I remember playing Front Mission 2 a few years ago and thinking, "Man, if the loading times for this game weren't so damn slow, this might've been a classic!" Time passed and this wishful thinking stayed in my mind for over a year...and then, the ads for Front Mission 3 came around in late spring of 1999. Just seeing its boast of "Fast Battle. Non-stop Action" made my mouth water with thoughts of a great mecha strategy series whose main flaw would finally be patched up in this new sequel. Now that I've thoroughly played the game, another phrase comes to mind: "Be careful what you wish for."
The Year is 2112, 10 years have passed since the events of Front Mission 2 and the power play between the 5 major factions in the world still continues to this day. There is the USN (United States of the New Continent), made up of the combined forces of North and South America, the EC (Euro Community) which encompasses most of Europe and Greenland, the OCU (Oceanic Community Union) made of the various islands in Asia and Australia, and the OAC (African Community) which is basically all of Africa. Finally, there is the People's Republic of Zaftra , made up of what was the Soviet Union.
You play as Kazuki Takemura, a student who is working as a Wanzer test pilot for Kirishima Heavy Industries along with his buddy Ryogo Kasuma. While delivering the newest Wanzer models to the JSDF base in Yokosuka ("Hey Ryo!"), the base is attacked by enemy Vanzers, and when the dust settles, you learn of two things. A: Your sister, who works in the base, has gone AWOL and B: A super missile, called MIDAS, is secretly being developed...and this is but the start of a global conspiracy.
Actually, the story isn't as grandiose as I try to make it sound. While its plot, despite being a combination between the ole' Destroy The Super Weapon (TM) and Find the Missing Family Member (TM), isn't that bad, Front Mission Third suffers from bad pacing and less than spectacular writing. Front Mission 3 suffers from stringing a ridiculously large amount of pointless missions together. For example, in trying to track down the MIDAS missile, you go through a series of missions like this: Follow lead to Base A; after learning that the missile was already moved to the next base, head to that base, which turns out to be a false lead. Then, you move to the next base...where you find details on some other project. Repeat for 30 hours of gameplay. This, coupled with the fact that speeches in Front Mission Third can get overly long winded makes for very long, boring scenes between battles.
But, there is a bright side in Front Mission Third's storyline: Branching paths! There are two different story lines that you can follow as mentioned above, and the story line and the missions differ dramatically depending on which one you pursue. Aside from the major branch, which determines which story line, there are others that may affect mission parameters. It is possible to go on a series of different missions to achieve the same goal, or failing a secondary objective may result in a slightly altered mission as well. While the number of these missions are very few, it nevertheless makes the game more interesting and gives the feel of non-linearity to an extent that was unseen in previous incarnations of this series.
The visuals in Front Mission Third are typical Square stuff: NICE. The Vanzers, for the most part, are well detailed, the weapons and backgrounds look relatively realistic, and it holds up pretty well even when it zooms up. How's that for Playstation limitations! Of course, it DOES get pretty darn chunky when it zooms up, but that is to be expected given the hardware Square is working with.
Of course, the main selling point of Front Mission Third, besides the mecha, is the excellent battle system used. The battles are done in 3D turn-based overhead, with the screen rotateable in angles of 45 degrees at a time. The battles themselves are similar to the ones in Shining Force, and it is very easy to pick up even for those unfamiliar with the engine. The screen zooms in close whenever you and the enemy square off in battle and with the load times being virtually eliminated, it is very impressive to watch.
In addition to the battle system is the fact that the mecha is subject to "Status Ailments". Strong hits can short-circuit your Vanzer for a few turns or a hard blow can knock the pilot unconscious. If you are hit particularly hard, you can be thrown off your Vanzer, and must wait until next turn to get on again. This idea works well in theory, but it can be abused to no end. There was a time when I lost a Vanzer because I would get disabled as soon as I got it back in working order again...not fun at all.
Each mecha you have is customizable between each battle. You can choose its chassis, armament, and even its computer systems in order to give each Vanzer you have unique specifications for battle. It is wise to have a varied mecha squad when you go into battle, since this allows you to assign each Vanzer various tasks, such as close-up combat (Heavy Chassis, Armed with Melee weapons), long range combat (Agile frame, Sniper Rifle), and even support roles (Grenade Launcher, Missile Launcher). It is through this system that the battle system in Front Mission Third achieves its full potential.
Then again, this elimination of long load times didn't come without a cost. The number of units you can take into battle with you, as well as the sweep of the battles have been scaled back considerably. While the average mission in previous games may have taken about an hour to complete, the missions in Third rarely go over 15 minutes. In fact, the insanely huge amount of dialogue you have to weed through to get to the mission is usually as long as the mission itself!
In an attempt to make up for this, Front Mission Third has about 3 times the mission as in Front Mission 2, but I'm not sure if this was a fair trade off. Why? The battles in Front Mission Third are now much simpler than in previous games, in both difficulty and complexity. Since you now only control 4 units in each battle instead of the near dozen in the other games, the "strategy" in this strategy RPG has been all but eliminated. As long as you properly outfit each mech and upgrade them, you're all but assured victory.
Another sore point in Front Mission is the skill system used in the game. These skills range from the likes of "Anti-Damage 10", to "First Strike", "Zoom", and "Chaff". While I can understand the need for this, there is one thing about this system that makes no logical sense: You can only learn some skills by having on different chassis on you mech. What is more, once you've learned this skill, you can use it on any chassis you want. Does this make any sense? Ok, so you can only get zoom with a type of head that supports it...but then how in the world can you use it if you change it to a chassis that doesn't support it? Is there a logical reason that I'm missing here?
Needless to say, Front Mission 3 doesn't take itself seriously enough. This may sound like a weird complaint, but think about it. This game is full of things that make no sense, such as the fact that 2 or 3 well-armed Infantry can take down a mecha. It's just not right! And the fact that the creators added in badly executed attempts at humor doesn't help either. It is understandable for a game that takes place in a less serious setting to do this, but in the grim world that Front Mission takes place in, I don't think humor has such a place.
On the bright side, both the music and the sound effects are top notch. The weapons sound very realistic as do the movements of the Vanzers, which adds to what little sense of realism there is in the game.
Bottom line, Front Mission is not a game you would buy for its complex story, nor for its deep strategy. The battles are fun to play, and it's interesting to see what weird combination of mecha types you can make. And considering that the battles are what makes a game like this successful, perhaps that's all that really matters in the end.