Mobile Suit Gundam: Zeonic Front takes place in the alternate universe where the popular Gundam movies and television series take place. In the year 0079 of the universal century, the Earth Federation is under attack by the rebellious Duchy of Zeon, who spearhead their attacks with the strength of mechanized humanoid fighting units known as mobile suits. The power of these mobile suits is such that the EF's forces have been all but completely eliminated, until hope emerges in the form of the experimental prototype mobile suit Gundam.
Setting Zeonic Front apart from other games that take place in a wartime setting is its unique hook--for the duration of Zeonic Front, you assume the role of the "bad guys" who oppose the Earth Federation, which is romanticized in the original series. Utilizing mobiles suits that are vastly inferior to the unbelievable weapons of destruction used by the opposition may seem like a daunting task, but there's definitely a certain appeal to reprising the role of a hated enemy. Certain missions fit into the Gundam storyline very nicely and allow you to encounter some of the characters and mobile suits made famous in the series, such as Char Aznable and his Zaku II, the Guncannon and Guntank, and Amuro Ray. Sadly, cameo appearances by the popular Federation mobile suits are spoiled by your inability to destroy them in a direct confrontation, as the cameos take place only during reconnaissance missions.
Controlling the individual Zeon mobile suits is accomplished with a fairly intuitive control scheme. The left analog stick controls movement, while the right analog stick turns and smoothly positions the targeting reticle. The R1 button allows you to utilize your various weapons against enemies, which can include rapid-fire machine guns, the traditional shoulder-mounted Zaku bazooka, and even those Vulcan "hand" guns that fire their explosive payloads from chambers located in the fingers of the mobile suits. At short range, your mobile units can deal immense damage to enemies with axes or heat sabers, although ranged attacks will be the offensive tactic of choice for the greater part of the game. Each mobile suit can equip a certain amount of support equipment to further assist its explorations and assaults, including cloaking devices, sensor boosters, the ability to call on tank or air support, and various types of grenades, among other things.
However, the strategic elements of the game are what convert it from an otherwise simple third-person action experience into a surprisingly deep squad-based tactical shooter featuring cool giant robots. The key strategy in Zeonic Front is the exploitation of your enemy's greatest weakness, which is apparently an extreme vulnerability to flank and rear attacks. Enemy mobile suits will literally stand still and be slowly slaughtered by machine-gun fire if you're able to attack them from the correct vantage point. To best maneuver your units into position, you'll have to make use of three different types of surveillance: radar, thermal, and sonar. Radar will reveal enemy units at a moderate range, although it can be impeded by obstacles. Thermal reads heat signatures, and it will unveil enemies masked nearby, even if they're tucked beneath a canopy of trees or behind a building. Sonar has the largest range of the three, but it relies on reading enemy movement to reveal positioning and is thus nearly useless against stationary targets.
Before each sortie, you are allowed to select which of your enlisted pilots will be participating in that particular mission, as well as what mobile suit they'll be piloting and what support equipment they will be utilizing. Before every mission, an overhead map that displays the routes and key points of interest can be viewed. Up to three squads of mobile suits can participate in the missions, and you can select how their AI will react to enemy units, although many times you will actively take control of each squad's leader, which is done smoothly and painlessly. To properly control three squads at once across some relatively large maps, however, you'll need to modify routes and set operations points where orders can be relayed. Squads can be commanded to attack or to continue along their predetermined route.
There are a few issues with Zeonic Front that detract from an otherwise enjoyable experience. For instance, your mobile suits are only allowed to shoot at enemies when they've acquired a targeting lock, so buildings can't be destroyed, and you can't fire around obstacles hoping to damage enemies with the splash from explosions. The range on many of the weapons seems incredibly short, especially during the missions where the annoying Minovsky particles interfere with the strength of your sensors. The enemy AI can be quite unforgiving at times, although scouting for concealed enemies and setting routes to take advantage of their positions will eliminate much of the challenge. The problem with this is that setting routes and operation points is particularly time consuming and not quite as fun as actively controlling a mobile suit and blowing up enemy robots. Struggling through some of the later missions using the default routes is next to impossible, as the AI for your squads under CPU control is just short of laughable.
Graphically, Zeonic Front does some things very well, though it falls rather short in overall quality. The individual Zeon mobile suits look great and animate nicely, with a distinct mechanized robot walk that is both militaristic and forceful. Close-ups on the mobile suits before combat occur rather frequently, and you can truly appreciate how well the drawn versions from the anime series have been translated into 3D character models. Explosions, fire, and smoke look great as well--the burning wreck left behind by a recently destroyed enemy unit is particularly satisfying. However, to make the game run at a steady pace, the developers had to cut corners, as evidenced by the relatively bland environments and the fog that is prevalent in every level of the game. The fog barely covers up the rather short draw-in distance, and when you're not looking directly at the mobile suits, the game looks very drab. Textures are overused throughout many levels, which leaves them with little variation. The menu screens and dialogue sequences that use art from the anime series are very sharp, however, and they give the game a very authentic feel. The wireframe training program sequences are also attractive and generally well done, though they're a bit slow and deliberate.
Zeonic Front has taken great pains to create an audible experience that immerses the player in their current role and spurs fans to remember the characters from the popular anime. Every bit of dialogue in the game is relayed by voice actors that bring the feel of a movie to Zeonic Front, although now you can get to know the opposition a little better. Many new characters are introduced, and they also have distinct voices and personalities that are both memorable and comical in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. However, the general audio quality is badly produced, as the mechanized sound of the walking mobile suits overpowers the voice clips and music greatly. There are no settings for raising the music, voice, or sound effect levels, which would have compensated greatly for the generally average presentation.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Zeonic Front is the kind of game that dyed-in-the-wool Gundam fans will fawn over for months, but it may also appeal those who aren't familiar with the series. The strategic elements of the squad-based combat mix well with the explosive action, and enough of the back story is relayed in the mission debriefings that having watched the original series isn't a prerequisite. The amount of enjoyment you'll derive from Mobile Suit Gundam: Zeonic Front may be directly related to your love of the series, but the original approach of this game is refreshing, and just about anyone can appreciate playing as the bad guys for a change.