One of the most renowned mecha series in gaming has to be that of Front Mission, as it has endured the test of time and indelibly made its mark on the genre. It’s practically a beloved heirloom these days and Square Enix had the right idea, or at least the semblance of one, when they tried to bring the saga into the present day. On paper, you’d think that hiring a Western developer to helm a standard third-person-shooter would be a no brainer but Front Mission, like any mecha based gaming series, isn’t one that can slot neatly into a functionally standardised niche.
Ignoring the functional and cultural heritage of mecha is going to get you into trouble when you deal with a series like Front Mission and unsurprisingly that’s where Double Helix have landed themselves; up trouble creek without a wanzer to help them out.
Now before the supposed Front Mission devout proclaim the “end of times” on account of the fact a supposed turn-based strategy series has dared to venture into third person shooter territory, be aware that Evolved is not the first in the saga to do this. Front Mission Online was arguably one of the finest mecha games of the last console generation and it was also very much a third person shooter. However, unlike Evolved, Online was a good mecha game and wasn’t palpably embarrassed by its heritage. Evolved, unfortunately, has gone down the route of functional standardisation to the detriment of rendering the saga’s mecha of choice, the wanzer, almost redundant.
On the one hand, we get why this choice was made; as ultimately it acts as a means to encourage new gamers into the cold metallic bosom of mecha by making the functional parameters of the genre more familiar. However, on the other, the game suffers from a core functional identity crisis; as it retains elements of weight in how the wanzers handle and then encourages the player to blithely disregard them once real combat kicks off.
The singleplayer campaign is split into three distinct and functionally disparate sections; wanzer combat, on foot combat and on-rails gunship sections. The wanzer combat starts off initially as being quite promising, as the mecha handle with a decent and obvious heft. With walking and jumping giving a good machine-like feel, however this is shortlived as walking and jumping aren’t very useful in the thick of combat.
Now before I delve into the hover and dashing setup, it’s worth clarifying that wanzers are customisable and different backpacks will result in changes to how the hovering and dashing work. However, the first backpack you’re given is that of the hover and this basically negates almost any sense of weight the wanzer had and tries to turn the mecha into a person in terms of movement. Removing the hover backpack and using any of the others, results in a more mecha-like roller-dash setup but whilst it limits lateral strafing somewhat it is still suitably twitchy.
The bulk of wanzer combat, well the bit that has any meaning in terms of survival, relies extensively on your mecha not handling like one. With dash or hover enabled you’re pretty much playing any kind of pedestrian third person shooter, so whilst it works it horribly jars with the rest of the game when it remembers that wanzers are in fact machines (and not a person wearing a robot suit).
The customisation is also rather linear across the campaign too, resulting in a large amount of part redundancy. In addition, the customisation setup is also quite simplistic to not only the other Front Mission titles in the series but also other games such as those from the Armored Core franchise. If you enjoy tweaking your mecha’s config and discerning the handling nuances of your weapon and frame load-outs, Evolved is pretty basic in this department and will leave you more than a little disappointed.
Separately to the wanzer combat are the on-foot and gunship sections. The on-foot missions are basically woeful and feel painfully dated in a functional sense, from the tiny variance in available weapons to the identikit human enemies. Even the few times you have to take a wanzer down on-foot feels pointless, as a few shots from your rocket launcher will dispatch them very easily. In addition, the on-foot element isn’t something the player controls by deciding to exit your wanzer at any point, like in Yuke’s VOTOMS game let’s say, but instead these are bespoke missions where you are stuck in pedestrian purgatory.
Following on from the out of place on-foot missions, you also have wanzer gunship sections. These have the player sit inside a wanzer dropship and linked into some very beefy gatling guns and rocket launchers. So beefy in fact you begin to wonder why anyone would bother with wanzers, as the gunships can pretty much obliterate all ground targets without much effort at all. Instead of adding to the wanzer framework, both these sections of the game feel very out of place and undermine what little the wanzer combat had going for it.
The only real light at the end of the tunnel for Evolved is its multiplayer, as playing against similarly skilled human wanzer pilots does begin to breathe life into the disjointed combat. However, even this is plagued with bugs and isn’t exactly that balanced either (on account of the linear parts list). The few times we managed to actually get into a match it did begin to gel though, so if you can stomach the idiotic hover dash twitchiness (or at least equip a different backpack) then you may get some fun here.
In summation then, Front Mission Evolved is a confused mess but one that still remains mercifully playable. So whilst the third person shooter framework the game uses for wanzer combat is deeply inconsistent in terms of how it deals with the various modes of movement, it is still just about manageable. That said though, the on-foot and gunship missions are a complete waste of time. Not to mention the wanzer customisation is pretty much an afterthought in terms of the parts balancing, something that does unfortunately rear its head in what would have been an otherwise decent multiplayer setup.
The sad thing is that the game happens to look mostly decent, despite a bit of texture tiling as well as a few glaring low-resolution textures, the environments are decently laid out and the wanzers look pretty damn great. The HUD is minimal but thankfully useful and even the somewhat annoying characters are modeled and animated pretty well too. Overall though, with all the irritating gameplay elements in concert with one another, Front Mission Evolved is a mostly standardised (though functionally contradictory) third person shooter and consequently a pretty mediocre mecha game.