Reviewed: August 5, 2004
Released: June 15, 2004
If I had stopped reviewing Front Mission 4 after the opening movie this title would have gotten a perfect ten, but you when you lay your $50 on the counter you expect to do more than watch one of the most amazing intro movies in the history of mech robot games. You expect some gameplay, so I was obligated to dig past the movie and into the menus and subsequent gameplay (and more menus) and explore this latest turn-based strategy game from Square Enix.
Front Mission 4 puts you in command of a huge arsenal of mechs known as Wanzers along with more weapons and customizable options than you could likely explore in a single lifetime. The game takes place in Germany and South American in the year 2096 and deals with the lives of the two lead characters, Elsa and Darril. Each character starts off in their own respective countries with their own missions and events and bounces between the two characters as it weaves a surprisingly good story.
Square Enix would like you to think this game has some RPG elements, but the term RPG is getting thrown around freely these days to include anything that has you leveling-up whether you are actually “role-playing” or not. In this case, you do get to earn experience and upgrade your Wanzers and pilots, but it is far from role-playing.
Perhaps the best thing about Front Mission 4 is the sheer scope of the content. There is a massive assortment of Wanzers and they are all fully customizable as you progress through the story earning experience and access to new parts and weapons. Naturally, you start off small with a couple of guns and a shield if you are lucky. You even get to paint your mech choosing from a limited but expandable palette. It won’t take long before you start spending more time in the garage tweaking your Wanzer than you do in the actual missions. This is the Gran Turismo of mech combat.
Likewise, pilots earn experience points, which can be used to acquire new skills and abilities and you are free to guide the pilot down various learning paths. Over time you can improve marksmanship, weapons skills, and other attributes valuable to you and your Wanzer in combat.
You have total freedom to customize and configure both your mech and pilot throughout the game, and while this might sound interesting at first, it quickly becomes more of a hassle, mainly due to the endless sequences of text-based menus you are forced to maneuver through to get anything done. Just about every category of upgrade comes with its own menu and nothing seems to tie together. You can easily spend 20-30 minutes simply prepping for a mission only to find your configuration isn’t going to work for the encounter.
This leads to my next issue with the game. There is virtually no pre-mission briefing as far as intel, maps, enemy locations, or even what type of enemy to expect. This means that you have just as much a chance of winning if you skip those 30 minutes of pre-mission configuration and dive right in. Ultimately, you’ll figure out how to best beat each mission through repetitious trial and error gameplay.
The enemy AI is on a steep rise as you advance through the mission structure but it suffers from some severe aggression. The enemy will incessantly hunt you down ignoring all reasonable efforts to conserve or wisely use AP points or regroup when you manage to divide and conquer. Much of the AI difficulty is based on sheer numbers and diabolical placement within the battlefield.
A typical level of Front Mission 4 goes something like this. You watch any cinematics and engage in any conversations with the characters, and then you go shopping for Wanzer parts and pilot skills. Using your available upgrades, you tweak your mech and pilot then engage in battle.
Before the battle you select your units and place them on the map. There is definitely a bit of strategy involved here since the mission will start to unfold quickly based on available AP (action points). Every unit uses AP to do just about anything including moving, or attacking. Moving one grid unit costs one AP point while attacks vary in their AP cost. Your overall AP can be increased by improving your pilots and mechs through upgrades.
Battle is handled using a turn-based system. You select your unit and the maximum distance that unit can move is displayed with a blue overlay. Pick the destination and it will move there and await the next command. You can also access the Command menu during this phase to use items, attack, repair, call for an air strike, or get status reports. Additional commands become available as your pilots earn new skills.
Attacking is much like moving. Select the unit to attack with and a red overlay appears indicating the range of the current weapon. You can target an enemy within the red zone and you can also link units to increase your firepower. Enemies will have a chance to respond to your attack at which time you will be given a list of counterattack options. Repeat this process until the closing cutscene.
Square shot their wad on the opening movie leaving nothing left in the way of gameplay graphics. Rife with jaggies, boring color palettes, low-res architecture and simple textures, there isn’t much here to impress next-gen gamers. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if my dusty old PS1 couldn’t handle this title if given a chance.
Even so, gamers who enjoy this type of strategy game and are likely going to be playing it are probably the same caliber of gamer that plays those old Avalon Hill games using hex maps and square unit markers, so gameplay rules over graphics. A valid sentiment assuming Front Mission 4 had the gameplay to back it. That issue is still up for debate.
Many of the conversations are text-only and feature simple 2D portraits of the character’s face, or at least the one doing the talking. Since you don’t see all parties involved at once it’s hard to figure out what is going on sometimes, but the again, the story is merely window dressing for a whole bunch of mech battles and hardly relevant. Most of the time the story defies logic, or at least common sense leaving you with your jaw open and a puzzled look on your face.
The mechs offer some interesting details and excellent animation, which contrasts the simple backgrounds. Cities are wide open, unpopulated, and repetitive. Landscapes are even less interesting and terrain is simple enough that it seldom factors into strategy or combat.
There are some reasonably good special effects for weapons’ fire, explosions and such but even things like fire and smoke look like the 2D sprites from games we played five years ago.
The sound effects and music in the opening movie are outstanding but once in the game things reach a level that is on par with the graphics. Music is limited and gets repetitive fast, while sounds are weak and seem to fit miniature mechs rather than 50’ giants. Where are my thundering footsteps that shake the very foundation of the city I am fighting in? Weapon effects just don’t sound impressive and explosions barely got a rise from my sub-woofer.
Characters will talk from time to time, although you never know when you will be reading and when you get to listen. The voices are quite good but at the same time definitely low budget fare, but that actually fits with the import nature of the title, so it works.
Assuming you like the game enough to buy it you are going to find countless hours of gameplay here thanks to near-infinite possibilities for customization and replay. There are just so many mechs, skills, weapons, upgrades, and other gizmos to buy and experiment with that anyone who enjoys “tinkering” can get lost in this game for months.
If you are looking to take Front Mission 4 for a rental or just want to motor through it, you can expect about 15-20 hours to get through the entire campaign. There is no story-related reason for replaying but the temptation to tweak your strategies and setups is undeniable.
Chances are if you are remotely interested in this game then you are already a faithful follower of the previous Front Mission game, and for you this game is a no-brainer. You’ll find everything you liked before, back and better than ever, and even though the audio and visual presentation is inferior by modern day standards; you’ll find it more than acceptable for this type of game. Just be prepared to wade through a lot of text menus.
Front Mission 4 is a virtual mech wonderland, full of potential for experimentation, both in configuration and strategy. It will have a certain appeal for its target audience, but everyone else might want to take their Wanzer for a test drive before dropping $50 to put one in their PS2 garage permanently.