Outsourcing. Though the word usually evokes images of American jobs getting shipped overseas, the gaming industry has its own unique twist on this economic trend. Japanese companies are looking to the West for inspiration, and Front Mission: Evolved is their latest experiment. In order to appeal to Western audiences, Square Enix placed one of its oldest franchises, Front Mission, in the hands of California-based Double Helix Games -- a studio known for previously bringing its Western flair to Konami's iconic survival horror franchise with 2008's Silent Hill: Homecoming.
It's an unexpected move for the long-running, and formerly strategy-oriented franchise. Though popular in its native Japan, Front Mission, with its tactical RPG gameplay and sweeping political intrigues, has found only niche success in the West. Tasked with spicing up the series for a Western audience, Double Helix has created an arcade-style third-person shooter with a handful of multiplayer options. The question is: will American gamers be swayed? The unlikely answer: Not unless they loved Time Crisis.
At its core, Front Mission: Evolved is a spiritual cousin to any coin-op arcade game with a gun attached to the cabinet. The game's graphics will immediately evoke these old classics; it's almost surprising to see such relatively antiquated visuals running on current-gen hardware. Even the bright, uncomplicated color palettes of the game's maps are reminiscent of bygone days at the arcade.
The gameplay also falls into this paradigm. Though Front Mission's mecha, or "wanzers", are usually the stars of the show, you'll always have a variety of game modes in the single-player campaign that include hoofing it on foot as a puny human and raining down death and destruction from the safety of an airborne gunship. The game moves through different modes and cutscenes at a brisk pace, much in the way one is shuttled from location to location in Time Crisis.
The control scheme, however, is intuitive and relatively simple. You have control over the camera and the movement, as well as the "skating" ability, of your wanzer. Skating is a feature that should be familiar to fans of mecha games; it allows your usually-slow unit to slide rapidly across the ground, expending energy which quickly recharges when you stop. Front Mission: Evolved heavily encourages the use of skating, including a level where you must skate out of a collapsing cityscape before it crushes you. Skating also increases the damage done by your wanzer's melee weapon. Though combat at first feels slow and sluggish, one quickly falls into a good rhythm of skating, bashing and shooting.
You can customize your wanzer with four different weapons, among them shotguns, machine guns, and missile launchers. Getting accustomed to four different trigger buttons and learning which tool is right for which enemy is part of the game's limited strategic appeal. Is there a big contingent of enemy wanzers waiting around the corner? Probably don't want to rush in there and start punching them. Pick them off with heat-seeking missiles, cripple their arms with your machine guns, and then skate in for the kill. This is another way the game shows arcade flair -- by using a simple rock-paper-scissors weapon selection mechanic, along with lots of endless, satisfying firepower to create a stimulating, if somewhat shallow, challenge. There's also a mecha customisation mode, but don't expect any gearhead fantasies in the vein of Armored Core; Evolved's customisation options are fairly straightforward additions to your wanzer's arms, legs, and torso, in addition to its paint job and weapons loadout.
The overall story of Evolved concerns a classic Front Mission struggle between two warring superpowers, but its characters have throwaway dialogue that just didn't engage me with them or their struggles. That said, the voice acting is actually very good; it's just that the story is dependent on dialogue, and the dialogue isn't very interesting. Unless you're a diehard Front Mission junkie, you won't care too much about who's father did what or just how warm-hearted the captain of the unit is. What is interesting, however, is that the basic catalyst of the plot is a possible side effect of outsourcing to America. Where Japanese games often have a telling nuclear-esque catastrophe in the background of their storylines, this game has a distinctly American one: terrorists attack an "Orbital Elevator" belonging to USN North America (roughly analogous to the United States), which crashes into New York City. It's to Double Helix's credit that this manages not to overwhelm the game with real-life overtones, but it's also a small nod to current events that's difficult to ignore.
In effect, Front Mission: Evolved is an arcade game on a console platform, through and through. Even its multiplayer component, with its limited loadout of deathmatch and capture the flag modes, feels very much like arcade co-op. Accepting such old school robot gunnery with dated graphics may be a lot to expect from today's gamer, just like it may be a lot to ask Front Mission aficionados to accept that the latest installation in their beloved franchise, rather than being given a Western-style kick in the pants, is really more of a devolution.