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Front Mission 4 (PlayStation 2) artwork

Front Mission 4 (PlayStation 2) review


"A conflicted execution of mediocre story and solid strategy."


Published in 2003,Squaresoft continued its focus on emotional, layered storytelling, and this two laned tale doesnít jell with class oriented mech strategy combat. The history of the Front Mission franchise is one of pushing its host hardware to the limit. Front Mission 4 lives up to this reputation in combat excellence and character focused narrative in addition to giving us the best the Playstation 2 has to offer.

Story
In this alternate future Earth, wars are fought with, and determined by giant robotic machines called Wanzers, which, if I understand correctly, is derived from the German word ďPanserĒ, for which their legendary tanks were named. It captures the idea of allowing their superiority to continue in development. What would the German war machine have achieved, unimpeded?

We get to find out, and within the framework of this Real Time Strategy game, play out. Make no mistake, this is not a Role Playing Game. There are no plot changing decisions to be made; no crucial hidden characters to seek out, nor wondrous secrets to unveil. There are two overarching plot lines that do no cross paths, which was disappointing.

FM4ís story is decidedly less intense than previous installments, and thereby more accessible. Itís not hard to come to grips with Elsa and Darrilís motivations. Not lost on me, however, is cast diversity; Elsa is a light haired young French woman, whose determination belies inexperience both interpersonal and battlefield. Darril is European male of mixed descent with morals to match. Heís not above theft under the right circumstances, but is loath to fight women. We do get to know more about the cast as we proceed, and the localization is tactfully executed.

Both are accompanied by a wide variety of characters from all corners of the globe. While youíll not be hunting down the best candidates for your squad, there is a healthy respect for all nationalities here, and that is to be lauded. The tale of conspiracy is to be expected, but it is presented in a matter of fact manner that allows you to focus on the gameís core experience: Combat. The challenge lays were it belongs; in how well we prepare for and execute our mission objectives.

Mechanics
It may go without saying that Front Mission 4 is mechanically rich, but I was immediately disappointed by the lack of any dash mechanic. In the lavishly animated introduction cinematics, we see these monstrous war machines skate and power along the street toward their targets in a deadly manner. Then weíre in game and our impressive mechs donít show a sign of doing the same. Itís a good example of setting a false expectation.

Whilst the visual novel side of the game presents a soft tale of nobility and honor, and its abuse, our main objective is to use the squad of Wanzers at our disposal to complete staid objectives. Most entail the decimation of the enemy and include a smattering of escort missions. Fortunately these are few and far between, and only one of these can cause a failure state if too many of the NPC allies are destroyed.

Itís wise not to include too many, and to pepper them throughout late game, where investment is already deep. Front Mission is, foremost, about blowing up the enemy with a healthy advantage, even if it is in some cases purely tactical. Always outnumbered and sometimes outclassed, hard won battles are the most rewarding personally. The same cannot be said of in game rewards, which may put you at a disadvantage in credits and character experience. Fortunately, this is carefully balanced by simulated missions that can render much needed EP and credits for between mission upgrades.

Central to combat is the hierarchy of weapons in Front Mission. There are four weapon types: Melee; spikes and knuckles. Short range; shotguns and machine guns. Medium range; bazookas and rifles. Long range; missiles. Each has a movement priority that falls in place exactly in the order as listed. Melee can move sooner than guns, but can only attack adjacent blocks and no diagonals. Each has its own natural enemy, and success depends heavily upon effective direction of each type.

Wanzers vary in requirements and design as well. Some are heavily armored at the cost of evasion; whereas light armor enables great freedom of movement. Missilers can attack at great range but move very little during their turn. These are all natural order tradeoffs which much be considered when customizing the mechs in your squad.

Youíll also have to keep in mind each pilotís inherent class. For instance, Zead, the team leader, is a missiler. Change his mount and heís near to useless, because his progression path is built in. Each character gains Experience Points, or EP, which can be invested in passive and active abilities. Passive abilities improve weapon skills, which makes sense, or EMP resistance, which makes almost none. Active abilities trigger randomly during combat and can enable delicate recon squad members to avoid enemy attacks entirely by escaping the attack.

