In 1998, Monolith Productions released Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. Since then, I’ve been enamoured with Western developed, anime-inspired mech games. It’s a niche market having only a few worthwhile titles, yet it’s an interesting genre. In September, Double Helix Games and Square-Enix released Front Mission: Evolved. It’s a take on the long running series of the same name, but what could have been an evolution in the series feels more like a missed opportunity.
The story goes like this: You are Dylan Ramsey, an engineer working for Diable Avionics, a Wanzer development subsidiary of the U.S.N. army. He’s working on a sense and reaction enhancing device called the E.D.G.E. system, and a new artificial intelligence codenamed W.I.Z. It’s a peaceful life developing Wanzers of mass destruction until New York City is unexpectedly attacked and his father is “killed”, Dylan joints the U.S.N. army… for absolutely no reason.
Front Mission: Evolved utterly fails in character development. Poor dialogue and a confused impetus prevent players from really connecting with Dylan’s anime-inspired melodrama. His father is supposedly killed, and instead of – in the tradition of the Front Mission series – questioning the motivations behind the attack, Dylan sets out with Adela Seawell, a soldier he met by chance, and her commanding officer Russel Hamilton to get some sweet revenge.
That’s really what the game’s story boils down to. Dylan is simply angry at the mercenaries responsible for the death of his father. It’s a new age of space exploration and orbital conflict, but the political intrigue seen in the other games of the series – like the U.S.N. and O.C.U. conflict – are missing. You wonder why Double Helix thoroughly ignored these political conflicts. All that stands in their place are characters like Dylan. For a protagonist, Dylan has a static, straightforward view of the world. Players of the series will find little to no influence from previous conflicts that preceded the events of this game, nor will they feel the gravity of their actions.
It feels like Dylan is there but not actively participating in the events around him. He fights for revenge and little else. And it just so happens that his father is a renowned scientist and engineer whose reputation precedes Dylan. Everyone around him, even experienced soldiers like Adela and Russel, perceive him as some kind of Wanzer piloting wunderkind. For no reason. When his father is found alive, which comes as no surprise, he’s killed, again. Dylan reacts like any good hero and gets even angrier. Most protagonists in these kinds of games are motivated by something larger than themselves. Love, war, peace. Dylan has his petty revenge, but what about the game’s secondary characters?
Why do female characters like Adela require a fatal weakness? According to her profile on the official game site; Adela is an independent, strong-willed soldier whose focus is always on the mission. There’s a moment in the game where Adela becomes visibly jealous over Dylan’s technician. She’s thus stripped of her power, and her character is replaced by an uncharacteristically weak, feeble woman. Adela is a strong secondary character. She has attitude, but also a fatal weakness that makes her dependent upon Dylan to save her. Her use of a prototype of the E.D.G.E. system has affected her in such a way that she can be used like a puppet. Turning Adela into a maiden in distress feels like a misstep in a world where Wazner pilots are shown to be equal regardless of their sex.
For all of its faults, Front Mission: Evolved does do one thing right. Weapons. Front Mission: Evolved faithfully reproduces the feel of the series’ weapons. Melee is visceral, a well placed sniper round can destroy a limb and a missile barrage is deadly fun. Front Missions: Evolved supports a number of fight styles to the player. This variety mixes well into the multiplayer aspects of Front Mission: Evolved.
Getting the game on release let me into an interesting experience. I played Front Mission: Evolved before the metagame or community had a chance to develop. Even then, the game was still horribly broken. The parts and weapons you receive for customization are selected by your place in the game’s story. Most – if not all players – when I started had Wanzers far more powerful than mine. This weakness is a feeling that even translates into the single-player campaign. You never really feel like a powerful giant walking mech.
There’s no sense of scale. When you’re piloting a Wanzer you want to look and feel like a giant walking tank. Small enemies scurrying about the map; trucks and cars littering the streets; and buildings help build a world around you, but it’s never enough. When you step out of your Wanzer and onto the ground for on-foot segments, you really start to see how poor the scaling in Front Mission: Evolved is done. Granted, the on-foot segments provide variety in an otherwise straightforward game, but it lets you see more of the game’s flimsy design. Maybe the third-person perspective was a poor choice for this departure from the series.
Unlike Evolved the generally overlooked Front Mission: Gun Hazard for the Super Famicom was an interesting departure in the series. It was developed by Square Enix – known then as Squaresoft – in 1998. Gun Hazard is a side scrolling version of Front Mission. It’s an amazing translation of a role playing game into a new genre. Unfortunately it is a Japan-only release. It’s simply too bad that Square Enix couldn’t put a similar amount of effort into this new venture.
Front Mission: Evolved was developed by Double Helix Games who brought us Silent Hill: Homecoming. I played Front Mission: Evolved without that pretence, but now after thinking about my experience with the game everything is starting to make sense. Square Enix passed off this game to a Western developer known for poor adaptations. Homecoming was lauded for its extreme mediocrity. It’s no surprise that Double Helix, again, would fail to live up to the expectations of a fan base who demands quality and faithful reproduction.
Front Mission: Evolved is a passable video game. The story is weak – Dylan and Adela getting my vote for the worst video game couple ever – the game play, however, is still faithful to the source material. Overall, Front Mission: Evolved feels like pretence for something much bigger and better, if they can get that sense of scale just right. Piloting a Wanzer is has more to do than being a giant walking tank, it’s being a giant walking mega tank that can destroy everything in its path.