The first five Front Mission games concern themselves with grids, stats and menus; they're about thought, tactics and taking time to perfect your strategy - pretty much everything that Front Mission Evolved is not. The reincarnation of the franchise is about jumping into the fray head first, spraying missiles all over the place and watching the screen become a red and yellow mess of explosions. Developer Double Helix has taken the SRPG core of the series and chucked it out the window. With the narrative framework that's left, it's created a 3D shooter not dissimilar to the fantastic Armored Core. You might want to think of it along the same lines of Command and Conquer: Renegade - the universe and narrative are left intact, but a new genre's mechanics have been wrapped around it.
The thought of such a game has caused much distress for Front Mission fans, who are scared that their beloved franchise will be reduced to a sub-par shooter that retains none of the charm and atmosphere of its predecessors. It's a legitimate concern, especially when games like Armored Core: For Answer are doing the whole shooty-mechy thing so well. In truth though, the franchise lends itself to the third-person genre perfectly.
The plot unfolds around a young man going by the exciting name of Dylan Ramsay; an engineer that works on the development of wanzers. Walking Panzers, or wanzers as they're known, are the stars of the Front Mission series. They're the hulking great big suits of robo-armour that skate around battlefields with anti-grav mech boots whilst launching missiles from turrets peeking out of their shoulders. They're all the rage in 2171, and certainly a lot more useful than hover-cars. It's fifty years after the events of Front Mission 5 and these wanzers are the instruments of war used by two superpowers; the O.C.U and the U.C.S. After learning that his father has landed himself in a spot of war-based bother, Dylan runs off with a new wanzer his company has been working on to save the day. Unsurprisingly, one thing leads to another and Dylan soon finds himself at the centre of the conflict.
The cutscenes bearing the weight of the narrative aren't much to talk about. The cast is comprised of an ensemble of stereotypes, and the dialogue spouted from their poorly synced mouths is more than a little cringe-worthy. Still, it serves its purpose of tying one level to the next and gives fans of the series something to relate to. You don't have to know a thing about the series to enjoy Evolved, but recurring themes and organisations will please those that have stuck with the series through the years.
Missions are pretty straightforward. You move from waypoint to waypoint, blowing up any tanks, missile towers and enemy mechs that happen to stand in your way. Thankfully, Dylan is more comfortable behind the cockpit of his wanzer than he is in conversation, and so the subsequent gameplay holds up much better. In the Xbox 360 version tested your skates are initiated with a tap of the B button, and your primary weapon is exactly where it should be on the right trigger. The other button you'll be pressing a lot is the left bumper, which will lock onto enemy targets for as long as you hold it down. Once four lock-ons are acquired, you can let go and watch four missiles scream through the air towards your targets. The controls are surprisingly intuitive, and moment-to-moment gameplay is satisfying.
You'll face off against some pretty bad-ass mechs in your quest to end the war, many of which swearing allegiance to the dangerous mercenary group known as Apollo's Chariot. Often you'll be forced into a skirmish against several of these boss mechs at once, which is the perfect opportunity to unleash E.D.G.E, a revolutionary new technology installed in Dylan's mech. Using state of the art neurological science, Dylan's reaction times are boosted and augmented in battle through the suit. To ditch the techno-babble, it's bullet time. Dealing enough damage will gradually fill your E.D.G.E meter, and when it reaches 25 per cent you can press Y to slow the action down to a crawl. Alternatively you could let it build further for significantly increased damage.
It's a fairly useless feature in honesty, tacked on to justify another bullet point on the back of the box. It's strange though, because the technology features prominently in the story, even if it does feel incredibly forced. I stopped using the power fairly early on in the game and didn't suffer during boss battles as a result. As long as you're equipping yourself appropriately before a mission, things should run smoothly.
It wouldn't be a mech title without customisation, and on this front at least, Evolved doesn't falter. It's not as in depth as what we've come to expect from something like the Armored Core series, but it's still good fun to have a tinker around in the menus and come out feeling suitably amped up. You can choose from a range of arms, legs, guns and missiles, and as long as the weight of all your additions is less than the energy output of the core, you're good to go. Certain levels in the game will force you to change parts quite drastically. A recon mission fairly early on in the game requires hover legs, for example, allowing your mech to zip across large bodies of water without sinking. You can even change the colour and patterns of individual parts, allowing for a mech tailored to your artistic preferences. I stomped around the game with black and white zebra stripes, looking like some kind of 22nd Century robot pimp.
It's obvious that anybody dropping the cash on the game is going to want to play as a mech, but for reasons that defy all logic, Double Helix has included several infuriating on-foot levels. Nobody wants to play as Dylan, the scrawny engineer with no military training - they want to blow crap up in a huge suit of armour. It's not just that though; the on-foot sections are dreadful from a gameplay perspective too, refusing to borrow a cover system or other well established mechanics from the third-person shooter genre. If Double Helix thought these sections would offer a welcome change of pace, it was very wrong indeed.
These dreadful on-foot sections and uninspiring missions quickly sap the fun out of an otherwise enjoyable experience, and the plot isn't exactly going to spur people on to complete the campaign. Thankfully, there's a multiplayer mode, too, which will likely keep players coming back for more. A Call of Duty-esque experience system ensures a decent sense of progression, but with only four game modes and four map variants, even this will lose its appeal pretty quickly.
Two groups of people are of key interest when it comes to Front Mission Evolved: mech fans and Front Mission fans. Mech fans are a finicky bunch and know the genre inside out. I doubt Evolved will be considered as anything better than average by this group; as I've mentioned previously, Armored Core does the whole shebang a whole lot better. It's likely that Front Mission fans will be equally as disappointed. With the strategising gone, all that's left is a poor narrative and mediocre shooting. Only the most ardent franchise lovers are going to defend Evolved - they would have much preferred another SRPG. Ultimately, Front Mission Evolved is another case of needless westernisation, something that Square Enix is becoming increasingly guilty of.