Front Mission Evolved is out today. Here's Wot I Think.
Front Mission has changed. What was a turn-based console RPG featuring walking tanks and a complex political backstory is now a multi-platform third-person shooter featuring walking tanks and complex political backstory. Front Mission Evolved is an evolution, of sorts, and it starts out well. ROLLERSKATING ROBOTS ARE ATTACKING THE SPACE ELEVATOR! A stylish robo-movie opens things up for us and then...
Once you're in-game, Front Mission Evolved feels a lot like those Japanese monster movies where it's a guy in a rubber suit pushing over scale models of TV masts and leaning on a cardboard volcano. You can tell he's supposed to be huge, but, well, he's clearly just a man and some slow-motion. The robot – or wanzer (walking Panzer, because they couldn't shorten walking tank) – sequences in Front Mission Evolved come with a similar faulty perspective. You never feel like the wanzer is huge, just that everything else is small. You are a robot on a day out at the model village, with lots of pyrotechnics to make thing exciting. Thoom boom, and all those noises.
The wanzer-on-wanzer action isn't too bad, you know. You can zoom about on your rollerskates until you run out of juice (robot-stamina), and you can leap about, to climb up onto buildings and platforms. Enemies use all this stuff too. You pour bullets and missiles into those enemies (but you can load back up with suitcases full of robo-ammo that lie about the place) and can even give them a sparky punch in the face. Robots beating each other is one of my personal simulated combat fetishes, I don't mind admitting, and there are even specific melee bots in this that will come and beat you with a giant nightstick. You can, of course, customise yourself to beat things up at close range, too. It's just a shame that everything in Front Mission Evolved doesn't carry more weight. There's a lot of light and noise – and my subwoofer felt like it was the end times – but the visuals don't quite match. These wanzers are papery beings.
Anyway, the customisation of the robot should, given Front Mission's heritage, but at the forefront of the game. I was a bit disappointed that the menu didn't support the mouse – yes, the gamepad hangover from the otherwise fine port means you have to use the keyboard – but once I'd processed that with my tiny brain, I found that the options were unclear, and essentially a botch. Yeah, you need more torso armour or you die. And yes, you will probably want the guns that do more damage, but not too much! You've got to keep it all balanced. There's something there, but it's a vestigial something that probably should have given a hefty shot of steroids and pumped until it was huge and swollen. As it is I failed to fit anything aside from a fist-thing and a single shoulder-mounted missile launcher on one of the levels, and I still bodged my way through.
Which brings us back to combat. These robots dodge back and forth on their rocket-boosted rollerskates, which makes them a decent foe. They use cover. This is especially true in the various boss fights, each of which pits you versus some super-robot with a character who blathers plot for a bit, usually in an special arena. These are particularly welcome because the rest of the combat is so drainingly repetitious. Kill tank, kill robot, and on and on. And on. And sleep. You find yourself going back with different customisations not because that's what you need to get past the next bit, because you are longing for something different to happen. But no, the endless corridor of exploding robots continues. And that would be okay, I suspect, if the game had some kind of extra wheel, some buildings you could throw robots through, or perhaps over-the-top ragdoll physics for the robo-fisticuffs, or tiny screaming people to convince me this was /actually a robot/. But it does not. It could have even have made the robot war a little more simulatory, with your allied bots, which accompany you for much of the game, actually doing something. But they do not. In fact, they only cause minimal damage to anything they engage, leaving you to do all the work, and take all the damage. Thanks guys. Thanks.
In fact, the way the game actually manages to shake things up is being having you get out of the robot and run around on foot. This rather-missing-the-point sequence is a decidedly average run-[and-crouch-behind-scenery-to-recharge]-and-gun process, although I liked the heft of the assault rifle and the way your enemies die pretty quickly. I mean, men /should/ die quickly when shot with guns. They should not keep walking about. So that's good.
Nevertheless this pedestrian experience becomes quite preposterous when you are expected to kill a wanzer on foot. What was unleashing a torrent of death at your armoured self ten minutes earlier now shoots at you a bit with a giant machine gun. It's as if he doesn't care. You need to be hit by bullets the size of a man several times before you die, too. Fortunately you can quickly despatch these enemy wanzers – the one time in the game when something feels genuinely enormous - with a few well-timed rockets. More easily, it turns out, that you can when you are in a giant prototype death machine designed for that purpose. Hmm.
There are a few additional features lazing about under the surface of the game. The key one is E.D.G.E. Not another trademark dispute, but actually a kind of bullet-time damage multiplier. It didn't seem necessary, except in the bits where the game told you it was necessary. Then, of course, you had to use it, or do no damage at all. Sadly superfluous.
There's something here. But it's not a game worth buying. Instead it's a kind of warning. What has happened here is precisely what X-Com fans fear will happen to their game. What was a pretty good turn-based combat series has been melted down and shipped off to the action game factory to make something new and improved. Except what we had originally was fine, and this is lightweight and disposable. The acting in the cutscenes is fine, and some of the FMVs are amazing. But it's all gone to waste, because the robotic heart isn't beating hard enough. The core game just isn't bombastic or beautiful or deep enough to charm anyone. More of what made the original series special might have made this special, too. As it is, this is one of those games that my memory will rapidly erase to make room for gossip and power fantasies. Because it is, despite the space elevator and the beautiful robots, an unengaging, uninspired experience.
And I am a sad, lonely robot.