Ring of Red (PlayStation 2) review
"With metallic clanking accompanying your units movements, you'll soon discover that you control your troops much like you would play a game of chess. This gives you a free hand to traverse around the topographic mapscape, which is littered with allies, enemies and various helpful landmarks."
What would life be like if history had turned in another direction?
How would this world be adapted if Japan had not surrendered after the US's shipment of nukes was liberally littered across their country? What if they had held out to the extent that Allied forces would have to seize it as they did Germany, aided by the Soviet army? If Japan was then subsequently cut in two, each half ruled by the Democratic and Communistic governments respectively, how would the divided country and her people fare?
Ring of Red tries to answer all these questions along with one less philosophical; what if tanks where replaced entirely with huge cannon-wielding mechs dubbed 'Armoured Fighting Walkers'?
A slightly more attention-grabbing question, isn't it?
Ring of Red puts you in control of Masami von Weizegger, a young test pilot for the Democratic South Japan. Born from a Japanese mother and a German father, young Masami whittles away his time taking part in mock battles, put at the controls of the newest AFW's. Blowing up mock targets and duelling with fellow test pilots may not sound like the start of a notable storyline, but things soon hot up when the 'Type 3" AFW is stolen from right under the nose of Masami by the Communistic North -- those dirty red bastards!
Despite his overwhelming failure to stop the newest prototype from effortlessly waltzing off stage, the inexperienced rookie is quickly made captain of a veteran gathering of mercenaries. Their job: to recapture the Type 3 prototype before those Communist dogs get their filthy mitts all over it.
Fuelled only by his never-ending supply of angst aimed squarely at the conniving commie to have outwitted him so, Masami faultlessly proves his leadership qualities by blindly chasing down his target -- and not caring who he has to shred to do it! Given loose support from South Japan, he and his cohorts give chase. Of course, the North don't want to make it easy for the would-be retriever.
Imagine, if you will, the harsh inhospitable landscape of North Japan, filled with its rocky topography and inaccessible peaks as your robotic avatars smuggle themselves over the border, hidden beneath the cover of darkness. Their task is to cut off the stolen AFW's retreat either by eliminating it and its supporting forces, or by capturing the harbour it wishes to employ for its daring escape. The defending mechs have taken up aggressive positions to try and ensure that your task ends unhappily; a warranted act of aggression on their behalf that needs to replied to with a matching attitude. There is no quarter for mercy here, and soon the dark night sky will be illuminated by the burning husks of once proud robotic warriors. The only question is who will live to fight another day, and who will be left sobbing alongside their AFW turned scrap-iron.
With metallic clanking accompanying your units movements, you'll soon discover that you control your troops much like you would play a game of chess. This gives you a free hand to traverse around the topographic mapscape, which is littered with allies, enemies and various helpful landmarks. You can use this ability to dig yourself in to await an enemy attack, perhaps by taking to the higher ground, or by occupying a nearby village to increase your defensive standing. Should you have taken damage from the various mechanised monstrosities that vie to bar your progress, you can perhaps opt for a strategic retreat, allowing yourself the opportunity to engage in often vital repairs. Similarly, perhaps you have the opposition firmly in your sights, in which case it may be time to squeeze the trigger, and send the enemy mech back to the recycling centre.
Choosing the option to plant a few rounds in an opposing AFW will change the camera view to a more action-orientated slant, the point of view constantly picking up on the metallic combatants, giving it a kind of 'reporter on the scene' vibe. You are given 90 seconds upon entering battle mode to heap as much damage on you target as possible while trying to take significantly less. This mode gives you the chance to position your AFW as favourably as you can whilst trading shots, certain battle types preferring differing distances. The arachnid looking 4-Leg AFW is primed to be a heavily-armoured sniper unit, doing their best work from a distance; this in complete contrast to the Light mech; a much more mobile threat that likes go get in close to its targets and utilise its heavy machine-guns or lower calibre cannons. The standard AFWs can work from pretty much anywhere on the field, and even employ the close combat melee attacks that are performed with much more vigor by the ultra close range Anti AFW mech. Every possible placement on the battlefield has an AFW that can excel there -- or indeed flounder.
Actually squeeze the trigger, and once again you change your perspective, the camera taking up the position of an aiming reticule. Giving you a first-person view of what you're shooting at, the reticule will zoom in on your target, a climbing hit-percentage present in the top left-hand corner. This gives you the choice of either firing a quick inaccurate shot that could miss the target all together, or waiting till your chances of hitting are all but guaranteed. Getting the percentage up to 85%+ may ensure explosive mayhem lights up the tinpot titan under your crosshairs, but while you take aim, the clock is still ticking. A happy medium between accuracy and speed needs to be found to ensure you dial up the damage. If that wasn't enough, if you are shot while you are taking aim, the percentage is canceled out, and you need start over. Seeing your opposition shift into a firing stance means it might be a good idea to take that shot now -- or risk having to steady your aim all over again.
