Standard affair in Front Mission 4
Released four years after the significantly popular Front Mission 3
, the fourth installment in the strategy series certainly takes a more experimental turn away from its predecessors, which, for the most part, is eagerly welcomed and provides an immersive experience. Given the right investment, Front Mission 4 (FM4) is an incredibly rewarding experience with an enjoyable degree of flexibility and actual strategy nearly absent from the series' antiquity.
The game opens with a gorgeous FMV which showcases Square Enix's talent with the format; especially when rabid mechanized destruction and explosions are involved. Now, while FM4's in-game graphics are no masterpiece of modern technology, they are certainly respectable and ornate in a simple way which presents a realistic representation of, say, a house, without going over the top in ways which many may deem of "better graphics". Rather, wanzers take a more active participation in battle. They now physically dodge attacks, shoot half-turned, and serve as subjects for dramatic angles, some of which feature the sun gleaming over your rifle as you fire a killing blow. The result is a lush and grand-scale setting, presented perfectly with the aid of your mobile force.
Locked, loaded, and ready to fire.
The story takes place across a trans-Atlantic backdrop, with playable teams located both in Europe and Venezuela, in age where military combat is decided by Front Mission's mechas, called "wanzers". Six years after the original Front Mission
, German military installations are being simultaneously attacked by a mysterious force, and a British research organization named the Durandal is sent to investigate the events. Upon their arrival in Germany, they are met with a German unit called the Blauer Nabel, headed by the mysterious Commander Wagner. Upon further investigation, they find not all is at it seems, and typical military-political hijinks ensue. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, three U.C.S soldiers find a crate of gold at the crash site of a downed transport and attempt to desert, but are eventually embroiled in the country's political struggle. In, the end, though, only the European side of the conflict is at all entertaining or deep with feasible plot gain after every mission, while the other South American scenarios feel like an extended run-around which could have been abbreviated in a several short missions; not the fourteen they demand. This is all without mention to the pathetic excuse created to link the two groups; in fact, each respective storyline would have suffered nothing with the omission of the other. In the end, FM4's story attempts to make a bold statement about life that isn't very convincing after forty hours of violent resolutions to every problem. Though, admittedly, it is fun to fly around Europe kicking ass.
All this aside, the real heart of Front Mission 4 is its incredibly thick gameplay. Battlefield combat is a standard strategy affair: given your Action Points (AP) and movement ability, you can arrange your position, select a weapon from either your right hand or left, and fire, consuming AP depending on the weapon, for up to two hits. This is the basic structure of battle, further expounded upon by the addition of new backpacks, such as the sensor backpacks, allowing missile targeting far beyond the typical range, EMP backpacks for wanzer disabling and missile antilock, repair backpacks for an obvious use, and radio backpacks for air support. Your weapon can target one of the four parts of a wanzer, including body (which, once its HP hits zero, destroys the entire machine), left arm, right arm, or legs. Surprising to Front Mission 3 veterans might be the lack of pilot damage or jettison. Gone are the days of hijacking your opponents machine and claiming it as your own, or fighting on foot in some insane duel of prides. This delightful touch gone missing is most likely the biggest step backwards for this installment of the series. But with its absence comes the introduction of link attacks; a system which provides for your wanzers to join together in attacking a single enemy, thereby increasing a damage modifier with each successive hit, or support one another through use of missile antilockon or wanzer salvaging or plain counter-attack. But not only does it bring great satisfaction to take out an enemy with a shotgun hit at twice normal strength, it's strategically important. Since each wanzer only receives one move and attack per turn, it is essential to include them in other wanzer's links; in this manner, any given machine may receive anywhere from two to eight attacks per turn, depending on available AP.
Of course, damage only increases as skills are activated, and skill system in FM4 is certainly one of the more welcome changes. After each battle your pilots are awarded a number of Enhancement Points (EP) for the use of upgrading their wanzer computers. Unlike Front Mission 3's random learning and activation, skills can be willingly learned, and upgrades can be purchased to allow for an incredible amount of flexibility for each wanzer; gone are the days when the use of a specific weapon for a specific pilot was compulsory; anyone can become anything, with a little financial coaxing via a trip to the simulators, which are in themselves deep enough to warrant serious replay value.
