Review: Zoids Assault (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Zoids Assaut
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Developer: Takara Tomy
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 09/09/08


Zoids Assault is the third Xbox 360 exclusive turn-based strategy game to come to us from Atlus in the past several months, and it’s also arguably the most bewildering one of the lot. It’s certainly different from the prior products. While Operation Darkness was set in a fictional version of WWII featuring vampires and werewolves, and Spectral Force 3 was set in a totally fantasy-oriented world of mythical creatures and such, Zoids Assault instead takes place in a science-fiction oriented future of giant robots waging war on behalf of conflicted countries. Despite the obvious Front Mission comparisons that one could immediately draw to the product, Zoids Assault is really its own experience: based on a vaguely known toy line from the eighties and nineties, Zoids Assault is one part war drama and one part turn-based strategy that shoots for the moon… and doesn’t even come close to hitting it.

The story of Zoids Assault is… awkward. Essentially, there’s a big war going on between the neighboring countries of Jamill and Maroll, only the actual war itself is mostly being recounted by Staff Sergeant Jessica Lambert, AKA Alexia Van Cliffe, daughter of a great weapons scientist and military defector, during a military trial. Meanwhile, you’re playing as the Mace Squad, a squad of Zoids pilots who are performing various operations during the periods of time Lambert discusses in her testimony. Theoretically, such an idea could probably be presented in a compelling and engaging fashion, but Zoids Assault doesn’t really know how to do this thing, instead opting to present a bunch of unimportant and boring details about things that don’t really have any relation to your squad for ten minutes before sending you out into battle with a bunch of characters you barely know and care about even less. This is further aggravated by the fact that there’s a significant amount of cutscenes in the game, only Zoids Assault seems to define the word “cutscene” as “still images accompanied by bad voice acting”. As you complete missions in the game you unlock secret passwords that further unlock additional information about the story on the official website, but reading documentation about the characters on the website instead of being presented with said information directly seems fairly awkward, and doesn’t help the story any. To be frank: if you skip all of the cutscenes, with one or two exceptions, you’ll find that you won’t really miss anything vitally important, and in a genre like this, that’s generally never a good thing.

Visually, Zoids Assault looks decent enough; the Zoids themselves are all well-animated in both overhead and up-close views, and the various battle effects look nice in action. The in-game environments are often serviceable, though the foliage in the game tends to look very last generation, and while the environments tend to look serviceable, they often lack in variety. The game also uses odd visual filters during gameplay to mimic the concept of the footage being some sort of stock reel video from a war documentary; while this is a fairly neat idea when using EMP attacks (more on that later), the normal usage of the filter, while one gets the impression it was chosen for artistic purposes, doesn’t really enhance the experience one way or the other. Aurally, well, as noted previously, the voice acting is pretty bad, but the music is generally fitting, if by no means exceptional, and the various sound effects are all powerful and well done, which mitigates the flawed voice acting somewhat.

The gameplay in Zoids Assault is divided between preparing for battles and engaging in battles. The actual fighting of battles is where most of your time will be spent, so it’s good to note that the actual mechanics here are surprisingly interesting. Basically, as with most turn-based SRPG’s, you are provided with a squad of characters who respond to your commands, and you move them around the map, shoot at enemies, and try to avoid getting blown up. Zoids Assault works in the initiative principle, where each person in battle goes in order from one to the next, regardless of their team, and once a full cycle of movements has passed, the next turn comes and everyone moves again. When one of your squad members comes up as the active member, you can move them within their range (helpfully outlined as blue squares) and/or have them attack or use an equipped special ability. The game, in a surprising and welcome addition, is kind enough to actually highlight that enemies are within firing range as you pass your marker over various spaces, meaning that you can actually immediately line up a shot instead of the normal “move, check, move again, check again” pattern some games force you into. Once in range, you can, as normal, declare your attack or use whatever special ability your Zoid has (which run through the usual abilities of repairing/healing Zoids, impairing enemy abilities, and so on) as needed.

And that’s about where Support and Scanning come in. When your Zoids move in range of an enemy unit, the Scan Meter pops up over them, indicating how good of a scan you have of the target. Scanning by itself basically dictates your combat capability at the moment; the higher the Scan rating, the more accurate your shots are, the more damage they do on impact, and the more likely you are to receive an item drop upon defeating the opponent. One Zoid by itself is unlikely to have a particularly high scan reading, but multiple Zoids aimed at one enemy will have a significantly higher reading, which is where Support comes in. As your Scan reading goes up, so does the opportunity for Support attacks. Basically, the Support Meter goes from zero to three, and each level indicates that an additional attack will be launched on the opposing unit from a friendly unit in range. A level three Support attack would see your units firing on one enemy four times, thus allowing one or two support attacks to instantly change the tide of battle. You’re also offered an EMP attack that slowly charges as you fight; when charged, it provides the attacking unit, as well as any support units, the ability to attack an opponent without fear of retaliation. Further, a unit firing an EMP shot will attack ALL units in range, not simply the unit targeted, making these attacks absolutely devastating when used effectively; they don’t pop up too frequently, however, so they can’t be abused. Finally, the positioning of your Zoid is quite important in combat; when you move your Zoids into position, you can also change their facing position with the bumpers, which is important for two reasons. First, if you don’t change the aimed direction of the Zoid unit before attacking, the Scan reading for the attack is reduced, thus meaning you should change the unit to face the opponent prior to an attack. Second, facing the units in the same direction means that the Scan reading for ALL units in range improves, which is vital it one wants to launch level three Support attacks.