The threats don't just come from the towerblock-high mechanoids though, each battle-bot acts as a unit supported by infantry. These troops come in various flavours, the inclusion of each helping to boost various skills of your mech; for example, the sniper unit will increase your 'vs troops' accuracy, while the mechanics will speed up your movement rate, allowing you to cover ground all the quicker. Of course, that isn't all the pesky little buggers are good for; if you deploy them on the ground, you'll quickly find that clever placements can turn the tide of war for or against you.
Either of your two squadrons of ground infantry can be set to two differing positions; rearguard, where they are safely sheltered from most attacks by the hulking behemoth of your AFW, or vanguard, where they can take a more physical part in the action. From the vanguard position, they can join the action, and shoot away at the enemy forces. Depending on which classes you have chosen to assist you will regulate what targets get suffer their wrath. Rifle wielding units will concentrate their fire on their opposing human ranks, while those armed with bazookas and grenade launchers will pepper the mech itself with unwelcome and explosive gifts. Both traits will help whittle down the respective HP of their selective targets, but they hide even more in the way of hidden depth.
For when you leave them in the rearguard for a while, your busy troops will be actively powering up any special skills they may possess. Once active, the troops in question will inform you, and all you need do is order them forward into a vanguard position to make use of them. These extremely handy skills range from an unmissable homing missile strike on the enemy mech, a veritable spray of bullets directed at the opposing troops, or less direct actions, like tangling the AFW's legs in a wire, or strategically planting land-mines to deter them from charging headlong into your ranks. These skills can be reactivated by retreating your troops back to rearguard, where said skills will once again be powered up. You can do this as long as you have troops left alive on the battlefield, as can your enemy. Sometimes you'll find it more prudent to snipe out the surrounding troops before you concentrate your fire on the AFW itself. Just be aware that your infantry are just as open to such dastardly tactics.
Your third and final platoon of troops will be designated as your loading crew, diligently manning your main cannon. Depending on your choice of crew will alter firing statistics -- such as loading speeds and accuracy -- accordingly. Not only this, but each crew may have a 'special shot' ability, allowing you to fire a limited number of differing shells at a guaranteed strike on your foes. Shroud the suckers in an accuracy decreasing smoke screen, or unleash upon them the horrors of armour-piercing or heat-explosive onslaughts. It's no more than the bastards deserve!
The pilots of your respective AFWs even join in on the fun with their own set of special skills, allowing them to dismiss loading times, charge forward into opposing ranks, or even dodge the next incoming blast sent your way. These abilities, and the amount of times you can utilise them, stack up in the accumulation of levels your units grow. This all lends nicely to the cleverly placed learning curve the game presents you with. At around the forth mission is a magic moment when you realise that the overly complex dynamics that Ring of Red seems to employ is not quite as difficult as you were lead to believe.
Sadly, the cost of familiarity comes at a price; once you have to controls down pat, you'll notice that each mission is basically the same as the last. Sure, the objectives change now and then, and unoccupied villages litter the mapscape that you can capture (and even sometimes gleam new troops for future deployment from), but the same wave after wave of AFWs will present themselves to be wiped out. The aiming reticule system, which once felt fresh and new to even my cynical eye, quickly wanes, and even when you discover a boss mech, often huge mountains of machinery that are very capable of turning your automated army into junk metal, they simply require the same tactic of finding each mechs preferred range, and shooting. Frankly, Ring of Red offers you something new, but by the time the latter missions roll about, the game starts to feel like a chore.
This isn't helped by a political plot-line which is entirely driven by text. Lots and lots of text. Walls of sometimes shoddily localised lines will assault you at story points, and although the tale it tells is a solid one, it can be a little overwhelming. The reasons behind young Jin's desperate need to feel like a dependable solider, and the explaining of the fiery Ryoko's almost endless anger are explained at seemingly random junctures of the game. Masami himself goes through a transformation from a cocky and arrogant hothead to a dependable leader at times with no explanation, only to revert back shortly afterwards. It's puzzling, and it's sure as hell hurtful to the overall effect.
Despite all this, Ring of Red tries to be something else, and in this it succeeds. If the game does grab you, you'll spend ages fiddling with troop alignments to give your mech that little bit of an extra kick. You'll play through the somewhat dragging later levels, and you'll even find joy in the odd mission that breaks away from the almost stagnate norm the game presents. You'll show those dirty red bastards why communism isn't welcome in Japan. Moreover, you'll enjoy doing it, because not only have you outfought legions of Soviet forces, but outthought them too.
Of course, if it doesn't grab you, it'll probably find its way out of your collection within a few days. It's not for everyone, but if it's a somewhat unique experience you're looking for, then Ring of Red is well worth trying.
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