It seems like every other game that is released for the PlayStation 2 has something to do with mechs. Helping to perpetuate this pattern, Konami has two mech-based PlayStation 2 games currently in development. While Zone of the Enders takes the more traditional futuristic approach to mech-based warfare, Ring of Red attempts to rewrite history by introducing robots into the aftermath of World War II.
In Ring of Red, you play as a young mech pilot looking to overthrow communist Soviets who seem to have forgotten that WWII has ended. As the game begins, you are taken through a training mission that educates you on the nuances of controlling the lumbering steam-powered mechs. The last training exercise is a two-on-one against one of your company's most revered machines. It soon comes to light that the supermech has been hijacked by one of the Soviets. After a short firefight, the Soviet pilot decides to hightail it to safer territory, and despite being a green mech jockey, you're instructed to follow. As you attempt to chase down the stolen mech, the Soviets send in reinforcements to impede your progress. Like most video game plots, Ring of Red's story is steeped in fiction. But thanks to grainy WWII footage with hazy images of mechs stomping around behind the infantry, the premise suddenly becomes plausible. The story twists and turns regularly, and much like in an RPG, there are several points where you must answer questions that directly alter the story down the road.
At first glance, Ring of Red appears to be a cut-and-dried mech battler. While this stereotype holds true for the majority of the game's combat, Ring of Red is a strategy game at heart. There are five basic types of mechs in the game, and each one has its own advantages and pitfalls. The light AFW (armed fighting walker) is adept at close combat, the regular AFW is designed to be effective at medium-range attacks, the anti-AFW is effective at fairly long attacks, and the four-legged AFW can strike from a great distance. The gameplay begins at a grid-laden map screen, where the topography of the land can be closely examined. Each mech has a predetermined range of movement and attack distance as they take turns negotiating the map. The key to effective attacking lies in placing your mechs at a proper distance from the target to maximize performance.
Further adding to the strategy, certain mechs traverse specific terrain more easily. While you may be able to hack off a mile per turn with the light AFW on flat ground, negotiating mountains with the spindly two-legger is an entirely different story. Cities are scattered throughout the landscape to supply new troops for your unit. Taking cities is also a good way to add new abilities to your mech. Any soldiers extracted from the cities bring their expertise along with them and may be used as mech pilots. Some may excel at defense, while others have new maximum attacks or healing abilities. Choosing which pilot to use for each situation can make the difference between victory and defeat. Cities also serve as a means to automatically replenish health. Taking a city near a concentration of enemies is a good way to achieve a foothold until reinforcements arrive.
Once you've decided upon the movements and instructions for a unit, the game switches into combat mode. Here you see the mechs and soldiers in real-time 3D, slugging it out against the Soviets. The slow-moving mechs aren't exactly agile, and the 90-second battles boil down to waiting for your attack meter to reach its limit so that you may fire on the opposing unit. Once the attack meter has peaked, you have a choice of several options. You may allow your infantry to attack, allow the mech to attack, or use a maximum attack. If you choose to let the infantry do the dirty work, you may choose which direction they will attack from and what sort of attack they'll use. The soldiers may fire rocket-propelled grenades to drop a mech in its tracks or discharge rifles to take out the opposing infantry. When you're attacking with a mech, the camera goes into a first-person view, and a jerky reticle appears onscreen. The longer you wait, the more slowly the reticle sways about, but it also supplies the rival mech with more time to prepare for its own attack. Maximum attacks come in a wide variety. Some let you instantly reload, while others let you fire flares to illuminate the battlefield. As you gain experience, more maximum attacks become available.
After the 90-second battles conclude, experience points are awarded according to performance, and your mech is automatically upgraded. As you rise in experience, the crosshairs become less erratic, and your attacks pack a bigger punch. The amount of time that it takes for your attack meter to reach the top gradually shrinks with experience as well. The strategy element of Ring of Red is extraordinarily deep. From the pilots you choose to the distance you align your mechs from a target, Ring of Red constantly keeps you on your toes.
Ring of Red's graphics aren't exactly eye opening, but the game has its moments. The real-time battles are the graphical highlight of the game. The robots are made of only a few polygons, but their design portrays them as the primates of their species that they are. While in combat, dozens of low-poly infantrymen scuttle about on the ground while the mechs methodically fire missiles. Between the streaming smoke from rockets, infantrymen unloading and reloading, and heat blurring from explosions, there are plenty of graphical elements to keep the eyes busy. Unfortunately, all this activity results in relatively barren combat environments or cities with huge blocks for buildings. Ring of Red runs on a real-time clock. This provides for stunning sunset battles and facilitates new strategies for nighttime skirmishes. While there are no cutscenes to move the story forward, extensive text is used to develop characters and outline objectives.
The burn of Ring of Red that we received has no significant problems other than that the crosshairs seem to have no bearing upon where your mech's shot ends up. It successfully manages to blend strategy, role-playing, and action elements into one cohesive experience without becoming overwhelming. The gameplay can be incredibly deliberate and slow at times, and with 97 battles in the game, most players will rack up hours of gameplay before Ring of Red is completed. With just a month left before release, Konami doesn't have much time to make adjustments. Fortunately, Ring of Red is practically ready to ship as is. Look for our full review of Ring of Red coming soon.