Game Description: Using a turn-based combat system; the player controls giant fighting robots called "wanzers" in order to fulfill mission objectives or to defeat foes in mechanical warafre. Robots can be continually upgraded by purchasing or scavenging new weapons/ armor/ computers/ ect. This game takes a new approach to increasing the depth of the game creating the Double Feature Scenario which allows the player to choose one of two completely different character viewpoint within the same general plot of the game.
In the last decade, paperback novels, celluloid film and broadcast television in the United States have seen a major upsurge in material vaguely classified by media critics as "techno-thrillers." This was largely due to the writings of one man, Tom Clancy. Reputed as a former insurance broker turned author, Clancy pen several novels with an absorbent amount of detail and in-depth knowledge of military hardware and their political underpinnings. These novels, which include The Hunt For Red October and Clear And Present Danger, struck a chord with a generation of readers and became so popular that film adaptations and television projects soon followed. Computer games also followed suite and saw similar rises (mostly from Tom Clancy's own software house Red Storm Entertainment) in the genre. Even the more traditionally adolescent targeted console market has seen more "techno-thrillers," and this is no more apparent then in Squaresoft's release of Front Mission 3 (FM3) on the PlayStation.
FM3, at its core, is a turn-based strategy game where tactics and control are concerned only as far as a squad of four soldiers rather then an army of thousands. What has always been a trademark of the Front Mission series (Parts 1 and 2 were never localized for the North American market) is that all the soldiers under a player's command pilot Japanese anime-styled combat robots known as Wanzers (pronounced Van-ser). Aside from all the anime appeal, what really sets this particular title apart is the imaginatively complex story elements (which unfold linearly in typical console role-playing game fashion in-between battles) and the way they are executed with very Clancy-esque twists and turns. Not only are there two different storylines (which play out depending on a seemingly harmless decision a player makes at the beginning of the game), but much of the details are fleshed out in the game's Network feature (a self-contained Internet complete with pseudo email, mock Web sites and hacker warez!). No matter how the story unfolds, government cover-ups, military espionage and conspiracies of global proportions are all abound, and the lives of seemingly ordinary characters are put to the test in extraordinary circumstances.
In that regard, FM3 is a game with high aspirations to which it lives up to, but barely. What makes it such a close call is a few things. First, the actual characterizations of all the protagonists in the story fall short. FM3 paints an incredibly vivid and believable vision of a future where nations are wrought with internal as well as external conflicts (most of this is conveyed through the mock Web sites and reiterated in the dialogue). Alliances with foreign countries often appear paper-thin, perceived threats of war seem to loom over every government action and rival political parties are just itching for coup-de-tat at a moment's notice (is this the future or present?). The histories and motivations of individual characters are interesting and believable enough as well. It's just a shame that the speech and mannerisms of each character isn't always a fitting match for the engrossing backdrop. Rather then getting a cast of emotionally charged characters and dialogue that reeks of wore-torn bitterness and paranoia, we get a script that's sometimes about as deep and preachy as some of Steven Segal's recent straight-to-video schlock. It's as though the person responsible for the back-end plotting and character profiles isn't the same person who wrote the screenplay and script.
The game's worst offender has to be the lead protagonist, Kazuki Takemura, who comes off immature—not by design, but because he is so poorly written. His misguided attempt at locating his sister on a military base, and the way he opposes military forces in doing so, early on the game is so ridiculous and improbable, that it nearly ruins the credibility of the remainder of the game. Kazuki's continued quest to rescue his sister (when he doesn't even know if she's in danger) turns into an all-out obsession and gets to be laughable as his single-mindedness in locating her comically disrupts the dialogue in the most inopportune times and seems nonsensical amidst all the international crisis. In all fairness, Kazuki represents an extreme on the negative side, and there are some other characters that are worthy of praise, like Jose Astrada. His motivations and dialogue, which stem from him indirectly, causing the death of his wife and child during a military operation, is not only powerful, but consistent throughout one of the game's scenarios.
Another thing that hurt FM3 are peculiarities in the gameplay. FM3 is no different from most turn-based strategy games in that players spend a great deal of time making preparations by outfitting soldiers with weapons and equipment and then proceeding to a gridded battlefield where chess-like decisions determine the outcome of a battle. For FM3, planning and preparation is comprised of scavenging, buying, selling, building and configuring your own Wanzers to personal preference. On paper, that all sounds great, but I wasn't so enthused by the final execution. It was extremely difficult to tell the strengths and weaknesses of one Wanzer model to the next (unlike the MechWarrior series which separates mechs into classes) because displaying and navigating informational stat windows proved to be too obtuse and difficult when it came to making such comparisons. Of course it didn't help that despite having dozens and dozens of different Wanzers, most models were indistinct and fell largely into two categories, powerful ones that could haul heavy artillery or mobile ones that were better suited for assault weapons and hand-to-hand combat (something that would have saved me much time and headache if I had realized it earlier).
