Giant mechanized space suits engaging in futuristic combat seems like something that would be inherently appealing to most people. After all, Robot Jox wasn't a blockbuster hit because of its great acting and intriguing characters. OK, so Robot Jox wasn't a hit at all, but the basic concept of massive mechs duking it out is still pretty exciting. However, despite the theme, the Gundam series of anime, models, action figures, and video games caters to a fairly niche audience of devout followers. Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam, the latest Mobile Suit game from Bandai, doesn't do anything to broaden the reach of the franchise, but it gives fans exactly what they want--and plenty of it.
Despite how they look, the lumbering humanoid stars of the Gundam franchise really aren't robots at all, but giant mechanized "suits" that were originally designed to be used in the construction of space colonies. Eventually the suits were adapted for combat by being fitted with machine guns, beam cannons, bazookas, beam sabers, and various other weapons. In Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam, you'll pilot dozens of these mobile suits in large, open stages as you complete various missions, which usually just require you to destroy enemy mobile suits.
Battles take place in space, on Earth, on the moon, and in a few other futuristic stages. In most battles, you'll be joined by an ally mobile suit, and you'll be fighting two or three enemies at once using a basic melee attack, a ranged attack, and--if your mobile suit is so equipped--secondary melee and ranged attacks. In addition to the attacks, you can jump and hover for a short period of time until your boost gauge is depleted. Both the boost gauge and your ammo supply are slowly replenished as you fight, but you still have to use them somewhat sparingly to be effective in battle. Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam also features an "awakening" system, which is similar to an overdrive mode that you can activate as soon as a meter is filled. Before battle, you can choose an awakening type. The three different types of awakening are attack, recovery, and mobility. Once activated, your mobile suit will be powered up accordingly for a short period of time. They are pretty self-explanatory, but each awakening can turn the tide of battle if used properly.
When controlling your own mobile suit, you can lock on to targets using the circle button, and switch among targets the same way. You'll need to do this often, since it's the only way to move the camera so you can see what's going on around you. Even then, sometimes the camera gets stuck behind things like buildings, spaceships, and other mobile suits, which can get frustrating.
Battles end when one team's battle power gauge is depleted, which usually only takes about two minutes. Each mobile suit has a specific cost, with the more-powerful suits being more expensive. Each time a suit is destroyed in battle, its cost is subtracted from its team's battle power gauge. As a result, you can achieve victory quicker by attacking the more-powerful suits first. However, in doing so you run the risk of taking more damage yourself.
There are five gameplay modes in Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam: arcade, versus, universal century mode, survival, and training. The arcade and survival modes are the same here as in just about any fighting game. Arcade mode can be played cooperatively or competitively with another player, and you can team up for co-op survival mode as well. Versus mode lets you pit two teams of mobile suits or mobile armors against each other in any combination of up to two players and two computer-controlled characters. Unfortunately, while in versus mode the game slows to the point of becoming virtually unplayable, especially when fighting with the large Zeon mobile armors like Adzam and Big Zam. The action grinds to a halt even when using normal mobile suits with four players onscreen.
For an in-depth single-player experience, universal century mode is the place to go. In this mode you can choose to play through Gundam history as the Anti-Earth Union Group, the Titans, or the Axis. You'll start off on a timeline that is populated by various colored dots that represent events or missions. You can follow several different pilots through history, often participating in the same event multiple times with different pilots. Your performance in battle can alter the outcome of history, and if you don't like the result you can go back and redo missions that you've already completed. There are literally hundreds of missions to complete, although many of them are exactly the same but with different pilots. As you play, you'll earn battle points that you can then use to level up your mobile suit. Higher-level suits have more strength, defense, stamina, and ammo than the suits you start out with.
Regardless of which mode you choose to play, you can earn gallery points, which you can then use to purchase hundreds of unlockable bonuses, including mobile suits, illustrations, characters, and movies. However, unlocking mobile suits only allows you to view them in a gallery, and unfortunately the suits aren't very detailed or interesting to look at.
In fact, the entire game suffers from underwhelming visuals. Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam looks exactly the same as Mobile Suit Gundam: Federation vs. Zeon, which came out almost three years ago. You'll even see some of the exact same stages in both games. Environments are dull and empty, and all of the textures have a washed-out look. There are a few destructible objects in some of the stages, but they just aren't satisfying to destroy. For example, in one of the city stages you can destroy buildings, but rather than collapsing in a heap of rubble as you'd expect, the buildings simply fade into the ground. The mobile suits themselves animate pretty well, and the portraits look nice, but the actual models look blurry and flat.
The sound in the game consists of a few repeating slashing and laser noises. The sound effects aren't quite as powerful as what you'd expect from these hulking mechanical giants, but they work here. The soundtrack is dramatic and fits with the action, but there aren't any tracks that really stand out. There are some short voice-overs from the pilots, which are appropriately campy and match the source material well. However, the vocal interactions that occur during battle get lost in everything else that's going on, making it difficult to catch all the dialogue.
When you get down to it, Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam is simple, frenetic button mashing delivered in two-minute bursts. There's some skill involved in evading enemies and rationing your ammo, but this is really just a basic arcade action game at its core. The multiplayer modes are great, but the unsteady frame rate quickly kills the fun. Gundam fans will enjoy unlocking all the mobile suits and playing through the universal century timeline from multiple perspectives, but everyone else will probably be left wondering what all the fuss is about.