Review: Front Mission Evolved (Sony PS3)

Front Mission Evolved
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Double Helix Games
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Release Date: 09/28/2010

If you’ve never heard of Front Mission before (and don’t feel bad if you haven’t), it’s a franchise traditionally known for strategy RPG’s. I usually describe it to people as being Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, but with mechs. The first release of it we ever received in North America was Front Mission 3 in 2000, followed by Front Mission 4 in 2004. The original eventually made it overseas in an enhanced remake for the Nintendo DS in 2007. To date, Front Mission Second and Front Mission 5: Scars of War remain exclusive to Japan.

It should come as no surprise then, that the series has never really caught on outside of its country of origin. In what appears to me as an attempt to appeal to a larger audience, Square Enix has taken the franchise away from its roots and into the realm of third person shooters. Does their move out of niche territory make for a successful run and gun, or will it be eclipsed by other fall releases?

Let’s Review

Story/Modes
In Front Mission Evolved, the storytelling falls apart early on, as it introduces you to the game’s numerous factions. You have the U.C.S., the O.C.U., the O.M.G., the W.T.F… I made up those last two, but it truly does get out of hand with the number of acronyms you have to remember that represent each of the world powers. Luckily, all you really need to know is that the world is involved in a sort of cold war as they all race to build elevators to space and gain dominance with various space stations and satellites.

When the game finally introduces you to the main character, it doesn’t get much better. You play as Dylan Ramsey, an engineer that works on giant battle mechs called Wanzers. During a test run with a new prototype, Dylan realizes New York is under attack, and with no previous combat experience under his belt, flees to go rescue his father. He eventually allies himself with the military faction defending the city, and with their help, fights off the opposing forces and begins to uncover the real reason for the attack.

The tale starts out decently enough, but with such a predictable and cliched plot, as well as an unlikeable cast, eventually you stop caring and it all becomes nothing more than a excuse to blow things up in your Wanzer. Dylan doesn’t appear to be a kid or a teenager, but you wouldn’t be able to tell based on his actions. He’s incredibly selfish, and acts purely on emotion, which in most cases endangers the lives of those around him.

The U.C.S. Members that you eventually join up with don’t fare much better. Adela has very little personality for the female lead, and her cold demeanor through much of the game does little to earn empathy with the player. The commander of their unit, Hamilton, is very unconvincing as a leader and pretty much lets his subordinates run off and do as they please. Even the antagonists will have you rolling your eyes when you realize how simplistic their personalities and political agendas really are. There are almost no surprises, and every supposed “plot twist” is telegraphed right from the get go. Square Enix may have their name on it, but the storyline will not be your primary motivation in this game.

Story/Modes Rating: Bad

Graphics
I’ve reviewed a lot of Square Enix titles in the last few weeks, and this one is by far the least impressive looking of them all. The Wanzers themselves look pretty decent, as they are portrayed convincingly as the walking tanks of destruction that they are. You can even customize the look of your own Wanzer, adding decals and adjusting the colors and shininess of your war machine. Even the zones which you do battle are varied and gritty as you would expect them to be.

An impressive collection of CG sequences also add to the excitement of the visuals, as they impressively display the full scale battles that take place over the course of the game and get your adrenaline going for the mission ahead. There aren’t that many of them, as most of the story is told via the in game graphics, but what you get is impressive nonetheless.

Well, the mechs look cool, and the CG movies are awesome, so what’s the problem? The characters. They are very ugly by today’s standards. Not only are the character designs themselves very uninspired looking, but the models look like they got lifted out of a PS2 game. Their eyes and mouths move at the very least, but their faces have no creases in them, and as a result, their range of facial emotions is limited. Their hair doesn’t look real either, and instead looks like they are wearing helmets with painted on hair. It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but in comparison to other action titles out there, it just doesn’t hold up well.

Graphics Rating: Mediocre

Sounds
The soundtrack is serviceable, if forgettable. The tunes are dramatic when they need to be, and match the mood of the various scenes very well. But much of the music you hear while in combat gets drowned out by the various explosions and talking that goes on during the game. And boy, do those characters talk.

The worst combination you can have in a video game in regards to the voice acting is to not only have poorly written dialogue, but a sub par cast to go with it. Front Mission Evolved meets this criteria. The dialogue is laughable at best and is delivered with the kind of enthusiasm a person would have if they were about to go under the knife. Even the narration is done poorly. The worst part is, characters talk very frequently in the heat of battle and they don’t seem to want to shut up. You are constantly getting bombarded with commands to watch your armor and recharge your weapons. It’s very telling when the computer A.I. in your Wanzer is the most convincing performance in the whole game.

