Replay Value: 6.5
I honestly and truly pried my brain open to accept that one of the best strategy/RPG franchises in history had gone full-on action. I accepted that Square-Enix clearly wanted to overhaul their series so as to cater to the Western crowd, which apparently isn’t interested in strategy, intelligence, or taking one’s time and planning and executing a specific plan. I pushed my many hours of involving time with Front Mission 3 behind me. I turned on Front Mission Evolved with a hopeful expression, expecting to have some fun with giant, relatively fast-moving wanzers and with the intention of becoming a mech master. And yes, I had fun. But this dumbing down of a particular formula is continually obvious throughout the experience and while the mechanics are decent and the game can be intense, it doesn’t reach third-person action nirvana. Not really close, in fact.
As usual, Square-Enix can produce some finely polished, technically proficient, and even memorable cut-scenes. But unfortunately, the gameplay visuals don’t pass muster, as the characters are mostly bland and uninteresting, and the levels are filled with forgettable city buildings and structures. Most of the time, you don’t even notice your surroundings because there’s a lot going on – and that’s almost a good thing – but when you really pause to look around, the drab, unappealing backgrounds prove to be a detriment. The special effects are pretty cool, though, because high-impact shocks and explosions are really brought to the forefront, and that helps. It just needed another level of flash and panache that would’ve allowed the action to leap off the screen; instead, it looks a lot like most other mech games- dark and kinda boring. It can also be difficult to spot your enemies amidst the backdrops; the foes can blend into cityscapes.
The voice acting isn’t too bad and the sound effects are definitely in your face (which falls in line with the solid visual effects), but the soundtrack doesn’t do the game justice. If we’re going to be piloting the most deadly killing machines in the history of mankind, and every encounter is loaded with massive, crushing impact, shouldn’t we have a rousing musical accompaniment? The classical original score isn’t bad, per se, but we hardly ever notice it’s there, even during significant battles. The voices for some characters are good while others are mediocre, the effects are sharp and certainly fit the explosive nature of the game, and Double Helix misses a chance to improve the experience with a forceful soundtrack. Still, all that being said, I suppose it really does sound like mech combat. It’s good to emphasize a positive, right?
And speaking of good news, let’s start with that concerning the gameplay. The single biggest obstacle for action-intensive mech shooters has always centered on the controls: typically, they’re slow, clunky and awkward. Now, while wanzers are indeed large and pretty ungainly – hence, a bit of “clunkiness” should be expected and accepted – we still require responsiveness and reliability. Thankfully, you can indeed rely on the controls in Front Mission Evolved. The gliding option, engaged by simply pressing the Circle button, allows you to move about quickly and easily, and jumping and hovering involves a few simple presses of the X button. The R2 and L2 triggers handle the actions of the right and left arms respectively (if no weapon is equipped, it’s a melee attack), and the shoulder buttons…well, they control the shoulders of your wanzer. It all works pretty well, and I want to make that clear.
The other positive aspect centers on the great customization options. You can outfit your mech with up to four different weapons; one for each arm and shoulder. You’re not allowed to go overboard, though, as you have to respect the weight limits, which is basically the developer’s way of implementing at least some strategy. You can even alter the wanzer’s look by choosing from a variety of cosmetic upgrades, and that includes colors and decals. You will earn money during your travels, which can be spent at the Hanger for all your nifty new weapons, and each of those firearms usually prove themselves in battle. The Shotgun is indeed effective up close, dual-wielding a couple powerful machine guns is damn entertaining, and different missiles are invaluable. You can even outfit your wanzer with some crucial upgrades, such as hover legs, that are required for certain stages.
But in the end, the production fails to capture one’s attention. Look, they’re not going to get any of the original Front Mission fans back, because almost any small semblance of strategy has disappeared. You just clomp and zip around, shooting at most anything that moves, snagging ammo and health power-ups, battling a few challenging bosses here and there, following an okay storyline, watching a few well-orchestrated cut-scenes, and buying a few things here and there. It gets old fast because the action doesn’t quite deliver in all respects, as the camera can prove problematic and each encounter feels a whole lot like the last. They try to spice things up with a bit more diversity; for instance, you will find yourself on foot in particular missions, but they’re barely average and do little to captivate the player. There’s no cover system, not a heck of a lot of depth involved with the combat, and in general, a total lack of a brain. That’d be okay if they had put a huge amount of effort into fine-tuning the brainless parts, but that didn’t really happen. So who wins, here?
There is a multiplayer option with four different modes, but it’s just more of the same. Human opponents are more fun to battle but I’m not sure anyone is going to get a whole lot of mileage out of the multiplayer experience. I really do understand the intention behind the franchise’s overhaul but sadly, it just doesn’t work as well as it could’ve. I’m just not sure who they’re going to satisfy. The strategy/RPG fans won’t touch it with a ten-foot cattle prod and the action fans don’t usually flock to mech titles, which dominate the Japanese culture but aren’t as big here. Besides, it’s just “meh” for most gamers looking for an intense third-person experience. It can be fun, the controls are about as good as you could hope for, the story and voiceover work isn’t terrible, and some of the battles will keep you interested for a while. But beyond that, Front Mission Evolved won’t be able to compete against the heavy hitters this fall.