Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mech Blues: A Retrospective (Part 2)

Continuing from where we left off...

There's definitely a metaphor going on here...
Front Mission, as a series, has to be one of the most mishandled Japanese IPs in gaming history. The first entry came out on the Super Famicom (SNES) and the second on the PSX. Neither game was brought overseas and it wasn't until after two spin-offs that the series finally got it's first western release with Front Mission 3. You read that correctly, the first two games were never made available in the USA, thus forcing people like me to start this IP off with the third mainline title. Eventually, the first game got a Nintendo DS port, but not until the fourth and fifth games had already been made. Worse yet the second and fifth entries, to this day, have never been released outside of Japan, despite the fifth game being widely regarded as the best in the series! Then there is Front Mission: Evolved, which I will get to in a minute. Before that, I want to talk about the games themselves. Front Mission (spin-offs aside) has always been a Tactical RPG. Players control a team of pilots who gain experience in battle, level up and gain new abilities (in the form of passive bonuses and special moves). The mechs (spelled "Wanzers", but pronounced "Vonsers") are basically 5 meter tall giant infantry armed with over-sized rifles, machine guns, shotguns, mortars, missile launchers, melee weapons and riot shields. There are a lot of customization options including four interchangeable body parts along with four weapon hardpoints. An auxiliary backpack is also optional which can contain things like a field repair kit, additional ammunition or a secondary power generator. The basic design revolves around squeezing by with just slightly more power than weight. In this way you can have the heaviest arms and armor while still being able to take to the field. The systems iterated and changed slightly from one game to the next, but whenever two wanzers battle the game switches from a tactical map to a short in-game cut-scene showing the results of the exchange. The setting is another near future Earth laden with a complex geopolitical landscape troubled by brush wars and limited proxy conflicts often occurring outside
Front Mission also has a
multi-volume manga series
the boarders of various fictional world superpowers.  Something I really liked about Front Mission is its attempts at realism. Unfortunately, the wanzers themselves work against the hard sci-fi setting. Why don't these relatively compact, agile machines ever take cover in a fire fight? Why do they have fingers? They're too delicate and complicated to be practical in combat. Much like jump jets in Mechwarrior, I also have to ask why the mechs in this setting slide around all the time? My guess is the animators wanted to save themselves a hefty chunk of work, but it raises the question, "Why have complicated, vulnerable legs at all when you can just fly or skate?" How pilots interface with their machines is never addressed either since the most we see are vague hints at the technology being used. Much like the Cross Purposes article I posted about awhile ago the setting and technology don't really jive. As such, this series has floundered over the years until finally getting put down for good with the release of Front Mission: Evolved. Basically, farmed out developer, Double Helix made a mediocre third person shooter in the same vein as Mechassault. A sad end to the series, but the main thing I took away from it is verisimilitude counts for a lot in my book.

The two protagonists of the game and their respective
Armored Fighting Walkers
Ring of Red, is not the error you get when your Xbox malfunctions. It is a PS2 game which is set in an alternate history circa 1960. The Korean war happened in Japan and as such the northern half is now communist and the southern half democratic. Major world superpowers on both sides have agreed to a no-fly-zone over the country. This, combined with the mountainous terrain of Japan has led to the heavy deployment of AFWs (Armored Fighting Walkers). These diesel fueled machines move via hydrolysis and are armed with straightforward WW2 style autocannons/artillery. Once again the player is in charge of a multicultural squad of, what eventually becomes, eight pilots each with their own unique mech and unlockable special abilities. There are four basic classes; lightly armed fast moving chicken walkers, standard human shaped walkers with one arm replaced by a tank gun, heavy four-legged spider walkers that resemble self-propelled guns, and brawler Anti-AFWs that like to get up close. Ultimately the player will have two machines of each class to utilize. There are no options to customize the mechs themselves although the designs do automatically undergo minor field modifications over the course of the game. To make up for this shortcoming Ring of Red allows the player to choose three support squads for each AFW. Six different types of infantry are available, each with their own special abilities unique to that unit. This is a novel idea and fits well with real life armor deployments in that it has historically been rare for tanks to engage in combat operations without any infantry support. The player can also make use of special types of ammo depending on which squad crews the mech. There are day/night cycles which affect combat and when AFWs engage in battle the player has a degree of control over the battle in real time. Of all the mech games I have played, this was the closest to perfect. Failure to scratch that gearhead itch aside, there were a few other things which didn't work in the game's favor. For one the real time battles are limited to one-on-one AFW duels lasting a maximum of 90 second. The in-game justification for this being the AFWs overheat when pushed beyond that limit. I found this a little silly given that the time frame doesn't change when fighting in snow. Why not slap some cooling fins or a radiator on the engine?
As part of the backstory, AFWs were deployed during
 the final months of WW2, but had difficulties due to
their untested bipedal method of locomotion