Sound Rating: Below Average

Control/Gameplay
One thing you may notice about the button layout of this game (or not notice if you’re a veteran to mech games) is that Front Mission Evolved makes use of every single button on the controller. When you’re customizing your Wanzer, you can have a weapon in each hand as well as on either shoulder, so each button on the top of the PS3 controller corresponds with one of these weapon placements. The face buttons by default, also allow you to jump, dodge, activate a feature called E.D.G.E. Mode (again with the acronyms), as well as activate whatever you have as your backpack. This is all in addition to moving and aiming. It’s a lot to take in for newcomers, and although you eventually grow accustomed to it, there’s an assortment of things to keep track of in the heat of battle.

The other hurdle when it comes to doing battle in your Wanzer is the HUD. Each part of your Wanzer has its own health bar of sorts, and when it runs out, that part becomes severely hindered. For example, if your legs become damaged, you will not move as fast. If the main part of the Wanzer becomes too damaged though, you instantly blow up and it’s a game over. The problem is, the icons for your health meters are so small that it’s hard to tell amidst all the chaos how much more punishment you can take before you have to retreat. This is the same for the E.D.G.E. meters, your ammunition count, and your energy. So not only do you have to keep track of all the buttons you need to use to kill or be killed, but you have to rely on super small icons to monitor your progress. Again, you get used to it, but a franchise better known for strategy should do more to accommodate their audience.

Despite turning the sensitivity way down, it’s very hard to be precise with the right thumbstick while aiming at the enemy. More times than not, I would overshoot my target and had to readjust, all while moving my Wanzer around and dodging missiles. Some variation of sticky targeting may have helped with this, though having missiles equipped with a lock on feature do help to compensate a bit.

Another facet of the gameplay is the on foot missions. If you’ve ever played Star Fox Assault, you might be able to relate to how frustrating these sequences are. Luckily, you don’t have to jump into the cockpit to save Slippy every five minutes though. Regardless, these sections of the game play like a poor version of games like Uncharted or Gears of War, but with a much weaker cover based system. You don’t “glue” to the cover very well like you do with those other games and you run out of ammo for your weapons quickly. There’s not much variety to the weapon types either, as you basically have your choice of a machine gun, a shotgun, or a rocket launcher and all your enemies save the Wanzers all wield the same. These sequences seem like merely filler to extend the game longer, and you’ll be happy once they are over.

Earlier I mentioned a feature called E.D.G.E. that you can employ during combat. You have a meter on your HUD that fills up slowly as you destroy enemies and land shots. Once this reaches a certain point, you can activate E.D.G.E. and everything becomes greyscale, aside from your enemies, which turn red. Everything then slows down and your shots do far more damage than normal. Even with a full meter, this advantage ends quickly, so you have to make your shots count while you have it active. When used at the right time, it can really turn the tide in battle, especially against bosses.

One feature that I did enjoy very much was being able to customize every part of my Wanzer. If you want to build a Wanzer for speed, power, or strike a balance, you have the ability to do that. As long as you have the money for the parts and as long as the things you equip don’t exceed what you have the capability to power, the sky is the limit. You can even adjust how your Wanzer looks during battle and during cutscenes. The magic starts to wear off a bit as you get further into the game, once you realize that the new parts you acquired are just upgraded versions of ones you already have.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Mediocre

Replayability
Front Mission Evolved includes three different difficulty settings in which to complete the game in, as well as an assortment of collectibles to find in your missions. There doesn’t appear to be any rewards from doing these things aside from earning Trophies, so unless you’re a Trophy whore or a completionist, there isn’t much to inspire multiple playthroughs.

There is multiplayer capability though, if you enjoy playing online. However, during my trials with it I found it difficult to find a game within a reasonable amount of time for some of the modes. There really isn’t much variety to the modes either. You have your typical deathmatch and team deathmatch, as well as supremacy and domination (both territory based modes). You can play these modes either ranked, or with a group of buddies, though there is no option to play offline splitscreen. The player cap for all game types is also eight.

The online multiplayer didn’t do much for me personally, and feels like a tacked on feature in order to add another bullet point to the back of the box. Had they implemented more modes or allowed some form of cooperative play, there might have been some real potential here. As it stands now though, there’s not much reason to return once you’ve played through it.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

Balance
While the game does have multiple difficulty settings, it doesn’t have a gradual difficulty curve like most games do. Even on the normal setting, the enemies at the beginning of the game are rather brain dead and only charge at you one at a time, which is fine, as the player is still grasping at the controls at this stage of the game. However, when you reach the later stages, suddenly the opposition finally kicks it into high gear and you’ll be dodging multiple enemy attacks at one time. Heck, they’ll even throw multiple bosses at you simultaneously with attacks far more severe than those at the beginning of the game. Luckily, checkpoints are numerous and with a little change up in your arsenal you’ll eventually get through it.

