Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space Preview
We try out the upcoming Gundam game from Bandai.
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The Gundam series has been a staple for anime fans for more than 20 years. The time-honored mix of giant robots, epic space battles, and pilots willing to give it all to protect humanity has helped the franchise establish itself as one of the elder statesmen in the pantheon of giant robot franchises. While games have appeared on various platforms over the years in Japan, precious few have made it to the US. Thankfully, the growing popularity and acceptance of anime into mainstream culture has ensured that the lean days are coming to an end. Bandai will be serving up a dose of giant robot love in the form of Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space. The third-person action game for the PlayStation 2 was released in Japan and offered a pleasing blend of anime cutscenes and 3D action. We played a preview version of the game that let us get a feel for what to expect from the upcoming release.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space draws on the classic Gundam adventures and puts you in a variety of situations that should be familiar to fans of the series. You'll find five game modes from which to choose: story, side story, ace pilot, mission, and versus. Story mode is at the core of the game and lets you play the role of Amuro Ray, the legendary mobile suit pilot, throughout a series of different levels. Side story is a secondary story-style mode that places you in the role of the Thoroughbreds, of the 16th Autonomous Corps, for a series of missions. Ace pilot is another collection of missions, with a twist--you'll assume the role of pilots from both sides of the conflict. To use the various pilots, you'll have to unlock them by playing through the various modes and meeting certain conditions. Mission mode lets you create a custom pilot, and it lets you train that pilot through eight missions, during which he or she will earn points to beef up various attributes. Finally, versus mode lets you take on a friend. This friend-on-friend brawl lets you make use of your custom characters from mission mode. In addition to the game modes, you'll also find a breakdown of your battle records and a gallery where you can watch and listen to movies, listen to background music, and view models of various units.
The basic structure of the game's various modes are mission-based. You'll get an assignment at the start of a stage and be sent off. The objectives range from standard escort duties and fetch quests (that may require a bit of finesse) to total destruction missions that require you to "make like a killing machine." The catch to all the levels is that, for the most part, you'll find yourself going through the area on a rail. This is similar to the Panzer Dragoon games, although the gameplay isn't exclusively on rails.
The controls in the game are laid out well and shouldn't be a problem to pick up after a quick trip through the three-part tutorial in story mode. You move your mobile suit by using the left analog stick or D pad. The X button lets you dash when moving, while double tapping it lets you perform a roll to avoid enemy fire. The square button fires your mobile suit's main weapon, while the circle button triggers any secondary weapon on your suit. The triangle button performs a melee attack. The L1 button lets you lock onto an enemy when you tap it once, while tapping it twice releases your lock. You're also able to lock your main weapon onto multiple targets by holding the square button down and waiting for the lock-ons to appear. You can fire at all your targeted foes by releasing the square button. When conventional weapons aren't cutting it, holding down the R1, R2, and square buttons lets you fire off a special attack.
The control scheme changes a bit during one-on-one combat, called "sphere mode." This is combat that you'll initiate by engaging enemies who display a yellow cursor. In this mode, you'll get off the rail (during the level) and move relative to your foe's position in a circular area until you destroy him. The biggest change to the control scheme is that the R1 and R2 buttons are used to roll you up and down.
The game's presentation hits all the right notes and blends CG, anime, 2D images, and polygonal graphics to create an aesthetically pleasing Gundam experience. The CG sequences, chock-full of giant robots, massive capital ships, and big explosions, do a fine job of providing context and tone for what's to come. The anime segments--which represent roughly 80 minutes' worth of footage--are used to drive the narrative in Ray's story mode and couldn't be more perfect. Two-dimensional images of Ray and the other pilots show up during conversations throughout the game and help keep things personal in the midst of all the combat. As far as the polygonal graphics go, Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounter in Space's engine ably cranks out respectably detailed models. The mobile suits fare the best, featuring clean detail that fleshes out the 2D art style into 3D. You'll find more than 70 mobile suits and armors, such as 0079, 0083, Gundam wing, G Gundam, and Gundam seed, in the game's various modes. The capital ships and lesser enemies aren't quite as detailed as they could be, but they do explode nicely, so it's hard to complain too much. The explosions are just part of a varied collection of special effects that add some punch to the many battles you'll be in. The environments in the game range from the very spare detail of the open space battles, which feature a few capital ships and mobile suits, to busier areas, like the cramped quarters of an asteroid field or the deck of a ship that is littered with guns and swarming enemies. The action moves along at a good clip, thanks to the game's respectably high frame rate.
The audio in Mobile Suit Gundam is still coming together. Our version lacked English voice-overs and a subtitle option, although much of the text was already translated. Aside from this, the sound and music are turning out nicely. Fans of the series will experience a healthy dose of déjà vu, thanks to liberal usage of sound effects from the anime. The soundtrack in the game also owes a heavy debt to the tunes heard in the Gundam episodes, as it makes use of many of the key themes from the franchise. While our version of the game didn't feature English voice-overs, we're hoping Bandai leaves in a Japanese option for those fans who want to keep things real and would like to subtitle the Japanese voices (which sound pretty darn cool).
Based on what we've seen so far, Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space is turning out to be just what the doctor ordered for fans of the series and lovers of giant robots in space. The various modes offer a meaty chunk of content to work through, and the gameplay is easy to pick up. Gundam fans, and anyone looking for a solid challenge involving giant robots, should keep their eyes peeled for Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space when it ships this fall for the PlayStation 2.