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Front Mission Alternative

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Review by Kevin Cheung

The first impression everybody has of Front Mission Alternative is the word "WARGASM" blaring on the screen when the demo disc that came with Final Fantasy Tactics was booted up. Don’t laugh. Square knew what they were saying and they meant it.

Inspired by the original Front Mission of Super Nintendo fame, Front Mission Alternative adds a new chapter to the long love affair that Japan has had with robots, robotic warfare, and the like. Front Mission 2 has already been released with fairly mixed results thus far, and many people complained when the release of Front Mission Alternative was delayed. And delayed it was for good reason. Front Mission 2 had very long load times, a trait scorned by many an impatient gamer. It would appear that Squaresoft used the little extra time to cut down those load times by a significant degree.

Front Mission Alternative takes place in the early 20th Century, in which time a war has broken out. You fill the shoes of McCoy, a newcomer to the team along with two others in your platoon. You will be initially sent on a few simple sorties, and with a little time, you will be granted command of a few other platoons. At the successful completion of each mission, you will be awarded with new weapons, and mechs, all of which have amazing variety. If, during the in-game battles, McCoy’s mech should be destroyed, the mission will be a failure. You get three chances at each mission before it’s game over.

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As opposed to the turn-based strategy combat mould that the previous Front Mission games have taken, Front Mission Alternative is played in real time. Before any combat takes place, however, you must make preparations. Players initially start with one platoon, each of which has 3 mechs. As the game progresses on, players earn more weapons and more platoons to control. In the preparation phase, players are provided with highly detailed mission objectives, including target data and terrain information. From there, weapon and formation configuration must be set, either in a customised form for the hard-core fans, or in a "plain" simplified form for the recreational players. Upon looking at the terrain itself, players can preset the initial waypoints to be followed. Other details to be set include camouflage and allocation of energy resources for movement, defence, and offence.

Sally forth into the combat zone and you will realise the immense physical size of this game. The terrains are gigantic - larger than any area in Armored Core, and perhaps any other game available. If any comparison is to be made, then the most accurate equivalency would be to Westwood’s Command and Conquer. Each of these areas are adorned with astounding detail, so much so that it causes one to wonder whether the Playstation’s full capabilities have ever been tapped. The opening levels, for instance, are set in the African jungles. These jungles all contain rock formations, vines, trees, and the like. The ground is richly textured to resemble dry-wood, mulch, and aspects of the forest floor generally. Trees can be knocked over and logs can be smashed to pieces. The enclosed feeling of the jungle canopy is created with a wonderful use of shadows, which also hides some of the rare and slight pop-up that would otherwise occur in the background; and an effective use of lightsourcing is made by simulating the sunlight breaking through the canopy in a few places. Combined with a vast array of excellent ambient sounds such as birds being frightened away by the mechs, wind, rustling leaves, falling trees, and so on, the overall atmosphere that is created is nothing short of breathtaking. The later missions are set in desert areas and cityscapes, all of which are just as well done.

The quality doesn’t stop at the terrains - there are also the mechs to think about. The mechs look and animate like a dream. All of them have impressive designs and textures; and look awesome with all the variations of camouflage, guns, shields, rocket launchers, and other secondary weapons. During the in-game sequences, the mechs all trot about in formation, looking out for enemies as they go along and securing their position at each way point. When in battle, the mechs spring into action, jump-jetting to higher positions, falling back to launch a few rockets, charging in for a good dose of wetworks, and side-stepping from behind various obstacles for good measure. The greatest thrill comes when one of your mechs jump-jets sideways and successfully avoids a wayward rocket. There are other effects as well, such as the light on mech’s head leaving a motion trail during the dark and night missions.