My other gripe in the gameplay department deals with actual battle system. Most strategy games interject a high degree of realism in simulating battlefield conditions and situations. This high degree of realism usually makes the game more difficult to approach, but the end results are ultimately far more depth and satisfaction than other styles of play. FM3 doesn't quite adhere to that philosophy in a number of ways, and I think the game is lesser because of it. First of all, computer AI (artificial intelligence) doesn't behave realistically and is tactically inept. Enemies will remain virtually stagnant until player-controlled characters reach within their parameters. Groups of enemy Wanzers rarely function as team and do not capitalize on tactical advantages like overwhelming the player with greater numbers. Even more out of whack are the Battle Skills. Along with gaining experience points in battle, characters are often magically endowed with many different special abilities and attacks known as Battle Skills. What's completely uncharacteristic of strategy games is that these Battle Skills randomly activate under certain situations. So rather then give players the opportunity to plan their tactical use—the very essence of what a strategy game is all about—the whole Battle Skill issue is left to what is essentially pot-luck.
On top of the poor characterizations and strange peculiarities in the gameplay, I also found that despite Squaresoft's valiant efforts in trying to squeeze every last bit of life out of PlayStation's rendering capabilities, the graphical presentation in FM3 was still inconsistent and rather lacking. Some prerendered CG (computer generated) cut-scenes littered through out and hand-drawn portrait artwork used during dialogue were fine, but the 3D visuals rendered in real-time during story sequences and combat were a whole other story. Severe amounts of problematic clipping could be spotted everywhere. Low polygon-count models of humans were unbelievably ugly and animated with choppy stiffness. Perhaps the worst thing about the graphics was the severe crookedness of straight textures in the environments (a problem commonly found in older 3D graphics processors that don't have any perspective correction feature). I ordinarily wouldn't make such a small technical quibble if it happened on rare occasions (like in Metal Gear Solid), but in FM3, I noticed the crookedness on many occasions and it got to be a painful eye sore.
With all the negative comments that I've lobbied against FM3, readers may find it strange that I still gave the game a rather positive rating. There's no mistake because I'm usually most vocal about games that fall just shy of greatness. FM3 may have many faults, but there are many positives as well. I found the Network feature to be a very unique approach and provided much needed diversity from a genre that is almost always plagued with repetitiveness. The final integration of the Network to the actual gameplay isn't as tight as I would have liked, but it still deserves recognition for being so comprehensive and convincing. Also, despite my complaints against the idiosyncrasies of the characters and the unrealistic battle system, I was still impressed with the story elements overall (especially the dual scenarios that feature surprisingly different missions, characters and plot direction), and I was never bored with the combat aspect of the game. I devoted more time to FM3 then any other game in recent months (over 60 hours, beating one of the two scenarios entirely), and it's accurate to say that it captivated my attention. FM3 probably won't go down as one of all-time greats, but it's certainly earns its stripes as a techno-thriller.
This game really surprised me. I generally don't get too excited about turned-based RPGs (I lost interest about midway through Shining Force), but I couldn't stop playing FM3, and it's difficult to explain why. Like Chi, I have mixed feelings about the game. FM3 left me feeling short-changed on several occasions. And yet, this game managed to pull me in and keep me interested. I found myself addicted to the fun battle scenarios, and the story proved just compelling enough for me to keep plugging away at this futuristic RPG.
I really got caught-up in the "world" of FM3. As Chi was quick to point out, it presents to us a future dominated by sweeping social and economic change. Rapid advancements in military technology are at the forefront of this worldwide shift of power, as the development of the aforementioned wanzers has erased the possibility of a lone superpower. Even the smallest sovereign nation can now compete on a global scale so long as they have an army of wanzers at the ready. There's a superb illustration of this in the game with a great scene involving a foolish farmer who has constructed his own fleet of makeshift wanzers (each piloted by members of the family) in an attempt to muscle his way onto the world stage. In this regard, FM3 reminded me of the Japanese anime Patlabor, a film that focuses on how the introduction of these huge, mass-produced robots affects every aspect of society. Instead of using the wanzers solely as an example of the latest instruments of destruction, FM3 shows their impact on everyday life. Everyone from the military, to the police, to construction companies have found a use for this new technology, and have consequently made it a huge industry—on par with the automobile or arms industries. And like car manufacturers or arms producers, the corporations responsible for the wanzers have a far reaching political influence. Sure, the giant robot theme has been seen many times before—in comic books, anime, popular film and other video games, but the world of FM3 is deep and textured and delicately depicted.