Despite the difficulty climb in the Wanzer sections, at least those are fun to play despite the challenge. The on foot missions are already a chore during the easier missions, but they are downright excruciating when the enemies turn it up to eleven. They can kill you dead with only a couple of shots, and the checkpoints are seemingly very sparse. I vaguely recall a mission where I don’t think there were any checkpoints during the mission and instead had to start over any time I had failed. Eventually, I had the whole sequence committed to muscle memory and I got through it.

There are also Wanzer missions that exist that take place entirely while riding in a helicopter. They are essentially rail missions in a way, and are quite entertaining. To put it simply, they just boil down to using your entire arsenal to destroy everything you see. As fun as they are, there is also little challenge to them. Since the weapons you are given for this are so powerful, most enemies only stand up to a few shots. And even though you can take damage during these sequences, I don’t think I’ve ever died during one. They are incredibly easy and stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the game.

Even the multiplayer seems to suffer from an imbalance during gameplay. You have the option to customize your Wanzer before each match, but your choices are limited when you first start out. As you move up the ranks, you’ll acquire new parts and new weapons to equip on your Wanzer into battle. This means that veteran players will have an advantage in battle, thus furthering the gap between players. I’ve always been against giving better equipment to veteran players or people with deep pockets when it comes to FPS or action games, and this just adds to my lack of desire to play the multiplayer.

Balance Rating: Below Average

Originality
The Front Mission franchise in and of itself was already a fairly unique series of games, taking customization and mechs and applying them to the realm of strategy RPG’s. With the release of Evolved, the series has stepped out of bounds and into the realm of been there, done that. The idea of piloting mechs is not a new idea, and this game does very little to innovate in that respect. Even the areas in which you are tasked with fighting enemies on foot has been ripped out of games far superior to itself.

Now, a game doesn’t necessarily have to be original nor innovative to be fun, but you would at least expect it to excel in the areas which it borrows from other games. Even the multiplayer isn’t up to the task in this regard. If Front Mission Evolved would have incorporated a cooperative mode as well as a more interesting tale that plays to Square Enix’s strengths of visual storytelling, then you might have had something here. As it stands now, this is simply a mediocre effort to copy better games in order to appeal to the Western market.

Originality Rating: Below Average

Addictiveness
Despite my complaints about many of the games various quirks, it’s actually a fun game to play once you are in control of your Wanzer. Perhaps it is because of my inexperience with the mech genre that contributes to this, but zipping around debris while firing rockets and machine guns at an armada of Wanzers is a guilty pleasure worth having. It may not have the kind of staying power as other titles in the market, but it’s a fun ride while it lasts and is at least worth a rental.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

Appeal Factor
Fans of the Front Mission franchise may be immediately disappointed to learn that there really is no strategy involved in this entry, and as such, may shy away from this game altogether. And who could blame them? Other than Wanzers, Front Mission Evolved has very little in common with its brethren in the franchise and may be looked upon with the same kind of disgust as say Shining Force Neo. Fans of action titles, multiplayer games, and mech games may want to give it a look out of sheer curiosity, but there is little here that will warrant holding their attention for long.

Appeal Rating: Below Average

Miscellaneous
One thing you may notice while on the game’s main menu is that it continuously flashes that there is new downloadable content available. By selecting the Playstation Store option, it will take you out of the game and into the store where you can download this content, but there is nothing there. Someone jumped the gun when posting that message perhaps? Regardless, this leads me to believe at the very least that there is DLC on the way, though this prompt was a bit deceiving.

While loading times are manageable for the most part, despite not being a very impressive game to look at, there may come a time where you will need to switch your configuration during a mission when you a struggling. Fortunately, you can do this without losing your current checkpoint, but holy crap is it a hassle. You have to wait for the customization to load, then you have to wait to load back into your mission again, even if you only wanted to change one thing. An option to install more data to the hard drive may have mitigated this I think, but it was a troublesome thing work mentioning.

Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre

The Scores
Story/Modes: Bad
Graphics: Mediocre
Sounds: Below Average
Controls/Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Below Average
Originality: Below Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Mediocre

Final Score: Mediocre Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Front Mission Evolved deviates from the tried and true strategy formula that is present in the main franchise, and instead tries to appeal to the more action oriented crowd by switching genres altogether. It’s not a bad game by any means, and I did enjoy my time with it. However, it really only has enough mileage for about one playthrough, as the multiplayer is nothing special, and there are few rewards that merit playing the campaign again. It also doesn’t help that the story and presentation are below par for a publisher that normally prides itself on such things. Perhaps if it had a co-op mode or a more varied multiplayer experience it would resonate with players a bit more, but as it stands now, Front Mission Evolved is destined to get lost in the fall release shuffle.

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