They say that fate can be a fickle mistress, wantonly tossing good fortune and despair without forethought. Sometimes lady luck can smile on the most unworthy individual, while the most innocent can be forced to endure the most dubious challenges imaginable. For Darril and Elsa, the two main protagonists in Toshiro Tsuchida’s Front Mission 4, destiny can take the most unlikely people and make them into heroes.
Recently released for the PS2, Front Mission 4 marks the next-generation debut of the long-running mecha-based strategy-RPG. With the turn-based strategy RPG market receiving numerous titles in the last year, does Front Mission 4 offer enough content to sway gamers from the Disgaeas of the world? Let’s take a look.
Front Mission 4 takes place not long after the events of the first game in the series, though knowledge of previous storylines isn’t necessary to appreciate this drama. Set in a post-modern world, militaries worldwide have adapted massive bipedal mecha into active duty. These machines, called “wanzers,” had proved so effective in battle that they are fast upon their way to becoming the mainstay of modern warfare. The two worldwide powers presented in Front Mission 4 are the European Community (E.C.) and the Unified Continental States (U.C.S.). To better serve the evolution of wanzer warfare, the E.C. Armor Tactics Research Corps aka “Durandal” was formed to continue the development of wanzer technology and tactics.
When Elsa, a new recruit from the French Army, arrives for her very first day of training as a member of Durandal, the entire organization is asked to help in an investigation that could affect the security of the entire European Community. Several strategic bases in Germany have been destroyed outright by what appears to be a clandestine army and the E.C. has asked Durandal to assist the German Blauer Nebel Special Forces in finding the culprits and deterring their continued destruction. For Elsa, the investigation will become a challenge to her as a pilot and a very personal fight against an entity she thought she could trust. To her, Durandal would become more than just her assignment; they would become her friends in the conspiracy that would unfold.
On the other side of the world, in the steamy tropics of Venezuela, the U.C.S. wanzer pilot Darril and friends are up to no good. Since the recent announcement of Venezuela’s “liberation” from the U.C.S., the U.C.S. invades the country in an attempt to regain control and oust the insurgent despotic president. Stuck in rear-guard, Darril and his friends spend more time lounging around staring at the sky than actual combat – that is, until fate decides to drop a golden apple in their laps. The trio of Darril, Renges and Chaeffer witness a cargo plane crash during their patrol and discover a horde of gold in the gutted belly of the vessel – the secret cache of the corrupt Venezuelan president! Seeing this as a golden opportunity to leave their unrewarding military service, this band of merry men con a transport truck from their superiors and run for the hills. Unfortunately, they have not only the entire Venezuelan army on their tail, but the rest of the U.C.S. to boot.
As contrasting as Elsa and Darril’s scenarios are, they are both filled with memorable characters, enjoyable storytelling (some are outright hilarious) and commendable voice acting. While there are some episodes in Elsa’s story that are a bit dry, the fast-paced nature of the game lends to a sense of urgency and discovery as new plot points are revealed. Darril’s scenario, while becoming very serious near the end, is rife with amusing antics as the fast-talking deserter and his comic relief companions manage to escape from just about everything their pursuers throw at them. The almost light-hearted pace of his story is a great change of pace from Elsa, and thankfully Square Enix designed the game to run both scenarios in tandem with alternating chapters – each with their own ending.
Visually, Front Mission 4 manages to excel in the departments of cinematography and animation, but suffer dramatically from the aging technology of the PS2. The in-game cutscenes are some of the most riveting displays of choreographed combat ever to grace a console, but the actual gameplay graphics show the horrors of limited video RAM and a distinct lack of anti-aliasing. The texture mapping, while far superior to those in the PS Front Mission 3, is simplified and monochromatic. The polygon models of the wanzers are remarkably well animated, but suffer from jaggies and a fundamental lack of design variety. While players have the option of purchasing new chassis and limbs as the game progresses, none of them stood out as particularly inspiring. Thankfully, the selection of paint jobs and pin-striping for your wanzers is monstrous. The combat effects are admirable with tracer fire giving off lighting effects and the glorious vapor trail of massive missile-fire.
