This is an import review of the North American edition of the Zone of the Enders HD Collection. The European version is due out on 30th November.
The original Zone of the Enders on PS2 might have been a little bit of a fluke. Its success was certainly influenced by the timing of its release - and less down to luck than some shrewd business acumen. So Hideo Kojima wanted to try his hand at something outside Metal Gear (if only as a producer); that it happened to involve sleek, speedy robots crafted by MGS' masterful mechanical designer Yoji Shinkawa was arguably a cool enough idea to make Evangelion's EVA look like mobile suit jalopies by comparison.
Of course, for a lot of fans, the major incentive to play ZOE wasn't necessarily to see Kojima and Shinkawa's take on fast-paced anime robot battles - it was that it was packaged with a playable demo of Metal Gear Solid 2. I still remember salivating over that 10-minute-plus trailer of Mullet Snake infiltrating the tanker, hiding in lockers and trading pistol shots with Kamysh-clad mercenaries in the ship galley. I was aching to get a taste, and if Konami happened to release a £30 demo that came with a free mech game, who was I to complain?
Now, Konami is more or less repeating history by including a trial version of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance as a bonus in ZOE's newly remastered HD Collection. It's almost as though, after The 2nd Runner's relatively mediocre sales on the PS2, Konami doesn't have enough confidence that ZOE's giant robots can draw an audience without something else from Kojima Productions thrown in to sweeten the deal.
Still, the series was important enough to Kojima and company to warrant this reissue, and for that we can be thankful. The original Zone of the Enders remains little more than an interesting proof of concept, lasting a meagre three hours or so and showing that it was possible to deliver a modern anime mech game, designed for quicksilver movement and streamlined, pick-up-and-play combat with a satisfying flair. The bulk of your money is really going towards the longer, more fleshed out Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, which is just fine.
It's an interesting contrast: whereas ZOE looks akin to just about any other early-era PS2 game, The 2nd Runner's clean complement of flat cel-shading and cartoony flourish could have been developed this year, especially with the new layer of HD polish.
The original game now essentially works as a prelude, introducing players to ZOE's world of planetary colonial occupation, Orbital Frames and the runners who pilot them - as well as the Kojima-esque messages about the importance of human life and whether or not love can exist between an AI and a living, breathing person. It also represents the early point before the series' plot becomes close to incomprehensible.
The design gulf between the two games can be pretty noticeable. Following Leo Stenbuck, a young boy who finds himself piloting a frame called Jehuty with a seemingly divine predestination (for whatever reason, Zone of the Enders is infused with strong thematic overtones of Egyptian mythology), ZOE employs a world map and optional missions to find new subweapons and other skills, some of which is dropped into the more linear and substantial 2nd Runner.
"ZOE is rather like watching an old VHS Macross anime from the '80s - a feel which was then embraced entirely for the sequel."
ZOE arrived in PS2's first year and now looks a bit worse for wear, using hideously low-poly CG and simple environments to drive its plot forward. Just as MGS2's comparatively rudimentary geometry has lead to some ugly cut-scenes in HD, there's a lot to cringe about in ZOE's presentation.
It's rather like watching an old VHS Macross anime from the '80s - a feel which was then embraced entirely for the sequel. On the other hand, The 2nd Runner's weirdly disconnected voice acting and Babel-fish localisation make the latter game more aurally unsound; thankfully, the crisp gameplay visuals in both titles fare much better.
More importantly, the combat is consistently satisfying. The control scheme is close to effortless, and while controlling Jehuty may take some getting used to, it won't be long before you're cutting the air with boost rolls and dodges while engaging enemies via all manner of stylish close- and long-range attacks. The 2nd Runner's slick UI, particle and smoke effects and wider range of special moves make an especially noticeable difference in the thrill of the fray.
However, these are sadly not perfect ports. Although it's possible that Konami will put out a patch - and given fan reaction to the company's spectacularly botched job of trying to de-mangle the abysmally ported Silent Hill HD Collection after its launch, doing so may be in its best interests - ZOE HD's frame-rate is currently a little scatterbrained.
"The 2nd Runner, which ran like whipped silk on PS2, struggles to maintain the 60 frames per second standard initially promised"
The original game often feels like Jehuty is battling underwater. The 2nd Runner, which ran like whipped silk on PS2, is even more heartbreaking: the game struggles to maintain the 60 frames per second standard initially promised for this release, dipping closer to 30 or 40 on occasion.
Is this a deal-breaker? Not really. ZOE's tagline High Speed Robot Action may sometimes carry the sting of a cruel joke, but it's not nearly as inexcusable as telephone poles to nowhere in a fogless Silent Hill.
Ignoring a few niggling boss battles and the occasional botched bit of level design, the series has a lot to love, especially in The 2nd Runner. Leo's reappearance as the pilot of Gradius' Vic Viper (now a transforming Frame) springs to mind, along with the stellar, driving soundtrack and one of the most satisfyingly empowering endgame abilities I've ever encountered.
The 2nd Runner also helps make up for a regrettable lack of extras in this set with the EX modes and additional content created for its special edition release. It would have been great to have included a bonus disc containing ZOE's prequel and TV series, although Konami has worked with the anime studio Sunshine to create a blistering animated opening set to The 2nd Runner's catchy theme that makes me crave ZOE3. With recent news that Kojima has finally begun work on this project using the FOX Engine, this HD facelift of the first two games etches out the possibilities of a new Zone of the Enders with diamond clarity.