Front Mission Evolved Review

A series of games stretching back to 1995, when the first game released for Super Famicon in Japan, established Front Mission as an iconic strategy game franchise. In a style similar to Square's role-playing games, they combined turn-based tactical combat with epic stories told through increasingly cinematic cutscenes as console technology advanced. Front Mission Evolved dispenses with the tactical combat part and instead of instead of watching the action in a movie has players piloting their giant walking mech--called wanzers--first-hand in a third-person action game.

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This dramatic shift may draw the ire of many fans. Once past the initial shock, though, it's hard to argue the appeal of playing with the wanzers that have looked so powerful in the cutscenes of the prior games. Even as a member of the group put-off by the change in style, I quickly warmed to Front Mission Evolved. From many hours spent with the prior games I had a pretty well-formed image in my mind of what a wanzer would be like. It would feel at once both massive and lithe, dashing around the battlefield equally adept at closing in to deliver a devastating punch with the robot equivalent of brass knuckles or sit back and unleash a barrage of missiles. Front Mission Evolved let me do exactly that.

It also brings in all the wanzer customization that had such tactical implications in prior games. A variety of body, arm, and leg parts--each with a different balance of speed, capacity, and strength--allow a lot of room to tailor wanzers to fit a favored play style or specific situation. Personally, I favor something at the heavier end of medium--mobile, but able to carry enough arms to pack a serious punch. Better parts unlock as the game progresses but I had no trouble putting together a setup that felt good right away.

Just as I started to let myself think this could be on the road to something good, it all started to unravel. Much of the trouble develops from a critical flaw at a fundamental level. After giving me the wanzer of my dreams to play with, none of the regular enemies I faced posed much of any threat. While fun at first, the lack of opposition undermined the potential satisfaction of building out just the right wanzer and then using it effectively on the battlefield.

Not that I could have really planned ahead either. For some inexplicable reason, the designers left out the mission briefings that would provide the intel needed to properly configure my wanzer for battle. As an added slap, a couple of midgame missions suddenly require the use of a quad-leg wanzer without any real explanation why. The quad-leg arrangement allows very heavy builds but it's also ponderously slow. The whole point of customization is letting me decide on those trade-offs. Want me to use quad-legs? Create a mission where I decide it's the best fit.

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Possibly in an attempt to make up for the weak AI of the rank-and-file enemies, the bosses swing to the opposite extreme making for excruciatingly frustrating battles. They seemingly ignore the rules that apply to every other unit in the game, including my own. Their parts can not be damaged, ruling out any sort of tactics such as crippling their legs to slow them down, and they lay down punishing waves of fire without regard for overheating or running out of ammo. Locked into confined arena-like areas, each of these confrontations--and there are a few--becomes an increasingly aggravating chore of dashing around hoping a repair powerup spawns in time to stay alive and get in another shot.

As irritating as the boss battles are they at least have more reason to be in the game than the handful of on-foot sections. I suspect these were thrown in to break up the action and help reinforce the sense of scale. Whatever the rationale, poor execution reduces them to nothing more than wasted time that could have been spent in my wanzer. The gunplay is lifeless, as are the sparse environments, and nothing of matter ever happens to justify having them in the game.

Front Mission Evolved's online modes neatly sidestep the design issues that plague the singleplayer campaign. Against human opponents much of the tactical potential of configuring a wanzer and playing to its strengths comes right back into play. Probably due to carryover from the singleplayer, the pace of play makes it difficult to succeed with a slow, heavy wanzer. There's still plenty to play with, though, in weapon selection and learning the right range to fight effectively from with a given loadout.

Online also includes a basic experience system for rewarding skill in battle like getting a high kill to death ratio or surviving a match without dying. The points earned go toward unlocking new wanzer parts. It's rather rudimentary, though, compared to the player progression systems in other popular online shooters. Online has its own underlying weakness as well. With only four very similar modes, two of which are deathmatch and team deathmatch, to play on a paltry five maps it stands to get old well before reaching the top of the experience system. Just one more example how both in single and multiplayer Front Mission Evolved nailed the critical core element of piloting a wanzer and then bungled the game to take advantage of it.