A little while ago, Konami released the Metal Gear Solid 2 playable demo disk… and it was packaged with a game, Zone of the Enders (ZOE). This second rate status was a bit of a joke, since no one was really saying anything about ZOE. The game itself is a battlemech combat game, similar to Robotech (Macross) and several other animes of that vein. Boiled down, it’s a 3D action game; you can shoot from afar, or get in close for some hand-to-hand melee action. I rented the game this weekend, played it through… now I can see why no one was really talking about this game.
Zone of the Enders starts out promising, with an excellent opening cut-scene. It’s the year 2172, and the character is Leo, an adolescent boy living on the space colony Antilla orbiting Jupiter. A mercenary strike force has just launched an assault on the colony, aiming to steal two advanced prototype mechs. Meanwhile, Leo and his friends have been in a rougher area of the colony, and been captured by some bullies, and were tied to a big post. The friends blame Leo for their situation, and the bully-leader unties Leo, saying he can free his friends by punching the leader out, or can run. Leo is frightened and he runs away to hide. Back to the invasion, a mech fight has just ensued, and from his hiding spot, Leo sees a mech lumber towards the post to which his friends are tied, and then it lurches to a stop. This mech had just been in a battle, and its cockpit has been blown out. The mech stands eerily still for one moment, then topples slowly forward. The kids look on in terror as the mech crushes them. The only thing remaining of them is the blood that seeps out from under the fallen mech. Leo is horrified, and I am definitely feeling some empathy for him – this is twisted stuff for him to go through! He runs away again, ignoring the burning bodies all around, and runs into a lone room where a mech is standing, supported by scaffolding. Leo falls into the cockpit, and the computer ADA teaches him how to use the thing. Thus begins the adventure and I’m ready to guide Leo through it.
So far everything is going great; I grew up with Robotech, my first taste of anime, and this intro really set me in a good gaming mood. I’m feeling a lot of empathy for Leo, and I’m eager to help him seek vengeance. This is helped along by the great graphics. The cut scene was very impressive and the in-game graphics are quite nice as well. You can be in battle with several mechs at once, explosions all around, buildings burning, and there won’t be any slow down. The sound was also fairly well done. The opening music is rather eerie, unearthly, a lone Japanese singer with some simple instruments, and I quite liked it. Most of the fight music is your standard background techno – it does the trick of giving the fights an upbeat tempo, but there’s nothing special about it. The voice acting… well, some of the voices were ok, but the enemies had horrible voices. In past games when this was the case, I just turned on the Japanese dialogue, but this game actually doesn’t have that option. I’m sure that this disk isn’t packed to capacity, so I guess they were just lazy or too busy working on MGS2. Oh well, on to the gameplay itself.
The mech itself is one of the advanced prototypes, a Jehuty class battlemech, and it’s quite a bit more graceful than your standard FASA Battlemechs: it can fly, hover, do backflip rolls, and a few other fancy manoeuvres. The controls are quite simple, so they’re easy to pick up, but unfortunately there’s not a lot that you’ll have to master when flying this thing. There are two main combat buttons: attack and secondary attack, plus you can block. Along with these, there’s a turbo button that functions like an unlimited afterburner. With this, you can dodge attacks, and modify your own attacks.
If you’re far from an enemy, you can shoot at it with the square button, and if you’re close, you’ll do a sword strike. You can pick up secondary weapons during the game, so you can shoot from afar with the circle button, or if up close, you can grab an enemy and throw it into a building or into other enemies. You can also use your afterburners to ‘dash’, moving very quickly or power-up your mech if standing still. Combining dash with attacks makes a stronger attack. This may sound a bit complicated, but boiled down, up close you have three attacks and a throw, and from afar, you have three regular shots, plus a few secondary shot options. However, you can forget the non-dash ones, afterburner is unlimited, there’s no point doing a regular attack – they’re easily blocked and don’t do much damage - so you’ll pretty much be doing (2) dash attacks and a few potshots with some secondary weapons. Despite the simplicity, tossing huge mechs into buildings is great fun, but the game discourages that. This is your colony, and you’re not supposed to destroy homes, especially on rescue missions where there are survivors hiding in the homes, so no throwing unless it’s away from buildings. Stray shots also destroy the buildings, so most of the time you’ll be in close using your sword.
This simplicity carries over into other game elements as well. You navigate from zone to zone by flying over the city/colony, and enter a zone to do a rescue mission (prevent building destruction), item fetching, or destroy something. This gives a bit of variety, but it usually just consists of killing everything and moving on. In the missions themselves, there are several enemy packs roaming the map, each pack having three or four enemies in it. Fighting is rather segmented, as the packs act separately; a second force will only attack if your battle spills over into its patrol zone. Last point about the enemies, there are only 3 enemy mech units. They go up in level to become harder, but that’s it, you’ll always be fighting a mixture of tank mechs, agile fighting mechs, or the combo shooter-fighter. Needless to say, this gets rather redundant. There are, however, boss mechs, which are more advanced. There are a couple of nimble but powerful mechs similar to your own, and a few giant “Orbital Platforms” of Sinistar proportions. These bosses are usually fairly challenging, and fun to play against, but you have to fight through wave upon wave of clone ‘bots to get this moment of variety.
So the game is rather simplistic: few moves, few enemies, and to top it off, it’s extremely short. It took me four and a half hours to finish it. Such brevity would be all right if it had a lot of replay value, such as challenging enemies or several different endings which could be explored, leaving me with many more hours of gameplay, but these are absent. You can unlock a versus-mode, but PvP action of 3 attacks isn’t that exciting. Once you’re through the game, there’s not much motivation to go back through.
This game leaves the impression that it was rather rushed; the graphics are great, but it feels like there should have been many more chapters to this game – the lackluster ending after the end ‘fight’ scene seems to be the end of a chapter, but then the credits roll, and it’s game over. The simplicity in the game doesn’t have to be a crippling factor. I’ve played hours upon hours of simplistic space-combat games – Galaga or Space Invaders for example probably account for months of my life. In these, you have one basic attack, and you destroy row upon row of encroaching enemies. Zone of the Enders tries to be more complex though, and its simple gameplay doesn’t require the masterful dexterity of these classic games. It starts out fun with a great premise, and is easy for beginners to pick up, but it never really advances after that. It’s not a horrible game, it just is fairly mediocre. It’s worth renting on a rainy weekend, perhaps after watching some anime-mech action, and while you’re at it, you can play the Metal Gear Solid demo, which is quite fun. After I finished ZOE, I played the demo longer than the game itself – now that’s replay value! ;-).
Highs: Great graphics, you get to pilot a mech.
Lows: Very Short, too simplistic, very little replay value.