This current console generation though Square Enix has hit a bit of a rough patch. Games like The Last Remnant and Infinite Undiscovery failed to wow either critics or consumers and even the latest entry in the company’s flagship series, Final Fantasy, failed to live up to the overwhelming expectations put upon it. Still, even with their recent disappointments, it is hard to not give Square Enix the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making games. After all this is the same company that delivered some of the best role playing and tactical strategy games of the last 20 years, so something eventually has to drop in their favor. Right?
Sadly Front Mission Evolved, the latest entry into the long running tactical strategy series, will not reaffirm anyone’s belief in the Japanese mega-publisher. In fact it may drive some even further away from the once golden publisher as developer Double Helix delivers something hardly worthy of the Front Mission moniker. Instead of sticking with the traditional series conventions and making a tactical strategy game, Front Mission Evolved is a third person shooter and a poor one at that.
To be fair Square Enix never hid the fact that they were driving the series in a different direction with Evolved. They made it abundantly clear that this latest iteration was going to be a title heavily modeled after the shooter style that Gears of War has made quite popular this gen. And on paper the game design sounds fantastic. Mech based combat with location based damage set against the back drop of a future New York City. Unfortunately being a good idea on paper is drastically different from being a good game in execution and execution is where Front Mission Evolved fails.
Set in the year 2171, Front Mission Evolved takes place in a world in the midst of a cold war. This cold war turns to real war when the space elevator (don’t ask) in Manhattan is targeted as part of a terrorist attack. Players will take control of Dylan Ramsey, a wanzer (Front Mission’s unique term for mechs) tech at a major manufacturer of the standard combat units. Dylan gets caught up in the attack as he attempts to rescue his father, a prominent scientist and creator of the wanzer defense program, EDGE (a bullet time like combat enhancement as well as a driving plot point of the game). After a cliché scene involving the perceived death of Dylan’s father, he joins the military so as to avenge his father’s murder.
The core story is all pretty standard fare but in true Front Mission fashion it is bogged down by political storylines that are so convoluted that I am not sure the people who wrote them even know what is going on. Regardless though, one doesn’t play a Front Mission game for the story arc and as a gaming mechanic to move you from one area to the next, the story does its job. And that there is the crux of Front Mission Evolved’s problems, most things work well enough but none of it is done particularly well. There is an overall lack of polish to everything about the game.
Controlling the wanzers is generally slow and cumbersome which makes sense due to the fact that giant mech suits probably are not the most mobile of devices. To get around this issue though wanzers have the ability to hover and to skate, a boost like ability that slides them across the geometry. However hovering is pretty much worthless and skating is best used to move from kill box to kill box quickly or to escape intense firefights because it is a tad too unwieldy to use offensively in battle effectively.
Taking the wanzer into battle is actually the one highlight of the title. The game actually has a great sense of scale as enemies in more traditional armaments (tanks, helicopters) look puny next to the giant war machines. Despite taking place in some of the worst looking environments this generation, dispatching foes will have players feeling like a gigantic force of destruction. And when matched against enemy wanzers the scales even out and more traditional tactical combat strategies have to be employed depending upon the type of enemy you are fighting, thus creating a nice give and take battle system.
When fighting enemy wanzers the series staple of location based damage comes in to play. Target an enemy wanzers legs and its mobility will drop. Target their arms and their attacks will diminish. Most of the time though battles devolve into just trying to blow up enemies as quick as possible so the location based damage never really has a shot to take hold. This is not true in the case of damage to player’s wanzers though, because players live longer watching your damage meters is a must.
To help players along the way there is a very in depth upgrade system but the implementation of it into the game makes little sense. For some reason every action that is performed is worth a monetary bonus which is banked and can be applied to upgrade your wanzer. This would make sense if you were part of a private military corporation but after the first two or three missions you are a commissioned soldier. Wouldn’t the military make sure you have the best equipment available so as to have the best chance of success?
Inane plot points aside, the system is very in depth and players will be able to customize and upgrade all the major components of the wanzer body. Each piece added takes up a certain amount of power and wanzers only have a finite amount of power, so budgeting power over output is very important in setting up the most effective wanzer. Of course for those that want to take the easy way out there are also preset upgrades that will handle the power budgeting automatically. Personally I found that the medium assault class is ideal for most situations, although a couple of boss fights may require you to tweak your setups. Players can customize their wanzers in a rainbow of different colors and each individual part can be set up too the players liking. This carries over from general gameplay to the CG cutscenes and gives the players a sense of ownership of their wanzer.
While the combat is generally pedestrian, blowing things up using a giant mech never really gets old but for some reason Front Mission Evolved felt the need to take players out of the wanzer and introduces generic on foot levels. These excursions are used to push the story forward and provide a sense of humanity to the game as a whole but they are boring and unfun. It doesn’t help that the environments throughout the whole game are dull and uninspired but being forced to move extra slowly through these levels accentuates everything a whole new degree.
Sadly the on foot levels are not the most offensive portion of the gameplay, that honor falls to the extremely repetitious boss battles. All the boss fights are wanzer on wanzer, except boss wanzers, despite looking just like everything else, are effectively 100 times stronger than anything else in the game, including the wanzer controlled by the player. On top of the unfair advantage the enemy bosses have in combat, each boss can only be defeated by pattern recognition and repetition. The battles are comparable to say, Mega Man, if the battles in Mega Man were 15 minutes long. Put simply Double Helix has designed some of the worst boss battles in a game this year.
Double Helix seemed to know they had designed some rather poor encounters and as a peace offering to players each arena has health and ammo that politely regenerates. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth but it seems as if Double Helix could have better balanced the boss fights instead of cheaply addressing the issue with infinite ammo and health respawns.
In addition to the single player campaign there is a full multiplayer suite for players to tackle if they are so inclined. It seems though that no one is really inclined to try out this aspect as hardly anyone is playing it. This of course feeds into the great debate of does every game need multiplayer? In this case the core game is not good and by relation few would probably care to continue their experience with it, so development time spent on multiplayer was wasted.
Square Enix has taken the Front Mission series down different roads before with varying degrees of success, most notably with 2005’s Front Mission: Online. Front Mission Evolved is their rather obvious attempt to tap into the popular shooter market that the west but when it comes down to it Front Mission Evolved is just not good. It may very well have killed any chance of North America ever seeing another game in the franchise and that is a shame because another iteration in the classic turn based tactical strategy style on current generation consoles, would probably appeal to more people.
2 out of 5.