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   Front Mission 4 - Staff Review  

A Coming of Age
by Simon Seamann

BATTLE SYSTEM
INTERACTION
ORIGINALITY
STORY
MUSIC & SOUND
VISUALS
CHALLENGE
Medium
COMPLETION TIME
35-45 hours
OVERALL

3.5/5

Rating definitions 

   It has been almost four years since Squaresoft graced American shores with a tactical mech game, but considering the embargo was lifted with Front Mission 4, one can hardly complain about the wait. The prior Front Mission 3 was loaded with graphical glitches, inane gameplay limitations, and a general sense of constraint, some of which likely stemmed from the ancient Playstation hardware. Square-Enix, now free to play around with the expanded Playstation 2 architecture, certainly showed RPGamers what they were capable of: namely, a solid tactical mech game.

   Veterans of prior Front Mission campaigns will more or less be familiar with the combat system featured in Front Mission 4. Players control between 6-11 mechs, called wanzers, and send them out to destroy their foes in grid-based combat. The increase in number of controllable wanzers is a significant improvement over the limited four offered in Front Mission 3 and greatly aids the overall game presentation in making combat seem more epic. When you command a wanzer to attack a foe, the game switches from a rotatable battle grid to a personal duel, with the attacking wanzer unloading into its hapless opponent in glorious 3D. Each wanzer part has its own HP gauge, and individual limbs can be destroyed by either targeted sniper fire or general luck. In addition to the standard set of pilot skills, which serve a variety of functions such as increasing the number of rounds fired or blocking certain amounts of damage, Front Mission 4 also introduces the concept of Linked Battles. By assigning offensive and defensive Links between units, wanzers will be capable of calling in support for either attacking another wazner or in counter-attacking. In practice, this mimics the sort of combos familiar to players of Disgaea and serves the additional function of allowing characters whom have used their turn for healing or movement to get off a few additional attacks. Not only are Linked battles tactically interesting, they are also very, very cool. Seeing four of your wanzers waylay some unassuming enemy and fire upon the doomed soldier in quick succession marks one of the greatest joys in this specific sub-genre.

   Indeed, there is little else to say about Front Mission 4 other than it being absolutely superior to its predecessor in just about every conceivable way. Money is significantly easier to come across, and this greatly aids the process of experimenting with different wanzer combinations between battles. Instead of Battle Skills being tied to pieces of equipment as they were before, these skills are instead specific to the individual pilots and are bought with Experience Points like traditional RPGs. Each pilot has a specific set of skills they learn as the game goes on, but the player is later able to change pilot roles by purchasing different skill sets for pilots that would not otherwise get them. For example, the main character, Elsa, receives skills relating to machine guns and shotguns normally. Later on, the player can purchase bazooka skills or rifle skills for her if they wanted more support characters rather than the assault variety. Purchasing skills for each individual member is a rather expensive proposition, but the general fact that money in both story and Simulator battles are easier to come by makes this play style possible.

Fire at will. Just another day in the office.

   Like the other games in this series, Front Mission 4 is frustratingly linear. The player has really nothing to do between missions other than upgrading wanzers or the pilots that run them. The player can talk to other members of the party, but nothing much of interest ever comes from their otherwise pointless conversations. One novel approach Square-Enix added to at least diminish this problem is the intertwining of the two separate storylines. In Front Mission 3, the storyline definitively split at the beginning of the game, and the player had to finish one before they could view the other. In Front Mission 4, the storyline will frequently jump between two separate groups of protagonists, each with their own specific pool of money and wanzer gear at their disposal. This practice is somewhat frustrating in that the improvement of one group does not affect the other at all, meaning that both need more or less equal amounts of time in the Simulator in order to afford all the latest gear for all their wanzers. As one might expect, the shifting prospective also leads to some moments of confusion, when cliff-hanger-esque plot developments are interrupted with what then seem like minor issues on a different continent. On the whole however, this split approach makes sure that if the player does not enjoy one particular side of a conflict they can be entertained with the latter half at least 50% of the game. This also ensures that players see all of the story in a single, reasonable forty-hour experience instead of requiring two separate 60-80 hour investments. The loss of apparent replay value is regrettable, but a New Game+ feature has been added to make future playthroughs less monotonous.

   Both visually and aurally, Front Mission 4 is fantastic. All of the non-FMV cut-scenes are rendered with the game engine just like before, which means the exact wanzer gear and colors equipped between missions is the same you can look at in glorious 3D. Wanzer battles are cool beyond words, as is the general scope of towering mechs laying waste to each other in some European suburb. The sounds are more or less perfect, with variations between even two models of machine guns, let alone shotguns, bazookas, missile launchers, grenade launchers, melee weapons and the like. The music that accompanies most combats is surprisingly complex and varied, with it fitting the general mood of the game. While there can be no comparison between Front Mission 4 and certain other tactical games Squaresoft has released in the past, that sort of comparison is largely unfair to begin with, nor does it necessarily address the present musical environment in RPGs today. Placed against a group of its present-day peers, Front Mission 4 is above average in just about every category.

Dark Helmet was right: Good is dumb. Confirm the kill, people. They are not dead until you do it yourself.

   The only two categories that Front Mission 4 unfortunately fail to make the grade in are general storyline and difficulty. Whereas its predecessor largely had trouble conveying a mature sort of plot, this game has a difficulty conveying a plot of any magnitude. The basic antagonists remain the exact same throughout the entire game, and even recur over and over again even after their continuous defeats. It begs the question about how much of the game's tragedies could have been avoided if only the protagonists had bothered to confirm the kill rather than leave them for dead multiple times. While not so important in the beginning, Front Mission 4's later stages are mired in this sort of banality, which damages its overall impact on the player.

   Difficulty in tactical RPGs is, well, a difficult thing to analyze. Most of what makes Front Mission 4 easy is an AI that is willing to wait patiently for the player's wanzers to walk into range or the ceaseless firing upon a specific wanzer to the exclusion of all other threats. While it is true that this behavior gives the player a fantastic advantage to capitalize upon, the actual game itself would be impossible to beat were this not the case. Sending a wanzer in solo will result in its almost immediate demise after a battery of enemy attacks, and the few missions in which the AI advances all of its units to engage the player are pretty harrowing, to say the least. "Abusing the system," as it were, and then claiming that the resulting game is too easy is a bit pointless. Should the player refrain from taking advantage of the limits of AI and instead focus on countering the AI's strategy itself, he or she would find the game much more challenging, and ultimately, more rewarding.

   For the most part, those RPGamers who enjoyed the prior games in this series need little encouragement to pick up another rare title in the tactical mech combat genre. To those that played or tried to play Front Mission 3 but otherwise stopped in frustration over some aspect of the gameplay, Front Mission 4 represents enough of a change in the formula to at least deserve a second look. Battles are bigger, involve a more diverse selection of wanzers, are often tactically interesting, and the game in general is just universally more player-friendly. There is a good chance that players underwhelmed by Front Mission 3 will be pleasantly surprised with Front Mission 4. For those RPGamers that have a hatred of tactical combat, giant robots, or linear gameplay in principle, well, there is always therapy available.

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