easily the weakest part of the game. The writing stumbles awkwardly from one cliché to another: phoned in messages about how politicians make war, the tough-as-nails but secretly vulnerable female love interest, the token black commanding officer guaranteed to get killed off within three hours and the grizzled old general destined to make a heroic sacrifice.
Main character Dylan Ramsey is an engineer whose job apparently requires him to check his personality at the door. When a mysterious enemy force attacks the city where his father works, Dylan hijacks a prototype wanzer, and winds up accepting a commission as a military specialist when his father is apparently killed. Nothing is as it seems when it turns out a secretive terrorist organization has been causing the nations to war amongst themselves. What results is almost the Starship Troopers of video games. It’s impossible to take seriously but it takes itself so seriously that it’s rather fascinating.
The game is actually presented fairly well and the industrial-tech designs of the wanzers are colorful and fairly diverse. Gameplay feels authentic owing to the crisp sound effects of machine gun fire, jet pack humming, and rockets being launched. Wanzers move swiftly but genuinely feel as big as they look. Unfortunately the characters wind up being the weakest point again. Facial expressions look like characters are made of clay and the voice acting is lackluster at best. It’s a mixed bag; for every engaging wanzer battle there’s a goofy cutscene with PlayStation One-level voice acting.
Fortunately the robotic wanzers make for much more entertaining gameplay than narrative. Giant mechs have been used in game settings before, but it’s rare to see their potential utilized so effectively. You control your wanzer with an intuitively simple system that lets you control four weapons at once using the shoulder buttons and triggers. Gameplay is run-and-gun based from the third person perspective and generally your goal is to get from Point A to Point B while blowing up everything that shoots at you. It’s a familiar situation, but the action is a blast with a variety of enemies including melee “brawler” wanzers, sniper wanzers, and everything in between.
On the menu screen you can customize your wanzer with extremely deep and varied options. You have the option to choose from all sorts of body parts that have different benefits to power, balance, accuracy, and agility. These armor parts appear as part of sets. The Zephyr armor set, for instance, will make you a fairly balanced all-around wanzer if you equip the Zephyr left arm, right arm, torso, and legs. Alternatively you can mix and match different wanzer armor pieces and see what you can come up with. Equipping various body parts and weapons is streamlined nicely into a simple weight to power ratio. Simply put, the more heavy gear on your wanzer, the more it weighs. Weight cannot exceed power and you have a limited amount of money to spend but otherwise the drawing board is yours.
Weapons are also a ton of fun to experiment with. You can equip up to four weapons at a time – one in each arm and one on each shoulder. As long as you have enough weight to support a particular configuration, you can easily simultaneously equip and fire a shotgun, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, and a minigun. Weapons themselves have handy special abilities, such as an assault rifle being able to randomly trigger ten seconds of acidic rounds. The diversity can lend itself to a lot of different play styles and tactics: Will you opt for a lithe, agile sniper wanzer with a powerful melee attack, a double assault rifle wanzer with a repair backpack, or a colossal juggernaut with two shotguns and two miniguns?
As fantastic as the customization options are, Front Mission Evolved doesn’t always seem to know what to do with the robust system. You can equip hover-legs to move across water or spider-legs for additional weight output, but these are rigid scenarios. You only need to utilize specific weapons or strategies once or twice throughout the entire campaign. The opportunity to use mechs in more open-ended levels with more dynamic strategies was squandered since missions run you through strictly linear shooting galleries in fun but repetitive battles.
The difficulty curve also tapers off towards the second half of the game. While you’re developing the weight capacity to equip two assault rifles and two rocket launchers you’ll facing the exact same enemies with almost no variation in the final mission that you were in the first game. Repair kits and ammo crates litter the ground and there’s a time slowing mechanic that amplifies your damage and gives the enemies even less of a chance. Boss fights look spectacular but generally boil down to avoiding the obviously telegraphed attacks and whittling down their massive health bars by shooting generic weak points.
A lot of these problems stem from the fact that Front Mission Evolved shows signs of a tragic ailment often seen in video game development. The symptoms in Evolved include plot points being introduced before instantly being resolved, deep gameplay applied to shallow situations, and a complicated battle plan set up by the story that winds up being resolved within a few skirmishes. Front Mission Evolved is a victim of its own ambition. Maybe the team hit a deadline or they had to cut corners with today’s massive video game development costs but something went wrong. The game ironically runs and looks fine, but it feels unfinished in the sense that Double Helix didn’t have time to create their envisioned game.
Multiplayer is similarly fun but typical, although you’re definitely in for more of a challenge when pitted against enemy players with their own customization options and superior AI. The fun combat is applied to several typical scenarios including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Territory Control. It works well with a game that emphasizes heavy mech combat but the game has a level up system similar to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 that lets veteran players unlock bonuses. If you go up against a player with much more experience you immediately wind up with the deck stacked against you and it can ruin the game.
In the end Front Mission Evolved isn’t bad so much as unremarkable. It’s functional, has entertaining combat and sports a surprisingly robust customization system. Unfortunately it winds up falling short on a lot of potential. It’s repetitive, clichéd, and just another shooter except with the mechs. As it stands, Front Mission Evolved winds up being a run-of-the-mill popcorn game. It passes the time nicely but you’ll probably forget about it after you’re done.
The story as a whole is embarassingly weak but the art design and setting showcase the game fairly well.
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The run and gun shooting is fast-paced and executed well but never really evolves or develops any challenge.
In-game sounds are authentic and warlike. Everything from machinegun fire to rockets launching sounds great, but voice acting is atrocious.
The campaign will run you about six hours, although even with the multiplayer there isn't much beyond that.
Front Mission Evolved is competent but average. The good ideas were here but they couldn't translate into the execution.