When these mechanics work theyíre very effective and a whole lot of fun to watch. On the field, combat takes place in a cinematic presentation which has you watching the attacks and evasions of Wansers close and personal. Squadmates can be linked up to respond to opponents attacks defensive and offensively, which adds flavor to otherwise routine combat. It can be exciting; but for the weary, its possible to skip these scenes with a button press. A great deal of attention has been paid to burning buildings and scene details.

I should say that while this isnít an RPG, damage is represented by numbers and with subtle changes in your mechís appearance. Sparks will fly, limbs can be destroyed, but then just as easily restored by a repair backpack equipped ally. Items can also improve survivability, but lack the variety of previous entries in the franchise.

Audio
I canít go much further without complementing the soundtrack. Hidenori Iwasaki has composed a seemingly effortless setpiece of trumpets, thumping drums, bells and well timed mechanical sounds that flesh out the aural experience completely. Iíd go as far to say that without it, FM4 wouldnít retain its militaristic sheen. Iíve heard before that the soundtrack can do the heavy lifting, and this reliable soundtrack does not disappoint.

Front Mission has voice acted cut scenes, too, and these are professionally performed. There arenít many peaks or lows for the actors to wrestle with, which could be a consequence of poor direction. Ultimately, and probably to the gameís detriment, most characters are likable and little else. It all comes across like an episode of Law and Order; cut and dried situational drama unfolding without any influence from the player. Itís not bad, but it lacks impact in spite of all of its effort.

Graphics
I find the Playstation 2 a mixed bag, where presentation is concerned. FM4 has a mostly desaturated palette reminiscent of World War II films. Wanzers are meticulously detailed and animated with appropriate weight. Cutscenes portray the weight of these multi-tonne vehicles and their lethality. The PS2ís GPU, on the other hands, has some visual ticks that detract from the experience. Well timed motion blurs add to the excitement, but applied to every single camera action during Wanzer customization comes across as lazy.

Overhead views of the battlefield look great, and the developers have put time into disguising the low poly count of buildings and small structures. Sometimes zooming into combat will obscure your view of the scene, but these instances are minimal. The developers have raised the bar successfully, and this feels like a game of its generation. Unfortunately that means it predates high resolution gaming, and as of this writing there is no way to address that.

Overall
As with any RTS title, combat is repetitive, exhaustive, and strategy focused. Its narrative, while pointed and political, fails to drive home a firm connection with the player. Youíll get used to switching between Elsa and Darrilís storylines every few missions, but you wonít enjoy the crossover that never happens.

Is that strange to say? If they werenít going to meet, couldnít we at least had a tantalizing near miss? There are so many missed opportunities to crank up my curiosity and personal involvement that during playthroughs I realized that the game literally bores me to sleep. Which brings up the point: New Game+ is wasted here.

Rather than keep what you earn for completing the campaign(s), you retain just the surplus EP obtained during the final mission. Sigh. This is useful to give your squad a massive ability boost early on, but this isnít a story youíre going to want to relive anytime soon. It seems the message here is that Front Mission 4 didnít try hard enough.

The Good News
Front Mission is a solid play; good at least one run, maybe two if you donít mind a minor advantage and want to relax. Wanzer customization gives you plenty of play style choices, and new game mechanics keep things more interesting than the story will. Voice acting and Wanzer animations are smooth, and presented with cinematic camera techniques.

The Bad News
On large maps, the framerate can dip; while thereís no class system, squad members are predisposed toward their weapon types with next to no skill personality. This is a fifth generation title; texture and screen resolution are relatively low.

Recommendation
The gaming history of this franchise has been hit-and-miss, but I warrant this is a notable accomplishment in that roster. Successfully raising the technical bar, it does not live up to its story driven reputation. As for playing the thing, youíll be looking to original hardware as no downloadable option exists for modern platforms.

3/5

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (December 16, 2016)

Once upon a time Asteroids was all he ever needed. Over twenty years later poor optimization still ceases to faze him. Remember kids: bandwidth isn't the answer. Fun is.

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