Between missions, you’ll be able to outfit your Zoids with whatever equipment you’ve acquired from prior missions, either from destroyed storage containers or from other units. Each of your Zoids is designed to accept specific parts, meaning that certain parts can only be equipped to certain Zoids (though this only applies to Skills and weaponry, not armor). Each Zoid can have different weapons and armor equipped to their unit, with each item having different positive and negative attributes (light armor improves mobility while reducing armor value while heavy armor works in reverse, for instance), and in the case of weapons, different abilities (shotguns are good for close combat, grenades and missiles for long-range fire, machine guns for mid and close range battles, and so on). You can also change the paint jobs of your Zoids if you want from a list of acquired patterns, though this is only for aesthetic purposes. You can also equip Skills onto your Zoids between missions as the pilots level up; each pilot has a specific amount of points they can potentially have equipped at any time, and each Skill costs a certain amount of points, meaning that you will have to mix and match the skills needed from each unit prior to going out into battle. It also should be noted that the game has a few other interesting perks, such as the ability to withdraw from a mission at any point, thus allowing you to return to the briefing room with all earned items and experience points in tow in case you want to level a bit or simply re-evaluate a strategy. The game also has secret passwords that pop up throughout the game that, when entered into the official website, open up official documents detailing the various characters and events in the game, as well as downloadable paint schemes off of XBL and some hidden Zoids to fight, if such a thing interests you.

Hopefully, it does, because if not, chances are good that Zoids Assault won’t interest you much in general.

Now, Zoids Assault will certainly appeal to some folks out there, namely the Atlus faithful, strategy gamers who love everything the genre has to offer, and folks who love strategy games with robots and who have already beaten every Front Mission game on the market. Those people will probably derive some joy from the experience, and will find their sixty dollars to be well spent. However, just about everyone else will find their money better spent on, if they’re looking for a strategy title, the aforementioned Operation Darkness or Spectral Force 3, as opposed to this. See, the former title, while technically flawed, offered a solid, interesting story and some challenging gameplay, while the latter, though technologically dated, offered a large variety of troops and some solid replay value. Zoids Assault, unfortunately, does neither, and despite the fact that the actual gameplay is pretty solid, not much else is.

So, first off, to hardcore strategy game fans: Zoids Assault is a ten hour game. Further, it’s a ten hour game where you play as the same few characters consistently, through missions that are mostly a breeze to plow through, for no terribly understandable reason. Even if you want to go back through the game to see the hidden Zoids, you’ll spend, at most, twenty hours unlocking everything the game has to offer, with little to no significant variation throughout. Second off, to casual strategy game fans: did you note the mostly in “mostly a breeze”? That’s because a few of the missions (most notably those of the “protect this/do this in X amount of turns” variety) are on the more challenging side, largely because they often require you to split up your troops, WHICH THERE IS ZERO BENEFIT TO DOING. Further, unlike a game like either of the two above mentioned strategy titles, you really can’t spend much time leveling your troops; most of your worthwhile experience points come from fully completing a mission, meaning that withdrawing from a mission you can’t complete multiple times in an attempt to level your troops takes a not insignificant amount of time, and going back to a prior mission (by way of loading a prior save, of course) to level up isn’t much better. Some sort of a training simulator or an option to take on free missions would have both added depth to the experience and allowed frustrated players the option of leveling up before tough battles, so of course, nothing of the sort exists. Also, while withdrawing from a mission allows you to return to your briefing, completely fine and dandy, with all of your earned experience and such intact, FAILING a mission presents you with a Mission Failed message before dumping you back to the title screen. No option to retry, no option to withdraw, no option to load your game, just back to the title screen. By themselves, these issues would be vaguely baffling; when combined with the story, visual and audio issues, the game simply becomes utterly intolerable.

Now, as noted, if you fall into one of the three groups noted above, you will probably be able to find some sort of enjoyment in Zoids Assault, in that the gameplay is fairly neat and it’s a strategy game featuring animal robots running around blowing up other animal robots. For those of you that are okay with that, the game is probably for you. For everyone else? Poor storytelling, mediocre visuals and audio, lack of replay value, awkward difficulty balancing, lack of variety, and lack of depth pretty much render Zoids Assault as a bargain purchase or rental at best and a completely avoidable experience at worst. There are other, better strategy games, both on this console and others, available at the same or lower prices, that offer more depth, variety, and enjoyment across the board than Zoids Assault does, and you would honestly be better off with one of those instead.

The Scores:
Story: DREADFUL
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: BAD
Balance: POOR
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: BAD

Final Score: POOR.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Zoids Assault, while not the worst game of the year, or even the worst game on the Xbox 360, is certainly the worst of the three strategy games released by Atlus this year for the system. If you’re a die-hard Atlus fan, a lover of turn-based strategy games for gameplay only, or a big fan of turn-based robot strategy games, you might find some joy in the product, as it’s certainly a turn-based strategy RPG with robots blowing each other up, and the gameplay is pretty spiffy. For everyone else, however, the bad story, mediocre visuals and audio, lack of variety and replay value, awkward difficulty curve, and general death of options, length, or depth in the experience will pretty much turn you off from playing through the game once, let alone more than that. As a rental or a budget-priced game it might be worth casual perusal, but as a full priced offering, there are other, better games in the genre that are worth your money, and hey, some of them are published by Atlus, so you might want to investigate those instead.

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