Review by LegaiaRules
Has Front Mission Evolved?
To many, Square Enix's Front Mission series is often well-known for its strategy RPG gameplay. However, the series is also equally known for its tendency to experiment and embrace change - namely a change of genres. To date, four Front Mission entries have been set away from its turn-based strategy roots: Front Mission Alternative, Gun Hazard, Online, and recently, Evolved. Between these four entries, side-scrolling shooter (Gun Hazard), massively multi-player online (Online), third-person shooter (Evolved and Online), and real-time strategy (Alternative) have all been covered in the series. Following in the footsteps of its predecessors Gun Hazard and Online, Evolved is an action-oriented spin-off where combat takes place in real-time with both an off-line single player campaign and an online multi-player mode. Unlike its predecessors, Square Enix management sought to outsource game development to companies around the world.
Most of the development, such as game direction, was the responsibility of Western studio, Double Helix. The conceptual artwork and designs were outsourced to Imaginary Friends Studios, led by artist Skan Srisuwan, in Singapore. Hydrogen Whiskey Studios in America handled the cinematic and cut-scene direction, from the motion captures to the voice acting. Famed Western composer Garry Schyman was hired to compose for Front Mission Evolved's music. Even Front Mission's signature quality, the storytelling, was given to the Final Fantasy XIII writer Motomu Toriyama. The in-house studio in charge of Front Mission, Product Development Division 6 (PDD6), and series creator Toshiro Tsuchida were nowhere to be found in developing Evolved. A completely unexpected turn of events no doubt, but all for the sole purpose of expanding Front Mission's base outside of Japan.
Now that Front Mission Evolved has been released in North America and Japan, was outsourcing the game an act of brilliance or a huge mistake for Square Enix?
Visual Presentation: 7/10
As the second Front Mission to be developed for multiple platforms (Front Mission: Online was released on both the PlayStation 2 and the PC), Evolved had quite a challenge on its hand to look good on the PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and the PC. While the visuals aren't going to win any awards for breathtaking scenery or cinematic direction, it gets the job done. Environments are reasonably populated with objects, wanzer designs are nicely detailed, and there's an abundance of special effects that adds an arcade-like feel to the action. The frame rate is also relatively stable, but slowdown is apparent when a lot of action is going on the screen. And as usual, the computer-generated movies are typical Square Enix standard in that they are well done.
That being said, there are some major issues that Front Mission Evolved suffers from. While Skan Srisuwan's concept art of the game's characters is stylish and attractive, the 3D models look ugly and outdated. In comparison to the beautifully done 3D models from Front Mission 5: Scars of the War, Evolved isn't really that much of an upgrade. Another issue is the environments themselves; while they are populated with objects, there's very little interactivity and immersion with them. What should be a chaotic war zone in a metropolis filled with civilians trying to escape the horror turns out to be a lifeless battlefield. Forests that one might think would have secrets by destroying parts of its landscape end up having none at all. There is also no usage of weather to create an atmosphere for the game's environments, or create some suspense throughout a mission. The effort consequently feels very lacking for a video game made in this day and age.
Interactivity and immersion aside, Front Mission Evolved has some glaring technical flaws in its design. For whatever the reason, Double Helix did not put a hard drive install option with the game. As a result, the game suffers from long and frequent loading times. While these loading times are nowhere near as painful as ones for video games in the past, the playing experience would go by more smoothly if an install option was implemented. The game has other issues such as a small field-of-vision and a lack of heads-up-display (HUD) options, but these are minor in comparison to the loading issues.
Storytelling is often regarded as Front Mission's strongest selling point and compared to the ever-changing gameplay, art and music direction, is the "rock" that the series is built upon. Sadly and ironically, Evolved's weakest component is the storytelling itself. Written by Motomu Toriyama, the single player campaign stars an engineer named Dylan Ramsey, who gets caught up in a surprise attack on New York City. When New York City's orbital elevator Percival crashes, the United States of the New Continent (U.S.N., Unified Continental States/U.C.S. in the English version) government is desperate to find a scapegoat for the attack. Based on the data of the unknown attackers, the super-state pins the blame on the Oceania Cooperative Union (O.C.U.). The O.C.U. denies ever mounting the invasion and as one would imagine, diplomacy gets thrown out the window.
