Retrospective: Zone of the Enders 2

Metal Gears of War.

What's more cunning than Metal Gear Solid boss fights that broke the fourth wall, more intricate than the labyrinthine plot twists that bound the series to obscurity, and maybe more sincere altogether? Try Hideo Kojima's frantic Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner.

In the PlayStation 2 era, Kojima envisioned mecha up to four stories tall spiraling through space and grappling like swordsmen. In the first Zone of the Enders you played Leo Stenbuck, an unwitting pilot of the super-powered Orbital Frame named Jehuty. Judging from his appearances in ZOE 2, no mecha deserves having a kid like Stenbuck lodged in its chest. Luckily, you don't need to know their history to admire the languorous arc of a vintage space opera.

In Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner robots clash, revelations are had and lives are saved; and these things become known as in a distant dream. The experience is dizzying, discomforting and strangely affecting.

Not so unusual for stories featuring Japanese giant robots, then, but what is unusual is the way this has everything to do with you and how you come to feel about the game. Most giant robots, in games from MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat to Steel Battalion to Supreme Commander, have been tanks with legs, cumbersome war machines symbolising simply weight.

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Can your BattleMech do a karate chop?

But Jehuty is lithe and moves like lightning, a gleaming shard untouched by gravity. A streak of inspiration. Far from behaving like a proper military machine, Jehuty jets up to an enemy, grabs it by the shoulders and hurls it like a frisbee into the nearest cliffside. Jehuty would feel quite at home in Street Fighter IV - if not for being, crucially, a giant robot of near-omnipotence.

The opening of ZOE 2 drives the point home. You find yourself piloting not Jehuty, but a Laborious Extra-Orbital Vehicle (LEV) that inches across the ground like a beetle in the desert. You nudge the analog stick forward and are immediately frustrated. The atmosphere feels like tar, as close an approximation of pain as a videogame can convey. Impatient, you try to lift the vehicle by firing its jump jets. The piece of junk quickly falls back to the dirt with a clang.

The LEVs are the sewer rats and Goombas of Zone of the Enders, lumps bound to the ground that exist mainly to be flown past. And you are unwittingly guiding this LEV to your future marriage with Jehuty. This extended introduction lingers for the remainder of the game, as you never quite lose touch of how weightless you become in the Orbital Frame.

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