Front Mission 4 Review

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Publisher: Square Enix Co.
Developer: Square Enix USA

Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

Elsa is a young, French soldier who has recently joined a research unit, the Durandal, that investigates new applications for wanzers, massive fighting vehicles that transformed warfare long before the recent Second Huffman Conflict embroiled the globe. Darril is a wanzer pilot in the UCS army, fighting for an alliance that spans North and South America, against a rebelling Venezuela. He is also a ne'er-do-well and greedy deserter. Elsa's cause may be noble, while Darril is initially motivated by a lust for wealth, but the two ultimately face down a conspiracy that would plunge their homelands into another global war.


Kyle Ackerman

Turn-based strategy/tactics games bizarrely seem to alienate North American console gamers, but Front Mission 4 really is at the pinnacle of the console turn-based strategy genre, and is a great opportunity to get your feet wet if you've been uncomfortable stepping away from the likes of football and racing games. It offers a deep experience in which you have total control over futuristic warfare, can plot far-reaching strategies with which to annihilate your foes, and can still take a second to head to the fridge without costing yourself the game. As a rule, turn-based strategy games require a bit of patience, and unlike the frenzied battles of real-time strategy (or even the constant movement of a football game) it requires a bit of imagination to transform the stately dance of individual units taking turns to fire into a frenzied fracas. In return, such games give you total control over the battlefield, and the feeling that you live and die by your wits (not your reflexes).

Battle Around The World

Front Mission 4 puts you in charge of two distinct groups of units. Elsa and the Durandal are based in the UK, while Darril and his buddies begin in Venezuela. On behalf of the EC government that spans Europe, Elsa departs with the Durandal to investigate a mysterious blitzkrieg-style wanzer attack on several German military installations. The linear plot unfolds over a long series of missions (although you can embark on side missions in a simulator) as the Durandal discover a plot by the Zaftrans (the Russians, but with a different name) in conjunction with the German political machine to set off a war between the UCS in the Americas and the EC. Darril is stationed in Venezuela, fighting a corrupt leader who is battling to secede from the UCS. When he and his companions discover a horde of stolen gold, they attempt to flee to a life of luxury, but instead become embroiled in the efforts of Venezuelan freedom fighters to protect their people. But the Zaftrans are in Venezuela, as well. A conspiracy slowly unfolds as you engage enemy forces, growing in power and experience. The background story's premise is clever, if occasionally hokey in execution. Still, it's a good excuse to blow things up spectacularly.

The first dozen hours or so of play are easy, as the game brings you up to speed on the intricacies of strategy, introducing game elements one by one. In the beginning, enemy wanzers will often hang back, defending positions and waiting for you to eliminate their friends or cross some invisible line. This gives you a chance to learn the combat systems. The game has a link system that allows your attacks to trigger attacks by your teammates, or that has your squadmates coming to your defense when you are fired upon. Mastery of this system can be devastatingly powerful, and you'll need these early missions to devise the strategies that will drag your missile-scarred wanzer through the later missions. Enemy divisions are hardly the same pushovers once the in-game war in the Atlantic gets going and you learn how to call down powerful air strikes. Suddenly, you are facing hordes of enemy wanzers at once, and the rain of grenades and missiles just doesn't stop until you make it stop – with heavy firepower. That's when your skills are truly tested.

A Pirouetting Wanzer

The strategy in Front Mission 4 is impressively deep, once you get to the later missions. Success in battle is all about building a balanced fire team and then deploying them such that (through your system of links) you can have every team member bring multiple attacks to bear against dangerous foes. In this way, you can neutralize a radar-carrying enemy spotter before he can trigger missiles from distant units. The most useful units aren't always well armed, either. Engineer units can repair damage and restore lost wanzer limbs. The German sensor expert of the Durandal can be given a dexterous wanzer, allowing him to evade enemy attacks. I constantly sent him into battle to draw fire, and as I watched him nimbly dance out of the path of bazooka shells, I wanted to shout "Dance, Bosch! Dance!"