Unfortunately, the opening "act" of Front Mission Evolved happens to be the best part of the story. From here, the story degrades into a buffet of horrible writing, poorly developed characters, laughable dialogue, and too much usage of cliches. Those who have seen B-grade action movies can pretty much figure out how Front Mission Evolved's story will progress and finish. Even then, there are too many plot holes and fast-forwarding moments that it's hard to make any sense of it all. The poor acting and cinematic direction from Hydrogen Whiskey Studios also contribute to the poor storytelling. Then again, the company is working with Toriyama's script so he is at fault for failing to deliver the goods in this regard.
The only good thing to take away from the story is that it was designed as a reboot for the main Front Mission series, (Front Mission: Gun Hazard takes place in a separate universe from the other entries) so it can be ignored altogether. For anyone new to the series, don't view Front Mission Evolved as an indicator of story quality in the other entries because this is a huge exception to the rule.
Being one of the few genre spin-offs in the series, Front Mission Evolved is classified as a third-person shooter (TPS). While the change might be hard to swallow for those who have been exposed to the strategy RPG entries of the series, this game actually isn't the first one of its kind. That right belongs to its predecessor Front Mission: Online, a massively multi-player online (MMO) game that played out like a TPS. Predating Front Mission: Online was Front Mission: Gun Hazard, another action-based spin-off in the side-scrolling shooter genre. Both were excellent, polished games in their own right and largely kept the tactical elements that Front Mission is well-known for intact. Front Mission Evolved, therefore, tries to take a page out of the aforementioned entries by having a single player campaign reminiscent of Gun Hazard, while its core gameplay and online features take after Online. The problem is both game modes are not quite up to par to their sources of inspiration, and the core play mechanics are completely different from either game.
In the single player campaign, players progress through the game in one of three modes: in wanzers, gunships, or on foot as infantry. Most of the time is spent inside wanzers, with the occasional mission on gunships or on foot to break up the monotony. This cycling through the game modes is certainly one of the stronger points and they are done well enough not to feel tackled on. Double Helix deserves some praise keeping the missions varied and ensuring that all of the game modes aren't merely throwaway elements. Admittedly, there could have been better transitions between wanzer and infantry mode if Double Helix managed to implement the ability to freely board or disembark from wanzers. This was a feature from Gun Hazard that could and likely would have been improved upon if the developers had the time to implement it.
Moving on, wanzer mode involves piloting a wanzer, Front Mission-speak for mecha, to battle enemy forces and other wanzers. The control layout is similar to the standard TPS shooter in that the analog sticks are used for movement and camera control, while the shoulder buttons control the weapons. Wanzers can also use dash, jump, and side-step to move around and evade enemy fire. Through the use of auxiliary backpack parts, a wanzer can hover above the air, disable enemy units with EMP waves, or repair damaged parts. Lastly, a wanzer can enter precision aim mode where it can better target an enemy unit. Many of these actions are similar to the ones from Front Mission: Online so anyone who was lucky enough to play it will feel right at home. Alternatively, those who play mecha games such as Armored Core, Phantom Crash, and the like should have no problems adapting to Front Mission Evolved's control scheme.
Also unique to wanzer mode is wanzer customization. A major draw in the gameplay side of the series, players are free to configure their war machines however way they see fit. A wanzer can be outfitted from their frame parts, auxiliary backpacks, weapons, and even down to paint schemes. If the customization seems a bit too daunting at first, Evolved also offers pre-built setups designed for various playing styles. There's a lot of fun in customizing wanzers and getting the hang of it isn't all too hard. What does bring it down is that during certain sections in the campaign, players are forced to use certain parts and weapons...and there's no way around it. It's a minor complaint though and in a sense, teaches the player on how to make a good setup from all sorts of parts.
