If there’s any dream in life that I’m afraid will never come true – barring that I live until the 23rd century – it’s that I might one day get to ride in giant, gun-wielding mech. So thank God for videogames, the only place I’ll ever truly be able to feel like a ten-ton walking death machine…Unless, of course, we’re talking about Front Mission Evolved, the latest chapter in the long-running Front Mission series, which stumbles right out of the gate at creating a palpable sense of weight and scale.
The title’s design director, David Verfaillie, recently stopped by from Double Helix to guide us through a few singleplayer set pieces and let us go hands-on with the game’s multiplayer experience. While it’s clear from the outset that Double Helix’s collaboration with Square Enix on this title has lead to a more action-intensive, story-driven game, the world of Front Mission is still very much the same. The conflicts between governments and various political factions continue to fester as humanity presses outward into space. When a terrorist attack on New York causes an already tentative alliance to crumble, the action begins in earnest.
Focusing on a semi-realistic, military-style presentation, the mechanics of Evolved remain relatively intuitive. Guns and melee weapons can be equipped to each arm (controlled by the right and left triggers) while shoulder-mounted cannons – including missile launchers and grenades – are mapped to the right bumper. While the mechs, known to the series as Wanzers, are fairly slow at their causal pace, they’re able to dash quickly forward to clear longer distances. An optional agility backpack will increase the player’s speed and allow them to quickly maneuver in a full, 360-degree range of motion.
Unfortunately, there’s no real sense of scale to the combat. Environmental destruction – which should be first-and-foremost in any game featuring giant robots colliding in a cityscape – seems to be an afterthought, at best, with only a scant few objects blowing apart in large, unimpressive chunks. Nor do the Wanzers themselves feel particularly large or hefty. Their overall clumsiness may have been more forgivable had you truly felt in control of a massive murder-machine – as you did in titles like Lost Planet – but in this present build it simply feels far too point-and-shoot.
The Wanzers aren’t necessarily distinct enough from one another to appeal to one’s sense of variety, despite the fact that you can customize them to your liking – a small set of options that simply doesn’t translate well on-screen. And the limb-specific damage, causing you to move slower or shoot less efficiently depending upon where you’ve been disabled, doesn’t seem to have any tangible impact.
All that said, the build we were playing has a few more weeks of work until the final game ships, so the rough edges of combat may still be smoothed over for a more favorable experience. And by the time you're able to pick this up in stores, it's entirely possible that the customization options will be a bit more robust.
New to the series is the EDGE mode, a kind of all-inclusive bullet time that slows down the action, highlights your enemy threats and increases your overall accuracy and damage. When activated, the colors desaturate and your opponents appear in red, allowing you to better distinguish them from your AI allies and other on-screen distractions. Thankfully, the EDGE technology is integrated into the story itself, playing a pivotal role in the sci-fi tale.
And the story this time around is substantially more important than in previous chapters, lead by Square’s timeless dedication to long and windy narratives. Featuring 70 minutes of in-game cinematics and two fully-produced FMV sequences that book-end the game, this chapter in the series is no doubt attempting to tell a broader, more complex story. Even the human pilots themselves get dedicated, non-Wanzer missions throughout Evolved.
“Front Mission is really about the story of the pilots inside the Wanzers. So we thought the chance of being able to play them would allow players to connect with their characters a bit more,” said Verfaillie. “Second, it provides a little variety to the gameplay – there are rail missions, Wanzer missions, human missions – just to keep things interesting and fresh. And lastly, it’s just a lot of fun to see things from a different perspective.”
Sadly, the human missions aren’t particularly nuanced, as evidenced by a quick battle through a Wanzer factory that's a fairly simple affair. Take cover, point, shoot, repeat. But this was just a small slice of gameplay, so fingers crossed that the additional levels really amp up the combat.
One boss, however, did manage to impress. After a quick glimpse at an island level, we were shown a snow-capped military base. Here, we got a better sense of the enemy cannon fodder, consisting largely of melee brutes, missile-launching baddies and engineer tanks that can heal their allies. At the end of this level, a massive boss called FAFNER appears, dwarfing your Wanzer as it towers above the mech.
Machine guns and rocket launchers seem like your average loadout – which you can reconfigure at any checkpoint – but Evolved offers up shotguns, sniper rifles, grenades, swords, shields, etc. each with equippable Battle Skills to enhance their effect.
“For multiplayer, my favorite is Siphon Shot because when it hits someone, it depletes all their energy,” said Verfaillie. “So the guy who’s skating around, this stops him dead in his track and he’s putty in your hands. For single-player, I like the EMP a lot. Corrosive Shot is cool, as well, because that does acidic damage over time.” Other skills revealed are Power (allowing you to carry more weight), Anti-Missiles (which toss up flares to distract from rocket fire), Perfect Shield (offering increased resistance) and Healing Shield (which ups your health as you take damage).
About 60% of the weapons you’ll find throughout Front Mission Evolved are obtained in the regular course of the game. The other 40% can be earned through completing “assignments,” mid-mission challenges such as destroying sensor arrays or completing certain battle tasks.
The multiplayer mode we were shown consisted of a King-of-the-Hill battle for control of three gun turrets. While the usual Deathmatch options are present, fans of this mode will watch their score increase with each turret they control as the clock runs out. It’s fast and furious, but also infuriating as a lack of any kind of target tracking and your otherwise awkward mobility make actually shooting your enemies a fairly difficult affair. Hint: Stick with a loadout consisting of a machine gun, shot gun and missile launcher and you should be relatively covered.
“I like the medium assault because you can engage at any distance,” said Verfaillie. “You’ve got the machine gun for medium range, the missiles for long distance, the melee for when they get in close…It depends a little on what level I’m playing, especially in multiplayer, but I like that idea of being able to tackle anything at any range.”
It’s obvious even from our short time with this near-final build that Front Mission Evolved threatens to miss the mark, offering up potentially unengaging experience despite the best of intentions. But it’s a new approach for the franchise, something to which even Verfaillie will admit:
“This was the first time we’ve taken it to a real-time action world. I think we learned what worked well. And we learned what things we could have improved upon. Some of the key elements to the game are in the customization, and more ways to make that interesting is something we’re really thinking about. For example, in Front Mission 5, one of the things that was really cool was the set bonuses, where if you equipped all parts from the same set, you’d get an additional bonus…So little things like that…”
With only a few weeks until the title’s release, it’s not likely we’ll see any dramatic changes, but do we remain hopeful that this might represent the groundwork for more a more successful follow-up in the future.