If you know what Squaresoft's Front Mission series is all about, you'll have a good chance at guessing just what kind of game Front Mission Alternative turned out to be. Front Mission, which originated back in the Famicom days, is a tactical turn-based strategy series set in the near future where war is waged in giant bipedal robots. But this latest installment takes the theme and premise of the series and applies it to a simpler, more cinematic framework. The result is visually and sonically stunning but may leave the hard-core strategist feeling shortchanged.
Good thing Front Mission Alternative looks so good, since you'll be watching it more than playing it. The WAWs (or giant robots, short for Wandrung Wagen) under your command travel in platoons of three, and they look immense in stature as they lumber across the battlefield in close formation. The scenery in the game is equally attractive: The sun occasionally peeks through the dense canopy of trees as tropical birds flutter about in lush African jungles. You can almost feel the sweltering heat in the desert combat zones. And you'll certainly crack a smile when your WAWs trample parked cars in the big city. A sweeping, cinematic camera angle keeps things interesting and will pan around and focus on where the action is. There's even a tasteful lens focus effect, where background objects appear slightly blurred to emphasize what's happening in front. The camera will occasionally follow your WAW's missiles to their targets, jump to the enemy's point of view, and more. You can override the camera with the control pad, or lock it in position behind your platoon, or even switch to a keen first-person view - complete with garbled scrolling status reports for that hi-tech cockpit ambiance. All the while Front Mission Alternative's frame rate, even with close to a dozen 3D objects moving onscreen, remains consistently smooth. And with little or no polygonal clipping to be found, not only does Front Mission Alternative look good, but it looks authentic.
Its sound effects stand up to its top-notch graphics perfectly. Each massive WAW footstep is accented by a resounding and satisfying thud. The hollow pop-popping of open-air automatic gunfire, the distant screams of soldiers, loud explosions, and realistic ambient sound effects all make Front Mission Alternative sound alarmingly real. Those audio effects are somewhat hampered by Front Mission Alternative's so-called alternative soundtrack, which is basically a bunch of dizzying techno that doesn't suit the onscreen grandeur.
What's most disconcerting about Front Mission Alternative is its gameplay, or how little of it there is. The first few missions are stupidly easy; you push the start button to pause the game and bring up an overhead map and tell the blue dot (your platoon) to move to the red dots (the bad guys). Then you just sit back and enjoy the show. Your WAWs will march toward their targets, getting stuck against each other and against any walls that get in their way, until they get in range of the enemy. Then they start shooting until the enemy stops moving. You have no control over your WAWs at all, other from defining either an offensive or a defensive style of attack. Worse yet, you must commit to one of these offense/defense designations across the entire platoon and can't issue orders to individual WAWs. The game does become more complex once you're controlling two or three platoons simultaneously, in which case you need to rapidly switch views between them and make sure they're all doing well. But essentially, the extent of the strategy in Front Mission Alternative lies in designating waypoints in a logical fashion. That's a terrifically boring concept in its own right, and were it not for the game's outstanding graphics and sound, Front Mission Alternative would invariably be a total dud.
But the fact is, the game looks and sounds good enough to maintain interest. Missions are mercifully short (approximately ten minutes each), and by the time you're dealing with two or more platoons you'll have your hands full. You can tinker with your WAWs in between missions, equipping them with better handguns, back-mounted artillery, shields, and other add-on parts. You can even paint them differently, and in fact, the camouflage has purpose - a navy blue WAW fighting in the dark will be harder to hit than a sand-colored one. You can also define learning parameters for your WAW pilots, so they focus on mobility, offense, and defense to varying extent in battle, and learn new abilities accordingly. Yet even this planning stage of the game isn't particularly deep, since any changes you'll make will tend to be obvious. Night mission? Paint the WAWs black. New gun? Equip it.
In the end, there aren't very many WAW types or parts to choose from, and the game itself is too short and shouldn't last you longer than a week. While there are multiple endings and paths to take depending on how well you do over the course of the game, Front Mission Alternative inexplicably caters toward the inferior player. You'll only get the full story if you fail particular objectives along the way. So in the end, the significance of this latest Front Mission game's title is apparent: It's not your typical Front Mission, and it's not your typical strategy game. Instead it's something else, and even though it looks good and is easy to play, its high production values may not be enough to please those looking for a little more depth or longevity with their giant robots. At least you can rest assured that while Front Mission Alternative won't see a domestic release, its menus (though not its story or mission briefings) are viewable in English, thus making it accessible to those who don't speak Japanese.