In the future robots won't make you cooler.
The year is 2096 and armies use giant armored mechs called wanzers to fight their wars. The European Community founded a military research group for developing and assessing tactics for the E.C. Armies This UK based group is known as the E.C. Armor Tactics Research Corps or Durandal for short. The game begins with a new recruit, Elsa, as she begins her first training mission with the Durandal. Later a mysterious group of wanzers attack some German military bases. The majority of the game involves trying to figure out who this group is, why they did it, who is involved, etc.
Across the Atlantic ocean in Venezuela is another group of soldiers. Here you meet Darril, Renges, and Chaeffer; members of the Unified Continental States Army. They aren't your typical soldiers, they are lazy, and pretty tired of military life. They then stumble upon some lost cargo and spend the majority of the game trying to smuggle it out of the country while learning about government conspiracies and the like.
The story, the linchpin of any RPG, is pretty bland. Even though the game is split between two tales there is really no wow factor. The biggest problem is a lot of the dialog refers to some different faction or army. You lose track of who is who, become confused, and then you aren't really connected to the story. Some of the characters are interesting and likeable and others aren't so likable. The game does a lot of talking, but there isn't a lot of character development to get you to like these people. In fact when I was playing I forgot who some of the key players were all together. However, the voice acting in the game, though sparse, is well acted.
The story may be hit and miss but the gameplay doesn't make up for much of the story's shortcomings. This game is slooooooow, very slow. I knew mechanized armor was slow and clunky but this game takes it to a new level. Before you even get to a battle the game is slow. Most of the game is menu driven, you have about 6 choices to choose in between battles. In between battles is some kind of story, then the game gives you a menu. You can choose to talk, where you can hear the reactions of some characters, or further the story along some. Other menus let you level up your pilots and customize your wanzers.
When you choose to customize your wanzer you're taken to a garage. You can buy individual parts (arms, legs, body, weapons, etc.) to customize your wanzer to your liking or buy a pre-built wanzer. I personally never bought a pre-made wanzer so I don't know what they offer, but the customized wanzers are alright. However, the customization is very little since each character has a set list of skills to begin with giving him the wrong kind of custom wanzer would not help you in this game. Later on you can expand your skill sets to include other people's skills, but that would be more time consuming than this game already is. Setting up your wanzers, buying parts, comparing which parts you need, and leveling up your pilot's skills takes at least an hour before every battle. In between battles your pilots gain "enhancement points" to spend on skills that improve your pilots skills and resistances. Some skills are useful, some not so much. Later in the game you can go to something called the "computer shop" and equip your soldiers with skills they may lack because of their class limitations. For instance I set Hermes up with some sniper skills, and gave many of my characters more skill slots.
After the setup comes the actual battle. The battles are very long, mainly because the game moves so slow. Just like any strategy RPG you move around the battle field, but the battlefield's are pretty big and you generally only have 5 or less characters on your team at a time. This is where the game gets frustrating. Unlike other RPGs where you can have as many classes as you want, the nature of this game only lets you have a few classes each. You'll generally only have one guy who can heal, one sniper, one melee expert. This wouldn't be a problem if the odds were even, but many times there are more than double the amount of enemies than you.
The AI isn't smart, in fact it is very predictable, but a lot of the time you will also be overpowered. There are a couple of things that will lead to frustration. One thing is the link system. The link system enables you to stack attacks with other allies, or defend them if they get hit. This is helpful for you but it seems more of an advantage for your enemies. Another thing that leads to frustration is the sensor units. Some wanzers are equipped with sensors, and as long as your troops are in the range of the sensor another wanzer can shoot a missile from anywhere on the battlefield and hit you with uncanny accuracy. It's not until about the last 3 missions of the game you get the ability to avoid these missiles, in the meantime you'll just have to take it. So why is this frustrating? Well the AI will generally attack one person in your group, they will gang up on them and with the linking and the sensors that person is always in danger, so you'll be spending the majority of the battle healing and defending him. Losing wanzers in battle is usually disastrous because like I mentioned before you're always outnumbered. There are ways to counteract some of these tactics. If you know who's going to get attacked and by what you can give them armor coating to defend them from the attacks you know will come (you'll know these attacks are coming because you'll fail many battles). There are three types of armor coating, fire, impact, and piercing. Depending on what armor coating you have equipped you'll take less damage from that weapon. This helps some but some weapons will overpower you no matter what coating you have **cough** sniper rifles **cough**
As stated before the campaigns are divided up on two parts of the world, and the seemingly more difficult part is the South American campaign. The UCS troops just don't have the same technology at their disposal as the Durandal, mainly sensors and air support units or equipment. Not to mention that the UCS group is only three people and the Durandal is usually five. This difficulty leads to more frustration because one battle can take two hours to beat because everything moves so slow, and if you get really damaged in the middle or towards the end it feels like a waste of two hours. Battles are also lengthened and made more frustrating by attacks that miss, when they were a no brainier to hit. Winning a battle should bring you a sense of accomplishment but you don't really feel anything except relief that you didn't lose. The game is very linear as well, you can't choose where to go, or what battle to fight on an over-world map, instead it's a battle followed by a story element and another battle. Rinse and repeat for 70 hours (30 minutes of which I would say are story related things) and then you have Front Mission 4.
The graphics aren't anything special either, especially with what square enix has at their disposal. There isn't a lot of action on screen so you would think they could pile on some impressive graphics. Sadly they could not, in fact a lot of the game is pulled far away from the action. It zooms in when you attack but the game fails to impress up close. I realize the game came out in 2003, but even Final Fantasy VII has more detail than this game. The game is very drab, and nothing much to look at. I think this game could have had some wanzers that at least looked as good as the mechs in armored core, but the wanzers are very small and boxy and un-detailed. Making matters worse is that this game, somehow, has slowdown. This game in no way pushes the PS2 to the limit but it has slowdown for some reason. The high point of the graphics to me were the character portraits that you see in the story scenes. They were well drawn and had a lot of personality, unlike the rest of the game. The sound is worse than the graphics. Machine guns sound like water dropping on a tin roof, although explosions sound decent, and the soundtrack is ok, but nothing memorable. As I mentioned before the voice acting is pretty good, one of the high points of the game for me.
Overall Front Mission 4 is a bland, frustrating and time consuming game. Upon beating the game you have the option to start over again with all your EP (so you can be super I suppose) but everything else is the same so I don't really see the point. As far as strategy RPGs go there are much better games you can choose from, however, not many that involve mechs. But mechs or not, you can still do better.