Let’s face it, good mech games are few and far between, which is probably why they’ve been a cult-like subsection of the industry. Balancing the sci-fi universes they reside in with the content, replayability and complexity found in their anime counterparts has inevitably proven difficult for most developers, with the possible exception of Square Enix. Perhaps it’s their skill with intricate RPGs, but Square Enix has managed to avoid most of these problems, melding turn-based strategy with multi-layered plotlines. Although a majority of this critically acclaimed series has remained in Japan (save the release of Front Mission 3 in 2000), the latest edition has just recently stomped its way to American shores. So strap yourself into your favorite pilot’s chair as we power up Front Mission 4.
As is the case with some futuristic plots, the world has essentially become continentally divided into massive regional factions. Modern warfare as we know it has essentially been replaced by giant mechs called wanzers, defensive and offensive weapons that can respond to just about any situation. This tactical shift has forced a re-envisioning of how to strategically use these tools. One group from the European Community known as The Durandal, has been specially tasked with discovering new battle plans with wanzers for national defense. Here we meet one of the two main characters: Elsa, a French pilot and new recruit to the team, whose training is suddenly cut short when a military base is destroyed in Germany. But the plot doesn’t remain focused on her. It also crosses the sea to Venezuela and introduces players to Darril, a United Continental States soldier tasked with border patrol. When he and his squad stumble upon a cache of smuggled gold from the rogue President, he and his friends decide to steal the money and make a run for freedom. As time goes on, the two plots intertwine, with both Elsa and Darril discovering a massive conspiracy that goes farther beyond the boundaries of their countries and threatens the whole world.
To protect Elsa, Darril and their compatriots, players have to learn the intricacies of the wanzer itself. Much like a car, a wanzer can be fielded right from the factory, or it can be modified with other parts on the market to boost its strength, speed or hit points, for example. These robots can pack a melee weapon in each hand, such as large “brass knuckles” or choose from a range of firearms, including shotguns, rifles and machine guns. For distance lovers, a wanzer can be equipped with rocket launchers or bazookas to finish off opponents from a distance. Of course, the kinds of equipment chosen essentially designates the kind of mech you’ll field, so lighter mechs will inevitably be scouts, heavier mechs will be close combat brawlers, etc. You can also establish certain wanzers as support units, such as repair backpacks to “heal” allies or EMP backpacks to jam enemy equipment. The number of options included let playing mechanics create dozens of variations for their squad, but requires them to focus upon 4 parts: legs, right and left arms and body. Each part can take a certain amount of damage before it’s rendered inoperable, imparting some kind of penalty. Total damage to the legs reduces your mobility, while blown off limbs and the loss of its subsequent weaponry result if the wanzer’s arms are constantly targeted. The body, however, is the most critical piece of your wanzer requiring the most attention, because having its hit points reduced to zero causes the machine to explode.
Your mechs are only as good as the pilot controlling them, so you’ll have to pay attention boosting your pilot’s skills as well. After every battle, pilots receive experience points which can be redeemed for new abilities or upgrades to their tactical computers (which in turn provide more advanced skills). Some of them are simple bonuses to your stats, such as more AP, or activity points which can be allocated to perform any action in battle. Others are more offensive or defensive in nature, including higher damage with specific weapons or greater evasion of incoming fire. You can also acquire link points, which allow players to establish situational attack or counterattack combos. This is one of the more interesting pilot functions, as it allows gamers to determine the level of support that each mech receives in combat. At higher levels, one attack can be supported by three other allies to rain down a tremendous amount of damage on a target.
Initially, gamers are treated to a gorgeous, clash of the metallic titans CG movie that really sets a great first impression of what you expect to play in Front Mission 4. Unfortunately, this is not what you get from the rest of the game. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few in-game cutscenes that are nicely rendered. However, the majority of this game isn’t close to the same quality as the intro. In fact, the graphics look like they were lifted from a PlayStation One game and ported over to the PS2. The wanzers themselves look nice, and are decently animated, but they’re definitely not taxing the graphical power of the machine by any stretch of the imagination. I actually compared it to Front Mission 3, and it’s practically the same. I merely give FM3 allowances because it was a PSOne game. The camerawork is rather shoddy and quite restricted for a strategy title, as if the designers didn’t want players to see just how flawed the title is. Full of jaggies that leap off of almost every object onscreen and cursed by incredibly generic textured environments that are visually cramped, this is not the quality that you’d expect from Square Enix in the slightest.