Compared to wanzer mode, gunship and infantry mode aren't quite as deep. A first for the series, gunship mode plays out like a rail shooter in that the player cannot move or evade attacks while inside the gunship. They can only fire weapons and fire them at anything that appears on the screen. The control scheme is similar to wanzer mode, minus the ability to do any evasive maneuvers. Although the only real objective of gunship mode is to shoot up everything in sight, it's a nice addition that gives the game a bit of an arcade-like feel. Infantry mode, on the other hand, is a bit of a letdown. The control scheme is ripped out of a standard TPS, and it even plays like one...only it's rather underdeveloped. Although it improves on the basic infantry mode in Gun Hazard, Evolved's version is years outdated in the TPS department in this day and age. It gets the job done, but without any real depth to it, that's the best it can do unfortunately.
Speaking of design problems, Evolved does something no other Front Mission has to date: no squad-based play. In every Front Mission entry, players will always have to manage their ally forces from their wanzer setups to issuing orders on the battlefield. Regardless of genre, this element of Front Mission has always been kept intact. Sadly, Front Mission Evolved breaks this trend by making the single player campaign essentially a one-man show. There are ally forces that show up in the campaign, but they can't be given orders, their machines can't be customized, and overall, are just there to give the illusion of squad-based play. Even though Double Helix's plans to implement squad-based play in the single player campaign were shafted due to development issues, they should have at least tried to implement one of the features.
In exchange for the lack of any dedicated allies for supply and repair purposes, the developers went back to the oldest trick in the book: enhancement pick-ups. Throughout missions on wanzer mode, players can find ammo, energy, or repair pick-ups lying around the area or dropped by destroyed enemy units. Pick-ups when used correctly aren't a bad idea, but in Evolved's case, it's not well implemented. Players can go charging in with their guns blazing, run over to a repair pick-up when damaged, then come out guns blazing again. This is most evident during the campaign's boss fights where the pick-ups regenerate over time and the bosses themselves have an inflated amount of health, thereby requiring the use of pick-ups. Not only does this feel out of place, but it ends up hurting the quality of the level and boss designs.
Overall, the single player campaign falls short of its goal of playing out like a modernized Gun Hazard. The campaign has its good moments and speaking as a Front Mission fan and a fan of action-based games, Evolved is a taste of what could have been if its potential was fully utilized. And that's exactly what it is: a fun, if flawed experience that doesn't take full advantage of the foundation it was built upon.
Thankfully, the online multi-player mode provides a more engaging experience than the underdeveloped single player campaign. In online multi-player, players can battle against one another in four game modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Supremacy. Deathmatch is a free-for-all style game mode, Team Deathmatch is a team version of Deathmatch, while Domination and Supremacy are territorial-based game modes. Although the maximum player cap is currently set to eight players (or four versus four in team matches), there's a lot of fun to be had and the fast-paced action makes for many exciting matches. And while most video games with an online multi-player mode are generally underdeveloped, this is not the case for Front Mission Evolved.
In an interesting move, Double Helix implemented a progression-based leveling system similar to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in that players are encouraged to master every facet of the wanzer mode to get stronger. By leveling up players gain new parts, weapons, and other bonuses. For example, players can gain experience by destroying a wanzer's leg parts for a certain number of times, by using shotguns to finish off other players, by accumulating a high kill score, and so on. It's a well-thought out system that keeps players coming back for more and as a result, online multi-player doesn't feel tacked on. There's even a set of trophies that can only be collected by diving online, which essentially acts as incentive for players who aim to grab the platinum trophies.
Front Mission Evolved's multi-player mode does have its share of problems, however. There are two types of matches: player matches and ranked matches. Player matches give players free reign over how the online matches will work, but no experience (for the leveling system) is gained in these matches. In the ranked matches where experience is gained, the matches are randomized based on a player's equipment and experience. Basically, if eight friends want to play in the same matches, chances are that they will all be in different matches. This sort of match-making is counter-productive and while the concept of fair play is likely the reason behind it, it defeats the purpose of playing with friends online. As a result, teamwork is mostly shafted in favor of independent play. Likewise, this tips the balance in favor of players who amass a lot of piloting time online over those who just want to play for fun or are starting their online journey.
