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Front Mission 4

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Format: DVD
Hardware: PlayStation 2
Genre: Strategy RPG (SRPG)
Players: 1
MSRP: $50.00 USD
ESRB: Teen
(Mild Language, Violence)
Release: 15 June 2004
(NTSC - North America)

Giant wanzers (walking panzers), Strategy RPG, and stunning FMV: all ingredients of a good game, right? Well, not quite. Front Mission 4 is the fourth installment of the Front Mission series (but only the second to see North American release). I was able to pick it up for $25 from a Fry's in San Jose, CA1.

This is the first place FM4 fell apart for me. I love the story of FM3 (and FM1, on a ROM; play it if you've got a SNES emulator, and then buy it if/when it's released in an anthology package)2. It branched, it twisted, it turned, and it was great. FM4 features two separate teams of characters who never actually meet during the game. The first team is the Durandal, an E.C. (European Community) research organization. The second team is a U.C.S. (Unified Continental States) Army squad. These organization's main characters are Elsa and Darril respectively. FM4's story would have been better had the player been able to play through one side completely, then the other, but every time you get into what the current team is doing, you're yanked out of it and thrust back into the other story. I won't spoil the plot for you, but it's political and more enjoyable on the second play through when you understand what's actually happening.

Overworld Gameplay
Overworld gameplay has never been done well in a Front Mission game. It's all menu-driven and text-based. This alone isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in FM4 the non-FMV story portions drag, and you have to drive the story along by figuring out whom to talk to next. It doesn't help that you are further encouraged to use the clunky interface to unlock some bonus weapons and wanzer parts. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the extra weapons, but obtaining them was painful because of the menu interface.

Also, the voice acting is good, when they remembered to record it. It's a 50/50 shot as to whether or not the lines will be spoken. And it's not just the difference between important and fluff dialog. You're going to hear some fluff and read some important dialog.

Battle Gameplay
This is where FM4 shines, and it's why I bought the game. Firstly, this is a much more offensive game than FM3 was. You had to be careful with your units in FM3, and defense and shields played a much larger role in the gameplay. In FM4, you have a repair pack, and you seldom need to use a shield or repair items (assuming you've kept your repair pack upgraded).

There are fewer missions than the previous FM installment, but to make up for this they are longer. The added length means you have to keep an eye on your ammunition this time around (not something I ever worried about in FM3). The missions are not terribly varied, but how fun would it be to have missions like "observe enemy movement patterns for 12 days"3 when you're very obviously outfitted for war? The standard 2 mission types are attack and defend, and in an SRPG you really don't need much more than that, especially if your story is politically charged and concerning war.

Combat is satisfying in most respects. Wanzers have 4 separate sets of hit points (body, legs, and each arm). Left arm HP drop to 0? It's gone and you lose access to the weapon you're carrying in your left hand and the weapon mounted on your left shoulder. Legs HP drop to 0? Your movement range is reduced to 1 (If you upgraded right, it's probably between 4 and 6 under normal circumstances). Body HP drop to 0? Your wanzer explodes, and that unit is lost for the remainder of the mission.

Sniping, however, is seriously flawed. The entire point of sniping is to shoot the enemy when they can't see you. This should imply that the target cannot dodge the attack (you know...because they don't see it coming). This is not the case in FM4, and it makes sniping nearly unusable because the target is still able to dodge the attack. As if that weren't bad enough, the sniping unit is unable to counterattack or participate in linked battles for the rest of the turn. Use linked attacks instead of sniping, you'll do more damage and everybody will have a chance to counter/dodge.

Linking is another key of FM4. It forces you to use your units as a true team. If you've got the AP (activity points), any unit can attack in conjunction with every other team member. AP is accumulated through levelling up, and it can be purchased as a computer upgrade. This is incentive to keep your team together so that all your units have the enemy in range. As an aside, this is also an incentive to turn your missileer into a machine gunner. Missileers can't participate in linked battles.

Overall, combat is fun, and that's why we're all here.

Firstly, good graphics do not a good game make. Yes, they're from Square Enix. Yes, the FMV is stunning. No, the battle graphics are not stunning: They are average. The wanzers are small, and the terrain is washed out. Yes, you can zoom in. No, it's not enough. If I'm going to fight in mechs, I want to see them up close. Granted, your view point does zoom in when combat begins, but at this point the camera is uncontrollable for no apparent reason. Speaking of the camera, it is controllable with the right analog stick. At first this seemed great, but I think it would be preferable to control the camera with the shoulder buttons a la Final Fantasy Tactics. This way, you're always either lined up 45 or 90 degrees relative to the action instead of some arbitrary angle that you can never get to line up right.

I like the music, but I can't remember any of the tracks off the top of my head. The battle music is stirring and appropriate, except for when it's used in the shopping interface. Why do I need to get pumped up to shop?

Upgrading a wanzer was my favorite part of FM3. It's the worst part of FM4 because the load times between menu screens are terrible. And heaven forbid you need to go from the shopping interface to the setup interface (the same interface except one has prices and the other does not). The change includes two instances of the overly long load time: once to get out of the shop and once to get into the setup. Once you're in the interface, however, the wanzer parts and weapons look varied and appropriate. It's a shame that the interface is so cumbersome to access because shopping/wanzer setup is easily where the mechs look best outside of FMV.

Overall -- Good (Great if you're into SRPGs)
The battles here are great, but everything else is either average or far below it. The story is coherent and political, in case you're into that. I'm not, but giant mechs = fun (for me). I'm not into a game for the graphics (but some people are), but for an SRPG, they're decent. At least they don't look like they belong on a PS1.

Good Things:

  1. Giant mechs
  2. Excellent combat engine
  3. Links and linked battles
  4. New Game+
Bad Things:
  1. The shop/setup interface and menu system
  2. Slow story progression
  3. Intermittent voice acting
  4. Forgettable music

Timeline (internal)
Front Mission Alternative | Front Mission Gunhazard | Front Mission | Front Mission 4 | Front Mission 2 | Front Mission 3

Timeline (release)
Front Mission | Front Mission Gunhazard | Front Mission 2 | Front Mission Alternative | Front Mission 3 | Front Mission 4

- Playing the game
- Square Enix's website (http://www.square-enix.com)
- FrontMission.org (http://www.frontmission.org)

If you know the release dates for Japan and Europe, please /msg me. I couldn't find them. Thanks.

1 - The Fry's on Arques Avenue in Sunnyvale actually, but who can tell where one city ends and the other begins around here?
2 - Currently only available in translated ROMs outside of Japan. Obtain and play at your own risk.
3 - Shamelessly borrowed from a commercial for the U.S. Army.

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