Also, despite the clever idea of mechs being superior to track and wheeled vehicles in mountainous terrain, all in-game battlefields are flat and featureless excluding the non-interactive backgrounds. Occasionally, there will be a tree or some other obstacle the can interfere with gunfire, but for the most part there is no opportunity to perform reverse slope (hull-down) tactics which are a common defense employed by real life tanks on uneven terrain. Once again the details of pilot control over these towering war machines is handwaved. Given the dieselpunk trappings though I guess this is to be expected.

From here on I'm going to only briefly touch on a number of titles which will help serve to rap things up.
Yup, another harem anime...
Sakura Wars is a series that has been largely ignored outside of Japan. Despite this, it's alternate 1920s steampunk setting takes cues from theology, sociology and history. The game uses a Tokyo based theater troupe (again taken from a real life equivalent) as the undercover backdrop for a secret military force dedicated to fending off demonic invasion. The concept is way too anime for my taste, and the characters themselves are imbued with psychic/spiritual powers which tends to push things into the super robot subgenre. That said, I really like the steam driven mini-mecha. The suit of armor style of design and close combat weapons give the series a distinctive look. Too bad it's only window dressing for what is, at its heart, a dating simulator. Shifting gears a bit, Armored Core has some of the coolest cutscenes in the biz. Sadly it falls for the same mistake as Zone of the Enders (and countless other mech themed Japanese IPs). The mechs are not really machines, but extensions of the pilot and as such don't really feel like vehicles so much as metal skinned anime superheroes like Ultraman. Often times technology is ignored in lieu of character drama which is a shame since the mechs themselves are, more often than not, the most interesting part of the story.

40 buttons and if you don't hit the eject your save
gets erased
Heavy Gear, much like Battletech, took its table-top gaming roots and adapted them to video games.  Sadly this series failed to make a lasting impression. The mechs (called "Gears") really have nothing to make them stand out from the pack and suffered from many of the verisimilitude problems I mentioned with regards to previous titles. ChromeHounds is an example of problems that arise when games choose to ignore applied physics. Customization doesn't work if your design can be the most top heavy joke, yet never has to fear the effects of gravity. The fact that this game is no longer playable also highlights the pitfalls of dedicated online gaming.  Hawken players be warned.  Steel Battalion is an example of going to an unplayable extreme one way or the other. The original was too complex and as one reviewer put it, "Where Mechassault and Robotech wouldn't let us into the cockpit, Steel Battalion won't let us out". The sequel, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, had the opposite problem as most players found themselves wishing for more direct means of control than the unreliable Kinect.  Poor VT pilots just can't catch a break...

Feels like you're flying a helo
but without all the complexity
So where does this us leave us?  With room for improvement.  All the elements are there for great new mech games.  Developers just need to put the right pieces together into a cohesive package.  I'm not saying there's a perfect formula, but think there should be more striving for perfection, even if it means looking to non-mech titles like FTLValkyria Chronicles or XCOM: Enemy Unknown for innovation  Reality needs to provide the framework with sci-fi elements explained in detail in order to establish a solid foundation.  Lastly, looking to historical conflicts for a setting is a good starting point, but a bunch of war cliches don't make for a compelling story.  Figuring out how mechs fit into an armed conflict will let a large part of the plot write itself.  The rest comes down to the characters, events and having a metal-stomping-pavement-cracking-building-smashing good time. 

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