There are also other technical related problems in the online multi-player such as connection problems and lag. However, these things can be fixed with a patch update so this isn't much of a concern. Overall, the online multi-player mode is a completely different, but enjoyable experience marred by balancing and technical problems. While it's certainly no Front Mission: Online in the areas of emphasizing teamwork to succeed and having exceptional game balance, Evolved has enough to make it worth going online for and is consequently better developed than the single player campaign. Downloadable content (DLC) can only make the experience better.
Aural Presentation: 8/10
The aural presentation of Front Mission Evolved is one of the game's strongest points. The series is well known for its ever-changing choice of composers and music styles, and Evolved follows this trend. Famed Western composer Garry Schyman, who wrote the scores for Bioshock and Dante's Inferno, brings a fully orchestral theme to the game. Schyman's music style fits the atmosphere and setting of the game quite nicely. It may not be as melodic as the compositions of the other Front Mission titles, but it's definitely Front Mission in essence and that's the best it can be. The sound effects are pretty good and there's not much to complain about. One thing that is out of place are the vocalizations for the wanzers...they give off a strong Transformers vibe. Considering series lore and the setting of Front Mission, these vocalizations were absolutely unnecessary. The voice acting is also lackluster, but this is more of a side-effect of Toriyama's poor writing than anything.
Front Mission Evolved offers three difficulty modes with different features, making it accessible to any kind of player. What does bring the score down is the enhancement pick-ups and the poor balance of single player. With respect to the pick-ups, there's just too many of them that pop up during missions. A player can go through an entire mission and by the end, still have at least half a dozen pick-ups that weren't used at all. Even on the game's hardest difficulty setting, there's no decrease in the amount of pick-ups that can be gotten. Likewise, the self-regenerating capabilities of the wanzer's body part means that it's almost impossible to die, provided the player can find cover to regenerate any damage. In terms of enemies, their artificial intelligence (A.I.) is rather lackluster. While an enemy unit can use cover and move around to evade attacks, there are moments where it will stay out in the open and do nothing for a few seconds. One could almost imagine them saying "Hit me!" with a big bulls-eye marker on themselves.
Fun Factor: 7/10
Despite all of its flaws, Front Mission Evolved is a fun game to play and is a nice "filler" game for more potent mech games to be released in the near future. Fans of mech games such as Armored Core and Phantom Crash will find some enjoyment out of playing Evolved. Front Mission fans not exposed to the action-oriented entries will find some enjoyment on being able to control a wanzer in real-time...and hopefully realize that Evolved is only a glimpse of what it truly can be when the tactical elements are intact (as it was in Gun Hazard and Online). The single player campaign may only last eight to 10 hours long, but don't let that get in the way of the more polished and potentially addictive online multi-player experience.
Has Front Mission evolved? Not necessarily. Has it devolved? Maybe, but don't think that action-oriented Front Mission games are an abomination to the series. With the right foresight and planning, they can work and have done so already. It's a real shame that likely due to inexperience, Double Helix didn't tap into the full potential that Front Mission Evolved had in the single player campaign. The ability to freely board or disembark from wanzers, online co-operative play, squad-based play were all experimented with and implemented during test sessions according to the studio in recent interviews. If this is the case, then perhaps it wasn't entirely a suicidal idea to outsource development of gameplay to Double Helix. It's evident that the studio did put in the effort into making something playable and given their reputation, they've done an admirable job. This is something that can't be said for Motomu Toriyama, who made a complete mockery of Front Mission's signature storytelling quality with a story that anyone could have easily come up with.
In any case, Front Mission Evolved is worth checking out. If you're a Front Mission fan and are having reservations on Evolved, at least give it a rental. Also, it doesn't hurt to track down Front Mission Alternative and Gun Hazard; both are great titles and worthy of the Front Mission name. If you're a fan of mecha and enjoy games like Armored Core and Phantom Crash, this might be worth a purchase. Just remember to play online to get the most out of the game and don't expect a good story in the single player campaign!
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Front Mission Evolved (JP, 09/16/10)
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