Not Evolved Enough
Working through the inevitable backlog of games that develops during Steam's sales, I came upon this title for a considerable discount about half a year ago. While the Front Mission name is certainly one that carries a lot of weight with me, and I do have a seriously soft spot for giant mechs, neither of those things is enough to recommend Front Mission: Evolved to anyone else. It's just not that good.
The original, true Front Mission series was started on the Super Nintendo as a military-themed, futuristic, tactical RPG featuring mechs. It was a thoughtful, fun, and superbly produced title that spawned a series with variable quality afterwards. Front Mission: Evolved is nothing like those games, throwing out pretty much everything and instead giving us a more action oriented third-person shooter. This isn't necessarily a bad idea, but the developers (Double Helix games) decided to play it extremely safe and created a game so generic, so derivative, that it almost seems like a disservice to the Front Mission name. The single player campaign consists of about twenty very linear levels; you'll pilot your mech through these while encountering pretty standard enemies like tanks, helicopters, and other Wanzers. At the end of every few levels, there's a boss encounter of some kind. It's essentially as basic as you think it is, and not as good as the turn-based games from which this game gets its namesake.
Your vehicle has up to four weapons on it, and as you progress through the game you get to select which one's you'll be buying/destroying the enemy with. Special on-hit "skills" can be applied to weapons as well, which is an interesting feature at least. You can even alter the basic structure of your mech and fit different arms, legs, and torsos. This is important because you can't carry more weight than the power generated by the Wanzer, so making choices about what you'll take and what you'll ditch becomes a minigame in itself. In the hangar, you also have the option of customizing the visual appearance of each part with a variety of camouflage patterns and colors. The customization feature is almost the saving grace of Front Mission: Evolved, but a poor interface coupled with annoying weapon progression make this less fun than it should be.
The core mech gameplay is defined by a couple features that have become standard in this genre; you can use a limited boost to zip around levels, parts on your Wanzer can be individually destroyed, and there's a slow-motion 'EDGE' super mode that can be activated once you've destroyed enough enemies. Weapons include rifles, submachine guns, machine guns, burst machine guns, and a number of other guns that feel very similar. There are also rocket launchers, missile launchers, shotguns, and sniper rifles to flesh out the list. Shooting is pretty decent; it's a shame, then, that most of the weapons feel a little flat and just aren't all that fun to use. Only late in the game do you get access to some slightly more interesting options, like gatling guns, bazookas, and grenade launchers, but they still aren't spectacular themselves. Of course, like the older Front Mission games, there's the option to go with a close combat weapon if you so desire.
But you'll need to use guns a lot in order to get through the heavily-checkpointed single player campaign, an endeavor rife with its own problems. The incredibly cliché story about war, terrorism, and orbital space cannons (bearing an unhealthy similarity to Gundam Wing) is just bad. It's predictable to the point of tears and is supported by a cast of characters that all seem like two dimensional losers. Voice acting ranges from passable to terrible, generally erring towards the latter rather than the former. Worst of all, every few levels the player is 'treated' to an on foot shooting segment. These are universally short, boring, and easy, but never much fun; there are only three weapons and two enemy types for these levels. Bosses are pretty painful, being little more than giant bullet sponges capable of taking a million hits and often capable of killing you within but a few. This forces most encounters to become a boost-fest where you grab powerups around the level, which respawn regularly, in between laying into a boss with every gun you have before he can hit back. It's not as exciting as it sounds, trust me.
Another issue that's present in Front Mission: Evolved are the graphics. The biggest problems are blurry textures, especially on mechs when viewed up close, and sparse level design. What's stranger still, though, is that other parts of the game actually look pretty good. The beginning city levels are really artificial looking, but later on as you return there's much better lighting and visuals for what's supposed to be the same area. Wanzers up close look pretty bad, but at a distance look pretty good during regular gameplay. Explosions and other effects are decent, as well, which make the problems stated above even more confusing. Overall I'd say more of the game looks bad than good, but the very presence of this discrepancy just makes it all the more apparent as you go through the game. Character models share the same problem as the mechs, with similarly blurry textures, making the game's already eyeroll-worthy cutscenes even worse.
I won't touch on this game's sounds much, other than to say they're average in every regard. What you'd expect to hear out of a video game, especially one of this caliber, is what Front Mission: Evolved sounds like. My only gripe, and this is pretty much personal opinion here, is that the Transformers-esque (talking about the new movies here) sounds the Wanzers make gets really annoying. It doesn't sound like machinery, it sounds like Michael Bay; I think it sucks. But that's just personal opinion. Voice acting, as stated above, is poor. Some characters have a better time executing it than others, but the way it's written I can't see how they could make any of it sound good. Music is perhaps the one bright spot in this game's audio. Although most of the time it's pretty passive, once and awhile there's a good theme in there that uplifts the feel of the game. It seems to be actual orchestrated music, so at least there's a bit of quality to it that other parts of the game are sorely lacking.
There's multiplayer in Front Mission: Evolved, but like everything in this game, there's a catch. The catch here is that NOBODY IS ONLINE playing the PC version, making mutliplayer (I remind you, requiring Multiple Players) unplayable. I waited over half an hour and saw two other people, not even at the same time, and couldn't get a game started. This is a shame because online seems like where this game could actually be really good. It still has the customization system, it has experience and ranking up, and the basic third-person mech combat is well suited to some team deathmatch or something. But nobody's there, meaning the only way you'll probably get to experience this is with a private game hosted against friends.
Front Mission: Evolved is almost saddening because Front Mission is a series that seems perfectly suited to a third-person mech combat game. Everything tactical, realistic, and engrossing about the franchise is lost because they designed it to be too mainstream. The ultimate sign of this is big, glowing powerups that instantly repair or reload your mech abound in every level. It's a totally different approach to Front Mission; in the old game, you had to go back to the base to repair or to the ammo truck to reload. Front Mission: Evolved is basically a heavily stripped down Armored Core game. Add to this the fact that very little is supporting this core gameplay well - some subpar graphics, a bad campaign, nobody's online - and you have something that doesn't hold up well compared to other games out today.