Once you've acquired the proper funding, the next step is to take a trip to the local wanzersmith and participate in one of Front Mission's staple activities: wanzer customization. As with previous titles, an array of equipment is available at each shop that forces you to strategically balance the power output of your machine with the weight of your desired equipment and evasion rates, which will result in important decisions such as whether to give up higher part HP for a higher evasion rate or equip a shield in lieu of high evasion rather than settle for dual-gunnery. Another nice touch was reducing the number of manageable wanzers at your disposal; previously, having to worry about maintaining wanzers of characters you may or may not use was nothing short of a pain. Here, all you have is never more than you'll need. Instantly gratifying and exciting, tricking out your implements of destruction has never been more fun.
Coming from Front Mission 3, Front Mission 4's twenty-nine (well, twenty-eight, really) missions may seem scant, but this fails to take into consideration just the actual scope of each map; these things are pretty big. Much bigger than most of those in FM3 and with a considerably larger amount of enemies, each mission has a scale large enough to allow for actual strategy. For example, the Venezuelan capital of Caracas receives more than one visit in the game, each time in a different part of the map, which is so large that every instance feels like an entirely new mission, rather than a re-hash. All of this also prevents the straightforward destruction which characterized Front Mission 3 with enough freedom of movement, greater number of enemies, and juiced up AI, that the threat of death is omnipresent and necessary tactics must be implemented to ensure survival.
To illustrate my point, I can recall one instance that had me facing a sizeable enemy force in a tightly packed part of Caracas; although I had divided my units to prevent the slaughter of rocket area damage, the blow was inevitable, and by the time I had eliminated the opposition in the area, I was left broken with several losses, and another wave of wanzers hurtling in my direction. Left without hope, I began frantically scoping out the surroundings, and on the sight of a double-bridged island concocted a plan. I began to pull out onto one bridge as the enemy approached me over the course of two turns, healing myself to increase my mobility to the best of my ability. Once they had come within range, I began to retreat onto the island, firing grenades in my wake, as my sniper sat on a high vantage point picking off enemies as they came. By the time I had exited on the other bridge, I was strong enough to surround and decimate my opponents; battle won. Never in my time of strategy games from Vandal Hearts
to even Final Fantasy Tactics
could I claim to have used my environment for strategic gain. Front Mission 4 does just that.
And with a great soundtrack, too. Sporting music to annihilate to, Hidenori Iwasaki's brilliant soundtrack has subliminal appeal unlike what you might expect out of a similar title. Tracks never get repetitive, and adequately reflect the situation at hand, even enhancing situations otherwise uneventful into something worth pursuing. His determined rhythms and excellent instrumentation do well to, for lack of a better term, pump you up for battle. Voice acting is average, but appears infrequently enough that it may be dismissed. Accessory sound design is, meanwhile, very-well executed, and it feels good to hear machine gun bullets pierce a wanzer's armor--even better to hear a pike penetrate and engulf a wanzer in flames.
So then, when confronted by missiles, machine guns, and pikes at such high stakes, the answer is simple: Call in an air strike to soften up the enemy, rush the missiliers and disable with EMP, scrambling your assault force to surround the enemy melee wanzers with mass missile support against the machine gunners as your rifleman snipes from a distance. Once in position, you take careful aim and at the end of a link attack obliterate the enemy with extreme prejudice and a Double Assault skill at a 2.0 damage modifier.
Life was never better.
You see the enemy force: Three teams of assault wanzers, packing dual Grave II-S machine guns, two sets of heavily-armored missiliers, and a couple of clad-black melee wanzers armed with attack pikes and EMP backpacks designed to give you hell. There's little elsewhere to run, and by all considerations the world is entirely doomed should you fail. What are you to do?