Version tested: Xbox 360
In part, the problem's with the title. The Front Mission name has always been synonymous with the Japanese tactical RPG: a futuristic robot version of chess, all giant bipedal tanks blowing the limbs from one another with ponderous missile attacks planned in between sips of tea and head-scratching.
In 1997, when Squaresoft first tried its hand at a real-time version of the game – giving players direct control of the Wanzers and a cockpit-eye view of the action – it dubbed the release Front Mission: Alternative. The title made clear that the game was an experimental spin-off, an alternative for those who find thrills more readily in split-second evasive sidesteps from a hail of rocket fire than the statistical dice rolls with which the series made its name.
Front Mission Evolved, though? That implies to the series faithful that the old way of playing is obsolete and that every TRPG, if it dreams hard enough and makes friends with enough Western developers, can one day be an Armored Core clone. Before the game's even begun, it has alienated long-standing Front Mission fans, suggesting that their series has switched genre with no plans to look back.
Square Enix, however, isn't too interested in Front Mission's existing fans. Sales for the series have been so lacklustre in the West that the publisher left the fifth entry in Japan. No, Front Mission Evolved is gunning for a brave new audience with this Double Helix-developed title: one to whom a mecha-themed cross between Modern Warfare and Forza Motorsport should, in their estimation, prove irresistible.
At first touch and played with an open mind, it seems as though the decision was a sound one. The Wanzer you pilot is fast and responsive (in stark contrast to the lumbering machines in Front Mission: Alternative). A tap of a button engages thrusters, allowing you to skid at speed across the environment, launching into the air to access raised platforms and change directions with unlikely ease.
You line up shots on targets – which range from opposing Wanzers to helicopters and tanks – in much the same way as in any third-person shooter, while a lock-on reticule allows you to unleash a clutch of missiles even as you streak past your enemy. At close range you can melee enemies with the hefty lump of metal in your left hand and with these three basic weapon types you feel as though you can manage close-, middle- and long-range targets with rare ease.
Part way into the game you gain access to a prototype technology, known as E.D.G.E., which allows you to trigger a heightened state of consciousness when you've eliminated enough targets, throwing the game into slow motion and increasing the effectiveness of your aim and damage.
The button configuration is simple and easy to learn, a far cry from, say, Steel Battalion's sim-like approach, and Double Helix has done a commendable job of easing in gamers put off by mecha games' traditional fussiness. Within minutes you'll be skidding around the game's environments, launching missile attacks while pock-marking buildings with a pitter-patter of machine gun fire and in these simple but bombastic actions, the game is often exhilarating.
The environments, which over the course of the five-act storyline range from New York to the ice plains of Antarctica, are pretty and robust, but lack detail. Some objects are destructible, while others stand resolute no matter how much gunfire they endure: a disappointing inconsistency. But the real problem is the game's lack of variety. In the straight Wanzer-piloting stages you must, almost without exception, move from A to B to boss fight, taking down weaker enemies en route.
Each stage has twenty blinking red pylons to find and destroy and three hidden emblems, and these somewhat tiresome treasure-hunts form the only other objectives as you move through a level. A lack of set-pieces means there's little showmanship to obscure the straightforwardness and, in time, the action grows repetitive. Boss fights, supposedly the high point of each act, fail to inspire, fights descending into a simplistic trading of blows, drawn out by respawning health pick-ups in the area.
To break up this monotonous rhythm, Double Helix has introduced a smattering of on-foot sections. These portions of the game are far weaker than the main attraction, the combat tedious and unrefined, and while they upset the repetition of the main game they do nothing to embellish it. More enjoyable are the sections in which you take down targets from the seat of a transport plane while being flown into a drop zone, Halo-style, but they're short-lived.
The story, always an integral part of the Front Mission experience, is passable. But despite being dressed up in the series' terminology and mythology, it fails to match the pace and excitement of previous titles. The voice acting is sub-par and the dialogue routinely terrible.
The Wanzer customisation is better. Each target you eliminate during a mission earns you credits that can be used to swap out Wanzer parts in the intermission. Almost every part of your Wanzer can be customized, with different body parts offering varied statistical benefits.
Every time you buy a new part it's only 'loaned' to you, so if you buy a new set of Wanzer legs and then change your mind and want a different pair, you need only pay the difference to swap them; you keep no inventory. It's a matter of maximising your total earnings in the game to create the most efficient and deadly machine you can.
The total weight of your Wanzer must never exceed its power output, so you must decide whether you want to take a slow but powerful Wanzer into a level or a lightweight but relatively weak one. There are four weapon points on your machine but, while it's theoretically possible to take a Wanzer into battle with a weapon attached to each arm and shoulder, the balance between weight and power output is such that you'll have a hard job doing so and being in any way manoeuvrable.
Wanzer customisation comes into its own when you take the game online for Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes. As you raise through the ranks offered by the game's simplistic levelling, so new parts become available and the range of tactical configurations escalates. The option to modify the colour scheme of your Wanzer may not offer Forza levels of artistic potential, but ensures that everyone has the opportunity to stand out on the battlefield.
It's an untruth to describe the latest Front Mission as an evolution of what's gone before. It is, at best, a sidestep, one that neither advances its series nor the genre into which it has lunged.
It's far from a disaster and there's substantial enjoyment to be had in the game's early moments. But a lack of variety and some awkward, ineffective attempts to break the monotony will fail to win the game the audience Square Enix is so to desperate find, at the cost of losing the one they once had.
6 / 10
Front Mission Evolved is available from today for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.