In the future, mankind will teach its armies to pilot bipedal, mechanized war machines known as Wanzers. These Wanzers will be used to very carefully and very slowly combat enemies.
Front Mission kicks off with a bang of a lie. A superbly done opening cinematic details the impressive speed and lethality of the Wanzers. They swoop into a city unimpeded and demolish anything unlucky enough to be caught in their destructive wake of missiles, melee pikes, and machineguns. Following this tantalizing glimpse into an advanced future, the actual game begins. You might experience this kind of proposed excitement in the following play provided you're first willing to put up with an initial five hours that's so tedious and plodding it nearly ruins the entire experience.
While touted as being a role-player's turn-based strategy, Front Mission is very much strategy and very not RPG. Character development, which RPGs rely so heavily upon, comes from earning experience points and cash used to purchase upgrades for pilot and Wanzer alike. Sounds good so far... Upgrading and customization are perhaps the most exciting components offered, but like the rest of Front Mission, they suffer from tragic and apparently low budget flaws.
Think of upgrading as two separate components meant to be one: pilot and mech. Pilots, of which you are assigned a few throughout the game, come with their own Wanzers and default setups. But the men and women behind the beasts also have a variety of abilities attached to them, like marksmanship skills, weapon proficiencies, skill point upgrades, link combination upgrades, and so forth. A properly equipped and upgraded pilot can be a champion capable of decimating all odds when used in conjunction with an equally balanced unit, but not unless the mech itself is first primed for fighting.
It's here that Front Mission excels. There are a ton of weapons, a ton of parts, and a ton of items made available. Each, when coupled with another, bolsters the overall worth of a mech, specializes a unit, or hampers effectiveness if used improperly. It's in Wanzer customization that players can switch out legs for better movement or evasion, change arms for better defense or weight, swap out the chassis, attach backpacks that all function differently, assign superfluous color schemes, and even name a bruiser, Bruiser.
Unfortunately, pilot and mech customization is a chore. (Don't worry, we're still coming to why it's not an RPG.) Each segment of the overall development schema is segregated, necessitating tedious text-based menu switches between them, ad nauseam. A simple, unified interface that allows players to quickly attach, detach, buy, and sell mech upgrades while simultaneously viewing and enhancing the qualities of a pilot with visual cues seems in order. But for Front Mission, order is not law. For some unfathomable reason the developers thought it keen to create separate menus for buying parts, selling parts, outfitting mechs, outfitting pilots, upgrading pilots, and linking one mech to another. This creates upwards of 20 minutes of totally unnecessary double-checking and cross checking pre-mission. Seeing it all fail toward the latter half of harder levels that may run over an hour in length is not fun.
Role-playing, if you could guess given the above, is then not about specializing a character to meet an overarching need within a team, but rather augmenting and reevaluating existing characters designed to fit specific roles so that an impossibility can be overcome. The reconnaissance unit, for instance, comfortably fulfills a job of utter uselessness unless scrapped and remade from the ground up to become a medic / ranged warrior, assuming the particular mission at hand requires such a thing, which you will not know until you play through it and either win or lose.
This segues us nicely into a fundamental flaw of Front Mission that exaggerates other, more minor problems. There is simply no tactical benefit to preplanning. There is no intel. There is no map of the prospective combat site, and there is no way to know if your beloved squadron will be effective in the coming war until the war happens and concludes. The only way to plan ahead and give yourself an advantage is to develop a force that capitalizes off some inherent reasoning problems Front Mission has. In our minds -- the same ones that have played through countless turn-based strategies over the last few decades -- patience is not always a tactic. In Front Mission, the easiest and most effective way to win battles is to accept that they may last nearly 100 rounds. They will do this because you will utilize what we refer to as the "copout attrition" technique. Since opponents are so predictably aggressive and prone to hounding single, comparatively unimportant members of your squad to their deaths, it's possible to meticulous navigate any of the game's maps, methodically draw them out, and then slowly pelt them to death from afar or up close, if need be. Since enemies in maps only begin attacking when a range radius is crossed, keeping safe distance and systematically annihilating what would be a superior force is no more a strategic challenge than counting boxes or suckering a gorilla into a cage with a mountain of bananas and then spending an hour poking him to death while you nurse whatever wounds you might incur in the attempt.
As insult to injury, not only is the artificial intelligence predictable, it's also predictably bad. It seems to sometimes not comprehend the basics of combat, like focusing on targets out of counterattacking range and without linked support. As an example, the AI always chooses to retaliate with a counterattack even if it would be in its best interest to conserve the action points required to perform such a move so that it can retaliate against the inevitable second, immobile assailant that's on the verge of death. There's more.
