Mecha, Samurai, and Transcendence in Front Mission Evolved

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Thirty-ton, bipedal, mechanical monstrosities the size of skyscrapers reign death. Shoulder-mounted missile launchers collapse buildings with a flurry of homing rockets. Proportionally massive machine guns, sniper rifles, shotguns, and bazookas strike hardened metal armor in a battle for the city of New York.

Within these Wanzers (from the German "Wanderpanzer," or "walking tanks") sit skilled pilots who've transcended their own bodies. They effortlessly boost, jump, aim, and fire as if the humanoid shell were an extension of their physical selves.

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At least, that's how it looks in Front Mission Evolved's awesome post-tutorial, pre-rendered cut-scene. In the game proper, developer Double Helix and publisher Square Enix lost sight of something inherent to the "mecha" mythos: the samurai.


In Ollie Barder's Bushido and Beamsabers, the Doublesix senior games designer describes the beginnings of media based around giant robots. He argues — quite convincingly — that like the ancient Japanese warriors who followed the Bushido code, mech-based manga and anime explicitly exemplify the concept of the body as an instrument. Moreover, the tank-like suit itself becomes the logical amplification of the samurai's often intricate armor.

But unlike From Software's Armored Core series, which puts a premium on mastering the controls of your machine, Evolved offers little complexity in this regard. You can "skate," which is an energy-draining boost maneuver. You can jump and momentarily hover. You can fire up to four weapons at once. You even have an ability called "E.D.G.E.," which slows the world around you (representing your heightened reflexes) and increases your damage output for a limited amount of time.

In practice, though, the game plays much more like a standard, third-person shooter than the immersive, body-transcending experience of previous mech games like Virtual On, MechWarrior, and Steel Battalion (whose packaged controller perfectly expresses the commitment required of the player).

Skating in and out of cover is the only tactical dance you'll perform in Evolved, for example. Because of an auto-repairing torso and indestructible limbs (although, enemies can damage arms and legs to the point of significant-but-not-game-ending disadvantage), players win battles through attrition alone.

Mobile Weapons return as boss fights only.

You'll also experience trouble with precision aiming in the PC version, since Evolved uses mouse acceleration under the hood. Why Double Helix left out an option to turn this off is a mystery — you'll need to get dirty with hex-editing if you want to fix the problem. At least PC gamers can fully customize the control inputs — Double Helix stuck their console counterparts with preset configurations.

Furthermore, you can exploit the save system to regain full health and ammo whenever you need either — just commit suicide. Once respawned, the game completely repairs and reloads your Wanzer free of charge. Checkpoints are often enough that you'll never need to retread more than 15 seconds worth of ground.

In tradition with the turn-based, tactical games of the series, Evolved offers a plethora of mech customization options; however, Evolved will never force you to make difficult, permanent decisions since all components' buy and sell prices are identical. So, if I purchase and equip the Zephyr torso, arm, and leg parts, I can swap them out for different ones without losing a dime.

Customization offers plenty of depth but no consequences.

Although the Wanzer setup is probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, Evolved even manages to undermine this, too. During two separate sections, the campaign forces players to use specific parts: hover legs, which allow you to move over water, and quad legs, which increase your power capacity and allow you to mount larger weaponry. I find this at odds with the previous games' focus on player choice and tactical depth. Shouldn't I decide when such components are necessary?

All of this means that Evolved hasn't taught you the necessary piloting skills required by merely playing the game, and you'll be woefully underprepared for boss fights. (Unfortunately, this may also be a symptom of Double-Helix game design: Their previous title, Silent Hill: Homecoming, also suffered from frustratingly insane end battles.) The mere existence of the systems serve as crutches for players, which means that Evolved will never challenge you to improve your ability to pilot a Wanzer through normal play.

In contrast, Armored Core throws players into a battleground governed by specific rules. On your own, you'll learn to better control your mechanical avatar through confrontation, experimentation, and an understanding of the game's parameters. In these ways, players transcend the controller as they improve their skills.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates Evolved's abandonment of samurai ethos more than fighting on foot.

I wasn't so much concerned as I was disappointed when Square Enix announced Evolved as a third-person shooter. This isn't the first time the series has deviated from the turn-based, tactical formula: Front Mission: Gun Hazard is a 2D side-scroller, Front Mission: Alternative is a real-time strategy game, and Front Mission: Online plays from the third-person perspective as well. But I realized something was amiss the moment I heard the "digital growl," a sound I recognized as strikingly similar to Michael Bay's Transformers aberration, emit from a Wanzer.

I haven't even mentioned a number of other concerns I have with Evolved: the useless squadmates and the inability to issue orders to them, the pointless and staggeringly high number of collectibles, and the complete elimination of pilot skills (which allowed players to mold units into highly specialized, specific tactical roles over time in the previous entries). The empty feeling of piloting a Wanzer, though, is my primary problem with Evolved.

One of Evolved's several on-rails turret missions from the Wanzer aerial transport.

Other mech games get right to the essence of the genre and immerse the player in the audacity of navigating the world through a 50-ton war machine. Armored Core, MechWarrior, Steel Battalion — these titles encourage players to focus on mastering control of their humanoid robots. Much like the samurai, through proficiency we transcend our physical selves as the suit becomes our instrument of destruction.

Perhaps Front Mission Evolved should turn to another part of the Bushido code, Seppuku, for redemption.

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