System: X360, PS3, PC
Dev: Double Helix
Pub: Square Enix
Release: Spring 2010
ESRB Rating: TBA
Preview by Steve Haske
December 28, 2009 - When it comes to Front Mission games, Western gamers have traditionally been given the shaft. There's been seven core games in the series (not counting spin-offs or remakes) released since it began in the 16-bit era. Only three of them have come Stateside. This may be in part because the series has never really ever been a top priority for Square Enix, at least not against the likes of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. But, if you happen to like the traditional strategy RPG formula coupled with Front Mission's trademark mechs (Wanzers), well, tough luck.
There's no reason to think this trend is necessarily going to change any time soon-particularly with Square Enix still only thinking about granting a Stateside release to Dragon Quest IX, a bigger and potentially far more lucrative title. But that hasn't stopped them from retooling the latest series addition, Front Mission Evolved, into a third-person shooter. With the development of Evolved being outsourced to California-based Double Helix games, you might say that Square Enix is looking to push the series in the direction of something with the broader appeal that often comes with Western design sensibilities. Evolved certainly looks like it has the potential to do so, but whether or not the game can compete against other mech sim competitors remains to be seen.
Evolved appears to have everything you would expect from a Front Mission game, albeit with some obvious tweaks to the game's mechanics. Weapon customization on arms and shoulders is in full force, and includes both the standard melee and firearm attachments. Wanzers can equip different backpacks for supplements in battle such as damage repair. Standbys such as targeting an enemy mech's limbs can reduce accuracy or movement. Also, Wanzers can dash across terrain in short boosts. There will also be times when you're forced to get out of your Wanzer and venture into the world on foot. Finally, Square Enix is also overseeing character and story development, and promises Evolved will maintain the high narrative standards, as well as the trademark political and military entanglements, the series is known for, although little is known about the story itself.
Aside from the shift to real-time, third-person combat, there are some other changes in Evolved's design. You control one mech with AI allies that fight alongside you. There is also the game's "edge mode," which highlights enemies in red when activated, allowing your Wanzer to move faster and score higher damage percentages. Basically, what we've seen thus far is one hundred percent Front Mission, except in real-time. This could be a good thing or a bad thing; when the game was last seen at Gamescom in August, it was looking a bit early on in development. Wanzers moved not unlike the giant robots in Lost Planet, and combat looked a little bland, with battles playing out as a repetition of moving, aiming at enemy mechs, firing and evading other Wanzers, with the occasional melee skirmish thrown in for good measure. Battles also seemed strangely quiet, with the crackle of radio chatter or even a noticeable soundtrack being notably absent from the levels. The game's destructible environments seem to be a nice touch as well, but could use a little fine-tuning, as wanzers seem able to blow something up just by touching it. At least the damage modeling for the mechs themselves seem to be on the right track, with parts getting shot off mechs a la Ring of Red.
Double Helix still has there work cut out for them, it seems. It is unclear at this point whether or not the game's weapon and armor customization will be able to be switched mid-mission, which if handled properly could make the game potentially more interesting. Aside from the series' recognizable bi-pedal and quadra-pedal mechanical designs, Evolved has done little to make itself appear distinguishable from the crowd-at least not from the little that has been shown of the game so far. As a long time fan of the series, it pains me to say it, but at this point Evolved doesn't seem to offer much of anything you haven't seen in any other mech game, and in some cases it appears to have less of an emphasis on technical details, one of the hallmarks of the giant robot simulation genre.
There's a few things the dev team needs to address if the game is going to stand toe to toe with the Armored Cores and Chromehounds already hogging the (admittedly niche) mech sim market share. If Square Enix can actually deliver a complex, quality story, find some ways to make innovative use of the Wanzers' customizable nature and deliver a quality online mech combat experience, Evolved could be a worthy addition to the Front Mission series. But, in its current state, the game is merely passable-hardly the exemplary effort that Square Enix has been known for in the past. Given Front Mission's pedigree, that's a damn shame.
Whatever the case, Front Mission Evolved hits Spring 2010.
CCC Freelance Writer