However, the story is not told with the same precision. The game tells the story using a combination of rendered-on-the-fly sequences, hand-drawn talking heads set against static backgrounds and full-motion video (FMV) cut scenes. I would have preferred one or the other—there's too much of a discrepancy between the 2D illustrations, the real-time 3D graphics and the expertly rendered FMV. It's hard to follow a story such as this when there's no visual harmony. Having said that, there are some impressive scenes—especially the FMV sequence involving the detonation of the MIDAS bomb over a city (totally convincing) and the many real-time scenes before battle where some truly menacing weapon makes its presence felt. I wasn't bothered by the characters as much as Chi was. Kazuki is the typical impetuous, melodramatic, young lead character we've seen in every other Square RPG. I don't think he hurts the game, because the comic relief from his friend Ryogo negates any bad vibes. I've come to expect such simple personalities in games, and I wasn't expecting FM3 to break any new ground that area. However, I got bored with the heavy-handed, text-driven dialogue between all the action. I found myself yawning a lot and mashing the buttons to skip to the next battle.
The great battles really save FM3 from mediocrity in my opinion. Despite the frustration I share with Chi regarding the limited and sometimes confusing customization of my wanzer force, I was truly addicted to the involved strategy and explosive action during combat. The anticipation of the next encounter with the enemy caused me to lose precious amounts of sleep (I spent much of the time playing FM3 through blood-shot eyes). Chi does make some valid points about the battle system, though. While I didn't have any problems with the enemy AI, I was bothered by the randomness of the Battle Skill feature, and was positively dumbfounded by David, one of the characters who joins your team. Though armed with a sniper rifle, he always manages to miss his targets at the most inopportune times. I wanted to squash David beneath the heel of a goliath wanzer (pun definitely intended), but instead I chose to outfit him with a grenade launcher in an attempt to make him less useless. However, he couldn't equip the grenade launcher because his wanzer couldn't handle the weight. So I put him in a different wanzer—one I captured from the enemy—and he still couldn't use the weapon because his attack points were too low in the new wanzer. So I had to live with David's worthlessness and become resigned to the fact that captured wanzers are only good for selling when you need extra cash. I guess this reveals more holes in the gameplay than I originally intended, but I still found the battles to be thrilling and not-at-all repetitive.
I disagree with Chi concerning FM3's 3D graphics. Contrary to popular belief, PlayStation's 3D rendering capabilities have always been a little rough around the edges when it comes to generating realistic (non-cartoony) visuals. Sure, there are environments like the urban settings, where the buildings are basically blocks with pixilated textures mapped on, but I don't think PlayStation is capable of much better at this point. There are a lot of big explosions, and the wanzers certainly look very cool. In fact, I thought Squaresoft did a nice job with the original designs of all the military vehicles and weapons, all of which are impressively rendered and look just different enough to be from another time. But Chi and I are on the same page everywhere else. The psuedo-Internet simulation is something new and is a welcome addition to the game. Buying equipment through online vendors is the best feature of the Network mode. I liked the idea of online correspondence and investigating government operations and corporate plans via the Internet. However, as ambitious as it is, it's not very fun to use.
I still enjoyed FM3 quite a bit. The problems don't really keep it from being a good game, but they do keep it from being a more engaging experience. This could have been a breakthrough game instead of just another solid turn-based RPG. But I think the payoff is well worth dealing with the game's flaws. It could just be that I hadn't really sunk my teeth into a good RPG in a while, and FM3 certainly gave me plenty to chew on. Don't let the one disc fool you—FM3 is a long game that requires a serious commitment on the part of the player. Those willing make the commitment shouldn't be disappointed.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Violence
For parents, I don't think I'd recommend Front Mission 3 to anyone under the age of 14 (especially if they prefer quick action games and don't care for the techno-thriller plot). Not only does the game make very mature overtures about war and politics, but the story does get to be very long and convoluted. Also worth noting for all is that this is one heck of a long game. The back of the CD case brags that it provides 150 hours of gameplay in order to complete both senarios (which are surprisingly different in terms of plot and characters). I, for the most part, concur with that timing.
Hardcore strategy fans are going to find the weak enemy AI (artificial intelligence) and loose tactical elements in Front Mission 3 to be a little too "lite." Though there are ample oppuntunities at making personal configurations and modifications to a players team of Wanzers.
Role-playing game (RPG) fans and more casual gamers will be more at home with the less mentally intensive approach to battles and the long-winded epic sweeping oh-so RPGish storyline.