For the uninitiated, Zoids are a series of snap-together toy robots produced by Japanese toymaker Tomy--and the manga and anime franchises that have been built around them. The toys are brimming with character, featuring shrewd designs and elaborately constructed moving parts. The strategy RPG Zoids Assault, on the other hand, has none of the personality or spark of the models, or of the devotees dedicated to building them. It's lifeless.
The game's bland grimness quickly becomes apparent as you try to piece the story together, though you may never make much sense of it. In light of the franchise's colorful anime series, you might expect Zoids Assault to take a similarly animated approach to its narrative. Instead, you'll get a series of poorly drawn static images accompanied by some amateurish voice-over explaining the convoluted political backstory. You also get text updates that appear in front of a drawing of a newspaper. That's the extent of the storytelling, and it's astonishing that developer Takara Tomy would treat such a rich universe so unenthusiastically. The courtroom setting of the scenes and fuzzy, Mass Effect-style visual filter used during missions were perhaps meant to portray a more mature take on the franchise, but the end result is simply meritless. The art style of the drawings doesn't even remotely look like that of the game proper, so the gameplay feels completely disconnected from the story. Perhaps something happens in this tale, but it doesn't matter, because the game won't inspire you to care.
A lot more effort went into crafting the gameplay visuals, which aren't artistically remarkable but showcase some dramatic camera angles and detailed Zoid models. Your five-bot wrecking crew looks good, particularly during attack animations, when the camera zooms in and you get a close view of the mechanical mayhem. It may take a while to get used to the aforementioned grain filter, though. It's applied with a heavy hand, and while it lends some fuzzy sci-fi gravitas to the dull gray color palette, it's overdone to the point of distraction. Sound effects are utilitarian: The noise of cannon fire and trotting robots gets the job done, and the soundtrack is nice and rousing. Nevertheless, like the storytelling, the production values lack both style and substance. Going for a gritty feel is a valid approach, but the overall effect is dreary and weathered.
The most dedicated strategists are more concerned with battle tactics than with looks, and Zoids Assault does at least offer the basics. You command the same squad of five Zoids for the entirety, maneuvering about the battle grid one turn at a time, gunning down enemy bots while accomplishing mission objectives. These objectives are the usual suspects: take out radar dishes within a dozen turns, eliminate all enemy forces, and so on. Yet with only 14 missions and few reasons to return once you've finished, Zoids Assault clocks in at around a dozen or so hours, which is criminally short for a strategy RPG. Publisher Atlus' other full-priced SRPG offerings on the Xbox 360 are much longer and feature more involved gameplay mechanics, making Zoids Assault undercooked and overpriced.
The game's calling card is its support mechanic. Assuming you have Zoids in attack range, a single turn can prompt support fire from up to three additional units. You can also volley return fire when on the defensive in much the same way, so unit placement is the single greatest factor in every battle. There are some challenging missions later in the game, but once you get comfortable with unit positioning and proper flanking, you won't find most maps overly difficult. The road to victory also means smart use of EMP attacks, which aren't always available but do a lot of damage and can't be countered.
Outfitting your Zoids is also a strategic factor, of course, since each weapon determines how far the unit can move during a turn, how much damage the attack does, and so on. You also earn points to spend on equipping various special moves, and grab data discs that you enhance weapons and armor, or simply paint your bots different colors. You earn this stuff at a relatively slow pace, and because customization options are relatively thin (and because you only have the same five units from start to finish), this aspect of the game is less fulfilling than in most tactical RPGs. Again, everything is very no-frills, delivering just the basics without offering anything memorable.
It's odd that the best-looking of Atlus' recent trilogy of Xbox 360 games would be the weakest from a gameplay perspective. Zoids Assault has no personality, reduces its story to recited political mumbo jumbo, and is insanely short without offering any reason to return once you're done. It's functional--and that's it.