Sound fares a little bit better than the graphics, primarily within the effects range, where there is a definite weight to the impact of some weapons. Melee weapons that land have a deep clanging thud that echo from their target, and the pinging of metal bullets slamming into wanzer parts is rather satisfying. However, it would’ve been nice if there was some kind of differentiation between weapons. Not all machine guns, shotguns or rockets sound the same when fired, nor do they sound the same when making impact with different kinds of metal. The musical score is adequate, but not really capable of engrossing you into the action thanks to the lackluster graphics. The greatest culprit with the sound is the voice acting, which is passable at best. Note to voice actors: If you can’t pick an accent that you can perform well and stick with it through your performance, don’t do one!
These technical issues could even be overlooked if the gameplay didn’t have so many immediate flaws. As it is, they merely heighten the problems inherent in the design of FM4. First of all, can someone please explain to me how people in the future can design and pilot incredible mechs, but can’t discover basic intelligence on a mission that you’re going into? The game preaches to the player about preparing your team for the challenges ahead, but without knowing what you’re walking into, you’re almost always ill-prepared for any special surprises the enemy has in store because you’re given very little, if any information. While walkthroughs like the ones provided in the BradyGames guide for Front Mission 4 helps, and also demystifies some of the unclear gameplay, gamers without this resource will often discover that it’s worth it to throw missions simply to find out what you're up against, just so you can go back to the menu screen and prep accordingly. This in itself is a waste of time, and it’s not very fun either. It also highlights one of the other problems: Too many menus! Whether it’s upgrading your pilots, purchasing new parts or going into combat, you’ll have to wade through a number of menus to make decisions about anything. Even the hardcore mech addicts (which I consider myself to be) will get burned out with this slogging through of screens without the benefits of complete micromanagement of your squad.
There are also two major complaints pertaining to combat, the focal point of the game itself. First of all is the uncontrollable nature of fights itself. Players can’t specifically target enemy wanzer parts, so if you were trying to focus on destroying a sniper’s arm holding its rifle, you have to continually waste your attacks hoping that your pilots are good enough shots to damage it sufficiently. It’s practically a spray and pray approach, where you fire at a target and hope it hits what you want it to (which is very similar to how machine guns work in FM4). Even combat skills seem to be applied randomly in battle, so you’re not guaranteed of your pilots even using abilities that you’ve invested in during lulls between battles. The lack of precision makes even the most surgically precise wanzer’s attacks feel like a ham-handed fighter, landing a blow wherever and causing some imprecise amount of pain.
What’s more, FM4 features some of the dumbest AI in a strategy game. Most opponents will literally hang back on a map, waiting for players to approach a certain range before even moving close to attack or support their forces. You can be in plain sight of other opponents, but you won’t get swarmed or even advanced upon, which is just sad. This devolves the strategic elements of the game into a lackluster game of cat and mouse, where you bait one or two units into advancing towards your team before picking them off en masse. What’s more, once in battle, enemies don’t act in a logical manner, instead seeming to randomly pick and choose their targets at will. For instance, I had one wanzer that was literally an easy target, with both arms and legs destroyed and the core body part severely wounded. Instead of going for the killing blow, every enemy turned away and started picking on a fresh unit that was relatively undamaged. This wasn’t just a fluke, it happened for several turns in a row. By the time they finally returned their attention to the first mech, I’d be able to heal it back to full strength and take out a number of surrounding opponents.
Finally, the plot is handled rather poorly. FM4 swaps back and forth between Elsa and Darril without rhyme or reason rather suddenly, which really messes with the continuity of the plot. It’s possible to start to get a sense of what’s going on with one group, advancing their pilots and buying new weapons, only to quickly switch over to the less experienced, less equipped. Not only is it jarring, but it’s not terribly fun once you come down to it. At least FM3 let you choose which plot you wanted to explore, and while there might be influences or crossover with the other character, it was handled solely from one character’s perspective until that campaign was entirely over. Then you could actively choose to play the other character and see the adventure from their side. It was simple, but effective and was full of solid storytelling. FM4’s simply isn’t that engaging.
While the Front Mission series has been acclaimed in the past, this is a horrible misstep that hopefully won’t be repeated in the future. Substandard combat design and AI, a cluttered player interface and technically outdated graphics butcher most, if not almost all, of the fun you’d have with this title. My suggestion? Try to track down its predecessor, Front Mission 3. You’ll get two much better story lines with understandable technical limitations and a more enjoyable game experience. Simply put, this is a title for the hardcore mech or Front Mission fan only, and even then it has enough drawbacks to be a mediocre addition to your collection.