Acoustically, Front Mission 4 succeeds in both the aesthetic and functional realms of audio. Small touches such as hearing the ground crew bark commands in German as their base comes under attack, as well as the general ambient sound effects found throughout the game, really add a layer of belief to the experience. The fully-orchestrated score by Hidenori Iwasaki (Threads of Fate, FF: Crystal Chronicles) seems inspired by the measured percussion and brass of Metal Gear Solid and some light jazz reminiscent of Snatcher. The score has so many moments that seem familiar from so many other futuristic/military games, that the soundtrack itself is infectious. The sound effects are full-bodied, with bone jarring chain-gun fire and meaty explosions that are accentuated by perfectly-timed Dual Shock action.
Front Mission 4 also marks the first game of the series to feature voice acting on a large scale. While most dialogue is still scripted, every major storyline segment is voiced by a surprisingly competent cast. While some of the accents of the E.C. cast are questionable (faux German anyone?), and there are the occasional oddly read lines, the entire production is deserving of accolades given the scope of the storyline.
Control in Front Mission 4 is reminiscent of FM games past with the turn-based Action Point (AP) system. Simply put, actions such as attacking and movement consume AP until the units AP pool is entirely consumed or the player chooses to end their turn. Once all units have completed their actions and the players have ended their turn, then the enemy will decide on its actions until their AP pool is also depleted. Units also have the ability to counter an attack if they have an appropriate weapon equipped to counter-fire, and have sufficient AP left in their pool to use them. With this in mind, sometimes it’s not advisable to leave units depleted of AP if they are prone to a pounding once their turn is over.
New to Front Mission 4 are the backpack and link point systems. The backpack system allows units to be equipped with storage units that enable certain abilities, from repairing units to calling in an air-strike. This system was designed to add more role definition for each wanzer to promote squad tactics instead of bulldozing through enemies one-on-one. For the most part, this system works well, but suffers because of the fundamentally flawed enemy AI. Simply put, the enemy uses no such organizational tactics and will send every unit that comes within range against one particular wanzer. Due to this AI ineptitude, it doesn’t take much effort to become king of the battlefield once you learn to take advantage of their blind stupidity. Sadly, as the only challenge comes from the battles where you are grossly outnumbered, ease is Front Mission 4’s one fatal flaw in an otherwise remarkable game.
The link point system allows combination attacks or defenses between linked pilots. Players must manually purchase link points using Enhancement Points (EP) gained in battle as well as determine which pilots will be linked together. The system is slightly confusing at first, due to some confusion with the initial tutorial, but with practice, the exercise becomes a snap and overwhelmingly effective. EP can also be used to upgrade weapon skills, increase pilot abilities and enable new attacks. Players can either choose to upgrade these abilities individually or purchase them en-masse by increasing a pilots’ rank by spending a lump sum of EP. The ability purchase system works well, but I miss the ability learning system from Front Mission 3, as it gave players more incentive for mastering weapons.
Outfitting your wanzer has always been one of the most daunting tasks in a FM game, and with Front Mission 4, players will have to take even more care in selecting the right parts. This is due to the fact that each part of a wanzer now has hit points and in combat – disabling a specific part can render a unit immobile, or worse, incapable of attack. Fear not though, as the developers have included pre-built wanzers based on combat roles for purchase for the squeamish.
Overall, Front Mission 4 does an admirable job of bringing strategic mechanized mayhem to your living room without the oil stains on your carpet. You certainly don’t need a PhD to figure out the nuances of the game, though the lack of intelligence on the part of the enemy AI leaves much to be desired. The storylines of Darril and Elsa are intriguing, fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining. The visuals, while limited, are well-done with a cinematic flair that Square Enix is famous for. The score is laudable, peppered with an amazing variety of ambience to add to the experience. The gameplay is well-conceived and has enough flexibility to keep the hard-core wanzer tuners and the mecha noobies happy without stepping on someone’s toes. The experience is by no means genre-defining, but gamers looking for a thoroughly enjoyable, though easy, new strategy RPG to add to their collection should look no further.