There are also some relatively complicated rules concerning line of site. It's always clear when terrain is blocking your shot (and convenient dotted lines will illustrate this). It's not always clear when other units block your path. During an individual exchange of fire, the only units that appear on the screen are those involved in the linked battle. It would be nice if Front Mission 4 could be clearer on when your wanzers are blocking your own shots. It also seems as if the designers decided to forgo friendly fire (from more than grenade launchers) for simplicity's sake. If, while firing a shotgun, you had to watch out for blasting your melee unit on the other side of your target with the cone of pellets, the game would be much more sophisticated. As it stands, one of your units can move or fire straight through another to no ill effect. That's not necessarily bad, but it is simpler. Whether it is intended to benefit the player or stop the AI from constantly shooting itself is anyone's guess.

Deep Character Development And Long Conversations

Front Mission 4 is fundamentally a turn-based strategy game, but the role-playing game (RPG) elements are a huge part of the design. Fortunately, the fun RPG elements are brilliant, and the irritations common to console RPGs don't detract much from play. On the good side, your wanzer pilots gain experience and funds from every battle. That experience allows you to heavily customize your pilots so that their skill sets match your needs and desires. Yes, each of the pilots is heavily slanted toward a particular role, be it a front-line assault trooper, support and logistics role, or artillery, but you can decide how that plays out. And if you really want, you can purchase extra skills to make your engineer into a bazooka-wielding powerhouse. Additional funds allow you to reconfigure your equipment, swapping wanzer bodies, limbs, weapons and equipment to configure your walking tanks to match the combination of speed, firepower and resilience that matches your style of engagement.

On the darker side, while Front Mission 4 has some very attractive cut scenes, in which wanzers and mobile weapons rush across the landscape, spewing shells and hurling explosive firepower at one another, much of the tale is told in the manner of traditional console RPGs. You go through the story, with each character's head appearing to the side of a dialog box that lets you scroll through conversations, a few short lines at a time. (Occasionally, Front Mission 4 adds voice-overs to the dialog.) Sometimes, between missions, you'll navigate menus that take you to houses, bars or smugglers' dens, and have four- or five-line conversations with everyone there. You'll need to have those conversations to open up the next battle, or sometimes just to earn special equipment. It's a style of RPG that seems to have changed little since the days of the NES, and you either love or hate it. If you hate it, at least it doesn't get much in the way of blowing a lot of things up with high-tech weapons. Still, the interactivity is minimal, so I would personally rather get the same story as skippable cut-scenes rather than hammering a button every few seconds to learn the latest about in-game geopolitics. The only aspect of the RPG that does get a bit in the way of fun is swapping back and forth between the various screens to purchase new wanzer parts, configure your pilots, upgrade your combat computers and then trade those parts between wanzers. That portion of the interface is cumbersome. Fortunately, this installment in the Front Mission series adds full wanzer sets that you can easily purchase, saving you the trouble of balancing your load-out (or just saving you the hassle of swapping back and forth between all the screens that take a few moments to load).

Choose Your Own Camouflage (But Don't Make It Too Bright)

The models for the wanzers themselves are cool, and the close-up battle effects look great. Animations for dodges, shots and explosions are also exciting. Occasionally, the camera will line up for a cinematic view of a sniper taking aim and be partially blocked by vegetation or a building, but the game looks great when viewing battle close-up, or just tracking missiles as they fly across the landscape towards their targets. If you pull out to the distance necessary to get a good view of the entire battle, you lose the details that make the wanzers look so good. Still, that slightly more drab view is useful for making tactical decisions, and the camera zooms in for the actual exchange of shots. The landscapes can be somewhat monotonous when doing battle in urban or industrial areas. They aren't lacking in detail, it's just that those battlefields are dominated by grays. And like any game that can be played for dozens of hours, all the battle music will eventually be repetitive, but it's skillfully done and unobtrusive.

For anyone with even a remote interest in turn-based strategy games on a console, from expert tacticians to the casually curious, Front Mission 4 is a great game of explosive wanzer combat. Try taking a wanzer out for a spin as you follow Elsa and Darril in their efforts to unravel a global conspiracy.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on June 20, 2004 1:41 PM.

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