Evolved is a strange subtitle for the latest entry in Square-Enix’s long-running military drama, Front Mission. Not because the game’s fast-paced shooting is a step down in sophistication from the series’ strategic role-playing roots, but because it trades the series’ philosophical, affecting stories for one as sophisticated as your average G.I. Joe episode. It also doesn’t help that Evolved’s fun shooting is marred by manic difficulty shifts and underutilized character customization.
The year is 2171, a century after the original Front Mission. Earth is still controlled by five militaristic governments, their individual might demonstrated by wanzers—mechs that skirt between the colorful personality of Gundam’s bipeds and the more convincing, mundane bots of Steel Battalion. You play Dylan Ramsey, U.C.S. citizen, test pilot for Diable Avionics, and distracting Will Wheaton look-alike. One day, you’re testing a new experimental wanzer equipped with the E.D.G.E. system when giant robots start blowing up New York City. As the impulsive sort, you rush to save your engineer father from a facility downtown, meeting up with U.C.S. military along the way. In a stroke of anime logic, you’re offered a military commission due to your ability to use E.D.G.E., and then it’s off to avenge your father’s apparent death and find out who attacked New York in a series of incoherently linked levels that run through jungle, ice, and desert arenas.
Evolved translates Front Mission’s action nicely. You customize your wanzer between fights, balancing weight and power with a load-out of limbs, torsos, guns, shoulder missiles, and randomly activated extra attack abilities. Wanzer combat is extremely satisfying, with an emphasis on constant movement. You monitor your boost meter and “skate” around enemies, taking out individual limbs to lower their abilities. The E.D.G.E. system is narrative justification for a slow-motion effect, but its usefulness is mostly restricted to boss battles. (You even get to hop out of your mech for a handful of on-foot shooting missions. Gears Of War they aren’t, but they work pretty well.) The action is excellent, but doesn’t take advantage of the wealth of customization or strategic battle options. Your wanzer load-out is dictated by narrative for the first two-thirds of the game. (The game’s bare-bones multiplayer also doesn’t allow full access to wanzer customization, for balance’s sake.) In the final levels, you know nothing about what’s ahead, so it’s impossible to pick appropriate body parts and weapons. Carefully constructing an assault is also useless—fights are too fast and you’re too vulnerable to do anything but try to destroy everything at speed. The game’s difficulty is inverted: It’s hardest at the beginning. Boss battles against mercenaries Apollo’s Chariot and big bad Cornelius Werner, on the other hand, are disproportionately difficult, to the point of tedium.
More troubling is that death doesn’t matter in Front Mission Evolved. Yes, Dylan stands by and watches not one, but three father figures get gunned down in battle to create some drama, and one OCU soldier wonders aloud when men and women will stop getting killed by the whims of politicians and bureaucrats, but no one ever stops to marvel at the staggering number of deaths and murders that take place. Dylan is no soldier, but he leaps right into the fray without a thought, never hesitating to destroy an entire building, whether it’s in New York or an enemy base in the desert. One of Dylan’s mentors, General Mosley, says after watching Dylan destroy an entire arctic base, “Explosions! I love it!” What are these people fighting for? Is anything at stake? It’s not uncommon for a shooting game to disregard ethical questions, but one of the hallmarks of the Front Mission series is more serious discourse on war and its effects on soldiers and civilians alike. Evolved is a step up from Double Helix’s previous efforts, but it’s a disservice to the series it shares a name with.