If we only have enough action points left after a turn to fire off a round from a short-range shotgun, and do not have enough AP associated with another unit to fire off its machinegun during its own counterattack or when counterattacking on the behalf of our shotgun guy, the enemy will still infallibly approach shotgun dude for no apparent reason other than to get its arms blown off. If intelligent, it could have assaulted the slightly debilitated trooper from one or two squares over, faced no repercussion, and potentially destroyed the attack link. But then if it were smart, it wouldn't so consistently fall for helicopter fishing, which entails running a fast unit out to lure a potentially unstoppable helicopter into missile range so that it can be slowly shot to death without penalty.
You'd think there would be a penalty. You'd think the helicopter would fire back and do damage of its own. Actually, it does, but this helps us. It's not hard in Front Mission to attach unlimited use repair packs to the backs of Wanzers. They can repair any unit on the field within their operational radius. Here's a trick: Mass all of your units up against the enemy, perform no attack, use repair packs on yourself, and then just counterattack when they assault you. You will conserve AP and they will all die every single time because "cease fire and regroup" is a totally foreign concept to them.
Within the latter half of the title, this challenge of mastering attention deficit disorder and dealing with the flawed game at hand escalates not because the bad guys get smarter, but because their placement is more sadistic and their capabilities vastly improved. Still, when this happens and you inevitably find yourself dying turn 88 into a match, it's just a matter of applying the discipline learned in combat to carefully reevaluate the effectiveness of your units and anticipate the result of the next mulligan.
This trial and error wouldn't be so decidedly mediocre if not for a few nagging issues Front Mission strings along. For the eyes, ears, and fingers, the game on a whole suffers from a glaring lack of production quality. While percentile indicators offer statistics for nearly every situation, making it possible to surmise the overall strength of a foe with a hard squint, visual prompts and cues are few and far between. For the battles, noncombatant Wanzers and other mobile objects between two rivals just disappear, making it at least seem like you can fire a shotgun right through an opponent unchallenged. Of course, the percentile indicator tells a slightly different story. In early training missions when the team is supposedly firing blanks, enemies will also just explode. And if they should die mid-mission, they'll magically reappear at the end cutscene. These kinds of arguably meaningless sloppiness carry over to nearly every aspect of the title, and you will appreciate them whether you find yourself accidentally triggering simulations and tutorials you've already played through and finding you cannot skip them, wondering why the giant Wanzers don't leave footprints in soft grass, realizing it's impossible to prioritize team member rounds in-game, or contemplating the actual effectiveness of a stationary artillery cannon at point blank range.
Even static backgrounds that serve as set pieces for drawn-out in-between mission dialogue are ugly, jagged amalgamations of what should be interactive rooms. You can't even see the darn models of characters who are supposedly conversing. There are just a bunch of random animated heads that popup from time-to-time, making it impossible to decipher the actual relevance of any particular conversation until it's over, because you'll have no idea who was or was not present during the talking until the talking stops. Don't worry; none of the conversations are relevant!
The storyline proposes an intriguing mixture of dutiful members of Durandal (a European Community sponsored Wanzer tactics research and development institute that finds itself embroiled in international conspiracy) and the slackers of the South American U.C.S. who just want to find gold and naked women. Instead of blending the two without seam or fault, Front Mission casually and infrequently switches between them, creating a disjointed feel to the game -- one that sees players contently advancing with one team, and then moving backward through time to use the other, more limited team.
It wouldn't bother so much if we could just figure out why the U.C.S.'s Darril is willing to desert his post and steal his government owned Wanzer so that he can make off with a box of 25 million in gold... How much is the Wanzer worth, Darril? You do realize you're stealing a giant war machine that probably costs a few hundred million dollars to getaway with a stupid box of gold bars, right?
Whether you can deal with all of the above or not, there's still no excuse for Front Mission's aural and graphical torture. People walked by while we played and earnestly questioned our sanity, "Hey dude, why are you playing a PSOne game?" Uh huh. Given Square Enix's penchant for churning out gorgeous Final Fantasy titles, this one's wholehearted visual failure is just mystifying. Animation is sloppy, colors are bland, there is no real environment interaction, battles are unfulfilling and plagued by poorly done camerawork and the maps are both small and sparsely detailed. Sound doesn't suffer as much, but without the vaguely strategic planning and implementation tunes, we'd be subjected to Wanzers that sound like clunky people and deliver no real sense of scale or lethality. My walking tank is as big as a 727, but the guns sound like pistols and the footsteps like those of a fat man.
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