Also available on: Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Double Helix
Publisher: Square Enix
Despite receiving multiple sequels, the Front Mission tactical role-playing series is a relatively unknown quantity in markets outside of Japan. The turn-based action game - best known for its convoluted political storylines, deep customisation and mechanical-suited warriors - has had a fairly limited impact on gamers in the West, with the possible exception of Front Mission 3. After being handed the property by Square Enix, US developer Double Helix set out to "reinvent" the licence as a straight-up action game. What resulted was Front Mission Evolved, a console and PC third-person shooter that retains the political plotting and customisation, but ditches pretty much all of the RPG mechanics. Evolved offers a decent amount of fun in mashing mech-suited robots against each other in a struggle to save the world, but the game's reinvention as an action franchise falls just short of being a complete success.
The story plays out on Earth circa 2171, 50 years after events in Front Mission 5: Scars Of The War. With nothing left to conquer on the planet, humans have turned their attention to the heavens. To ease their expansion into space, the superpowers have created a series of orbital lifts (an idea popularised in Arthur C. Clarke's excellent 1979 novel The Fountains Of Paradise), turning Earth's orbit into a futuristic Spaghetti Junction. With such close proximity between the lifts, conflict between the world's powers was pretty much inevitable. When a lift operated by the USC North America force is destroyed, a war breaks out with the rival OCU. The player becomes Dylan Ramsey, an engineer stuck in the thick of this new frontier of human conflict. In truth, the story is overly complicated and the hammed-up voice acting doesn't help matters. However, the narrative does a good enough job of keeping the player always focused on the action.
In the futuristic world, the ultimate fighting machine is the Wanzer (it's important not to misspell that, mind), a hulking mech-suit packed with rockets, guns and hover jets. During the 12-15 hour main campaign in Front Mission Evolved, most time will be spent stomping around in these suits, raining down holy hell on tanks, soldiers, helicopters and rival Wanzers. Thankfully, the game ensures that all of the above is rather good fun. Despite being crammed inside a metal beast weighing multiple tonnes, the Wanzers are actually pretty nimble, largely because of a fast-slide ability that enables the player to zip around the maps. A nice touch is also being able to fast-slide and then melee attack an enemy for some brutal punishment.
At first, the player gets a machine gun for standard blasting, as well as a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. Rockets can be free-fired by tapping the left bumper, but holding down the button locks onto a target to unleash three homing missiles. The mix of rockets, guns and quick-paced melee is good and its fun to combo the attacks for some heavy destruction. Another strong feature is the game's rich RPG-style customisation system, in which cash earned in the missions can be spent on hundreds of options for changing elements of the suit, such as new weapons, arms, hover jets and fancy paint jobs. Users can add up to four weapons (one in each hand and on each shoulder), but they must be careful not to overload their Wanzer. The customisation system will probably not be deep enough for the hardcore RPG fans, but it certainly adds an extra layer to the action.
Alongside the mech sections, the game also mixes things up with sequences when Ramsey gets out of the suit and goes on foot. The game then switches to a pretty standard third-person shooter as the player roves around levels, killing enemies and performing relatively straightforward tasks. The shooting mechanics are pretty solid and there is a decent range of weapons available, from assault rifles to rocket launchers. There are also a number of on-rails sections, such as hanging out of a helicopter blasting away at enemies around a fortified base. Some of the game is spent with AI-controlled buddies and the computer attacks, takes cover and moves around with a reasonable degree of intelligence.
Graphically, Front Mission Evolved is a well put together package. The cut scenes, created by Deus Ex: Human Revolution art studio Visual Works, look absolutely stunning, such as the opening assault of New York, in which rockets zip across the sky and explosions tear the buildings asunder. On top of that, the audio has been handled by Erik Aadahl, supervising sound editor for the film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. While that means there is an instant similarity to the Autobots and Decepticons, at least the Wanzers sound genuinely awesome. In the levels, the presentation is not quite as jaw-dropping, but still sits comfortably within current-gen standards. However, the character models often look washed out and spongy, a fact made worse by the generally stupid things that come out of their mouths.
There are times when the action becomes a little repetitive, particularly in the boss battles, which look impressive, but are actually rather tedious. The bosses have such a massive amount of energy that the fights become endurance tasks as the player is forced to gradually chip away at them while grabbing constantly respawning health packs. Another problem is the lack of co-operative support in the main campaign, which seems to be a glaring omission considering the fun that could have been had teaming up with a buddy in rocket-blasting mech-suits. However, people can get together in the game's multiplayer, which supports up to eight players in a range of online modes, including deathmatch, supremacy and domination. Despite featuring a good system for earning XP and ranking up characters, the multiplayer feels rather tagged on and certainly not something that will keep players coming back again and again.
Overall, Front Mission Evolved marks a bold new direction for the series, which doesn't quite prove a complete success. The switch to a straight third-person action game brings an immediacy and impact to the series that complements the task of roving around the world in hulking, heavily armed mech-suits. The in-depth customisation system, strong presentation and rampant destruction ensures that the game is generally good fun for much of its main campaign, However, the action occasionally gets tiresomely repetitive, while the mediocre multiplayer, convoluted story and sometimes frustrating gameplay holds Evolved back from being a classic. It seems that the Front Mission series still has some way to go in its Darwinian evolution to an action franchise.
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