You Wanzer Piece of de Action?
Explaining how a tactical RPG works without it sounding dull is not an easy job. By its nature the game requires hit points, action points, attack types, defence bonuses, upgrades… still here? FM3 has this in droves and introduces it gently step by step through the first few missions in a manner that leaves you considering the possibilities the game holds rather than the TV Guide. The game is played out on a series of terrains occupied by your crew, their opponents, and any obstacles the game sees fit to inject. Set in a typical Japanese future this can be anything from skyscraper filled cityscapes to dark claustrophobic underground bases, all displayed in rotatable isometric 3D. During the missions you progress by making your move and any consequently possible attack character by character with the enemy then getting a chance. Movement is handled in chess like fashion, affected by each Wanzer's characteristics. In this we find the strategic core of the game. As characters progress through the story they gain points for the wanton devastation they wreak on opponents, these boosting their own skills as well as providing greater resources for the Wanzers they pilot. Wanzers are built from individual components for the body, left and right arms and legs and during battle are randomly attacked and degraded by fighting. From this it doesn't take a genius to work out that different body part combinations and weapons can radically affect a Wanzer's combat style. In the heat of battle the trick of course is to get the balance right.
One of the most important elements of any RPG is the story behind it. Front Mission impresses in this department painting a rich tapestry as it takes your crew around location after location in the Asiatic, picking up new members along the way and entwining their histories in the ongoing battle. Developments are played out using a combination of realtime 3D for action and static location images overlaid with character graphics for the weightier conversational moments. It also features impressive (if sporadic) pre-rendered cut sequences displaying Square's trademark cinematic style. The game does suffer though from the usual fate reserved for Japanese translations. The dialogue is definitely B-movie grade and even the most poignant moments can become comical. Sudden emotional swings and incomprehensible plot twists are prevalent throughout, denying you any real emotional attachment to Kazuki and his friends. Irrelevant vignettes designed to round the edges of team members also plague the middle chapters. Its not uncommon to find 20-30 minutes of dialogue slipped in between battles on topics of no importance before the momentum eventually gathers toward a suitably epic finale.
My, isn't it big!
Graphically Front Mission 3 isn't an award winner, but the Wanzers look good and excellent use of the camera gives a real sense of scale. Human figures walk and talk beneath the feet of the towering mecha and can even come up against them on the field of battle. During combat the overhead landscape view switches from displaying the opposing sides as sprites to close-ups in full 3D on the battleground itself, in the case of long distance attacks giving a split screen showing both parties. The Wanzers react well to attack with sparks and electrical discharges adding to the sense of evil satisfaction you feel watching a limb blown clean off an opponent. Topping that are nicely chunky sound effects. The Wanzers stomp about with real weight and gunshots and explosions sound as they should do, accompanied by the whirring of gyros and pistons. A varied soundtrack compliments the action, but it's uninspired by Square's standards. There's enough music in the game for it not to become noticeably repetitive, but the synthetic orchestra strings are easily forgettable. A curious addition to all this, almost as if it came as an afterthought to an already fulfilling game, is a virtual 'internet', explorable at will. Characters can send and receive email seemingly to no end other than the furthering of their backgrounds and chatting to people in the bars dotted through the game reveals password after password to a surprising number of websites. Ultimately though this section of the game appears superfluous rather than creating the sense of realism it intends to. As with real life on a slow connection, waiting for the site to load from the disc is enough to limit casual browsing.
It can only be the more dynamic visuals that settled Square on using Front Mission 3 as a launch title for this type of game in Europe. Its much-praised elder, Final Fantasy Tactics, (released to date in Japan and America) doesn't boast huge mecha but does have a more engrossing system for character development. Time spent tuning Wanzer parts during the earlier stages of the game is rewarding in battle, but once you've established a multipurpose squad of machines the only real expansion to look forward to is the next stamina or weapon upgrade. That said, the game does have a curiously addictive quality. The sequences depicting Wanzer attacks never grow stale and outwitting opponents through the 70 missions it offers is an enjoyable waste of the fifty hours it takes. Offering great value for obsessives a second path through the game with different battles and a different perspective doubles that. With a little more attention to the ability to specialise your crew and a more integral use of the network facility Front Mission 3 would be a true classic as opposed to the very good game that it is. As a taster perhaps to something multiplayer in future using the real internet, the 'network' shows where the series may lead on the Playstation 2. If you've avoided tactical RPGs or been put off by previous lighter offerings such as Vandal Hearts this is an excellent opportunity to re-evaluate mouse free strategy gaming. Front Mission's slow pace will not suit all, but without the need to sit hunched over a PC it does get you thinking tactically from the sofa with gloriously explosive results.
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