Gigantic robotic exoskeletons have always held a certain sway over a large chunk of the gaming community. Towering two-legged mechs have existed in the video game landscape for decades, and represent the ultimate gadget, vehicle and fighting machine, all rolled into one gigantic package.
They can be enormous, even looming, and still maintain their appeal, but they should never be awkward, hulking or slow, which is exactly where the latest Mobile Suit Gundam: Target in Sight game comes crashing down to its heavily armoured knees.
Previous Gundam games have always managed to capture the essence of what makes mechs so appealing. Despite their size and power, they should always be agile, nimble and light as a feather to control. Instead, manipulating the behemoths of Target in Sight feels uncomfortable and clumsy, like wrestling with an old Victorian mechanism rather than a digitised vision of future technology.
A relatively uninspiring plot sees the Earth Federation Space Force locked in an ongoing struggle on their home planet with the invading forces of the Principality of Zeon. At the outset you must blindly choose you allegiance, joining either of the two forces, resulting in two versions of the game that are different on the surface, but in reality too similar to warrant playing through individually unless you are a devout Gundam fan.
The gameplay is divided into two main sections, with one concentrating on the action and the other on managing assets and upgrades. The former is the most substantial, and sadly certainly the weaker part of Target in Sight, seeing you take control of a mech and a number of wingmen in unimaginative battles with predictable objectives that generally boil down to 'kill every enemy in sight'.
What first strikes you as you enter each battlefield is how bland and dreary every level is. The backgrounds are mostly a lazy blur of indistinct hillsides and open plains, and the buildings that you can crush with your powerful footsteps have a distinctly primitive feel about them. Invisible walls constantly restrict your roaming ability and shatter the illusion of the game world, while a soulless mist masks the distant details of the landscape, reminding you of the 'fog of war' effect that should be a long forgotten memory of the last-gen consoles.
The robots themselves are admittedly very pretty to look at, but are sluggish beasts to manoeuvre, with unresponsive controls and an unreliable lock-on that leaves your itching trigger-finger feeling like it is grappling with a rusted old lever rather than a delicate button. Sadly, the lethargic pace of your huge bipedal war-machine has a horrific impact on the game, making even the simplest of tasks an endurance of patience, as you dutifully retry levels, lumbering through the goals again and again.
After you have played a fair chunk of the game and earned enough credits, you can upgrade the various mechs, or mobile suits as they are called, to a point where they are a little more manageable. In fact, as you learn to work with the leisurely speed of your robots, slowing your own reactions down in what must be the very antithesis of twitch gaming, you do get some sense of satisfaction from mastering the heavy metallic beasts. However, if overcoming the frustrations caused by a clunky mech is a good point of the game, then the Gundam series is in a dire state indeed.
The combat itself is also a painfully awkward experience. Weapons run out of ammunition incredibly quickly and all too often you find yourself resorting to melee attacks, leaping about erratically with your jetpack to avoid defeat until you land close enough to a foe to disable them with a few well timed clouts. It may have seemed like a nice idea to include detailed combatant destruction, meaning you can loose weapons and limbs and still carry on fighting, but in practice many levels wind down with you relieved of your essential parts after a few close quarters brawls, leaving you to limp about the battlefield swinging your one remaining stump of an arm at enemy mechs which are often in a similar state of disrepair.
The better chunk of the game comes in the form of the menu system that appears between missions, which will be reasonably familiar to fans of the underrated Front Mission mech games. Here you can requisition new mobile suits and recruit new pilots, as well as ordering repairs and offensive or defensive upgrades. You can also adapt your mechs so they are customised for particular terrains, and trade in redundant machines for additional credits.
What turns this basic menu system into a brilliant strategic asset management system is the neat way the plot is woven in with the decisions you make in the interim between missions. You start the game in the final three months of the one-year war that is at the centre of the original Gundam series, meaning that you play through around 90 game days. To take advantage of repairs and purchases you must choose to skip days of the conflict to allow for work to take place, meaning you could miss vital battles but gain important hardware. This system certainly adds some depth to what would other wise be a simple linear level structure.
As you juggle fighting and development of your mobile suit strike force, missing important battles will have no major impact on the war, as the conflict will end on the last day of the year as Gundam history dictates. Upon completion you can restart the conflict over and over with the full power and abilities of the army you have assembled from previous battles, returning to the missions you previously missed. However, an inevitable ending that isn't really any final conclusion takes a great deal from the game. Rather than battling to reach the end you rather feel you are drifting through something you can't do too much to influence.
There is plenty to complain about with Gundam: Target in Sight, but this is essentially a niche game, and for the huge army of mech fans, with a little persistence and a great deal of patience there is a playable game here. Better avoided if you are not a die-hard fan, this is certainly one for the Gundam devotees only.