Gundam is a weird franchise when it comes to gaming. Weird in the way that the majority of official tie-in titles often fumble the ball, whereas the “gaiden” (or sidestory) titles are often superb.
The Saturn was the first console to hold host to one of the more renowned Gundam gaiden games; the Blue Destiny trilogy. Not playing as the main characters from the anime, you had to survive as grunts on the frontline in seriously underpowered hardware. As a consequence, the overall gaming experience was more gritty and intense. It was also one of the first Gundam games to implement a first person cockpit view properly (the PSone Gundam game doesn’t count, because that was rubbish).
The same development team behind the Blue Destiny trilogy then went onto create Rise From The Ashes on the Dreamcast. Again, it was similarly gritty and involved you on the frontline with your mechanical balls against the wall. The interesting addition in the Dreamcast version was the ability to control wingmen and give them very specific orders (all this could be done on the fly too). Then things went dead. With the advent of the PS2, Bandai financed a bunch of underpar “canon” Gundam games, which completely lacked the edgy realism and tactical vivacity of their “gaiden” brethren. That was, of course, until Bandai announced Zeonic Front.
In a nutshell, Zeonic Front crystallises all what was great about the previous “gaiden” games and then improves upon them tenfold. It is, quite simply, the best Gundam game and one of the finest mecha games ever created.
The game is set around the player controlling a Principality of Zeon mobile suit platoon called the Midnight Fenrir during the One Year War against the Earth Federation. This is a bit off the beaten track in terms of Gundam gaming for a start; normally you would play as the Earth Federation in a One Year War-period Gundam game. Instead, you play as the “bad guys” (though Zeon weren’t really “bad” at all in the anime, apart from the nerve gassing of a few billion people…but we will let that slide for the moment) against a superior equipped force that are destined to chase you across the face of the Earth.
What sets it apart from the rest, even though it is obviously derivative in terms of content, is the intricacy of the level design coupled with the squad tactics you can implement and the truly terrifying tension the game builds up in you as you face the likes of Amuro in the RX-78-2 Gundam.
In Rise From The Ashes, your two wingmen could be given independent orders to move to certain locations, attack, guard and generally save your sorry bacon. In Zeonic Front, you have three teams of up to three mobile suits each. Each of these teams can be directly controlled by the player and control can also be swapped between teams during each mission (just so you can add that personal ass kicking touch) Moreover, prior to each sortie, you can plan your various teams’ routes through the varied levels.
The tension in the anime of a Zaku pilot facing Amuro in his Gundam is palpable. You know that if merely one shot from his beam rifle connects, you’re toast. As such, planning an entire mission in advance of this outcome and preparing a tactical trap for Amuro and his Gundam to fall into, whilst having your three teams survive intact, is uniquely satisfying.
This satisfaction comes at a cost, though: the game is suitably nails in terms of difficulty. Admittedly, this is purposefully done but it will initially put many off, perhaps even those that watched and enjoyed the anime. Yet, if you stick with Zeonic Front and brave the multiple times the game turns around and smacks you blithely across the face for being a moron, its brilliance becomes very quickly apparent – it’s a harsh (though fair) mistress.
For those unfamiliar with the Gundam legacy, Zeonic Front’s narrative and mission objectives may go over their heads. That being said, as a game, it is remarkably compelling and probably one of the few comprehensive and authentic (to the anime) mecha titles out there. Survive the Feddie onslaught and try not to have nightmares of Amuro counting up through your dead team members as he lays waste to your well laid tactical plans. After all, you can always restart and ultimately take that cocky, neurotic bastard down.