The attention to detail flows on to the enemies that you seek to destroy. The enemy mechs all move in a similar fashion to your own mechs, and when vehicles are destroyed, the pilot or driver may jump out of the cockpit and attack you with a pop gun! In fact, there are many enemy soldiers littered throughout the game in platoons that accompany other larger vehicles. There are even airborne enemies abound, such as helicopters and fighter planes, which all fly about freely, taking pot shots at you in the process. One of the most overlooked details these days is the attention to relative size, which Front Mission Alternative delivers with great realism. All of the soldiers look as though they can fit inside the APC’s they are guarding, helicopters don’t look ridiculously small, and the mechs aren’t impracticably huge. The final beauty that is worth pointing out is that the bodies don’t disappear. When a mech or tank is destroyed, its rubble is left behind. When a soldier gets capped, he screams, the weapon is dropped, his feet kick up into the air and he drops dead. And he stays there too, along with his weapon. Nothing disappears.

Enemy AI is also fairly decent. Most of the enemy units in the initial stages are in a defensive posture, hence they don’t move much. The later stages have attacking units and escaping units that, if you don’t pay proper attention to the radar, can surprise you with a good ambush.

In-game controls are amazingly simple. You can press start and configure new way points on the map, and you can change the attack patterns and whether you have an offensive or defensive role. Pressing another button will give you a view from within the cockpit, but alas, you cannot control the mech yourself. The rest of the game is really left in the hands of your mechs, and once you’ve changed certain configurations or set a new attack pattern, all you need do is sit back and watch the fruits of your preparation.

Take note, however, that navigation through the terrain is not entirely a cakewalk. Setting the way points are of immense strategic importance, especially when you can successfully sneak up behind a tank before it has a chance to rotate its turret towards you. You can also make use of the terrain by using trees and mountains as cover. When travelling up terraced areas (and there’s lots of it), the way points have to be set so that the mechs can jump-jet to each one properly. If they come to a terrace that is too high, they will be left floundering, vulnerable to an ambush, and you might be completely oblivious that the support you were counting on for another skirmish isn’t going to be there on time.

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With all the in-game details mentioned above, the game makes for very entertaining viewing. It is all facilitated through the use of camera angles that, at your selection, can be a free-moving camera that is controlled by the CPU or a camera angle that statically remains behind the mechs. The camera zooms back and forth, panning out for the long missile trails and going close-up for the big kills. In other instances, the camera will zoom left at the launch of a rocket and follow it till it hits its target. Overall, it creates a very effective cinematic effect. One special effect of note is the use of artificial focus. Objects that are close up are in focus, while objects in the distance such as mountains or other mechs and tanks will be blurred slightly to give the effect of being out of focus. One advantage is that you will never lose things in the background. All the relevant things remain in perfect focus. The other advantage, or benefit, is that it adds to the atmosphere of the game.

There is actually very little to speak of when it comes to technical flaws. Front Mission Alternative looks pretty and moves gracefully. There is very little slowdown, even when there are over 12 moving objects on screen. And for a game of such immense size, it is surprising that the game has almost no polygon clipping whatsoever. The only real flaw is with the camera controls. In the static behind-the-mech view, there will always be times when you want to see what is next to you or behind you. In the CPU-controlled camera mode, the view often rotates to inconvenient positions, often resulting in trees or rock formations obstructing the view, or the view being too far away or too dark. Granted, the CPU-controlled camera can be overrided by the control pad, but camera angles are the last thing that people would want to worry about when trying to manage the positions of three platoons that have been unwittingly separated and then ambushed. This was the only serious technical flaw. The game would have been so much more enjoyable overall if it had a general overhead view much like Command and Conquer that still had all the action running in real time. The best alternative that Square could offer was a full 3D model with the mechs in their static positions and their way points on display. While this allows for better management of the combat at hand, it detracts a little from the whole idea of being in the action in real time all the time.

The game may yet seriously disappoint some gamers for a number of reasons. Firstly, the price of the cinematic approach is active player control. Players won’t be able to control precisely where the mechs move or what specific weapons to use. Added to that is the lack of a general overhead view. Control freaks who want to see what is happening at all times in real time may not like this. As a flow-on, experienced players may find the initial missions a tad boring, as many of them involve long waits for your platoon to slowly walk from one point to another. This isn’t helped very much by the music either, which is all boppy techno that is capable of becoming repetitive after a long while. Fortunately, you can turn it off, but the alternative of listening to constant metallic footsteps is not so appealing either. Perhaps walking about and setting of way points is meant to be part of the learning curve, but thankfully, the action really picks up a fair bit in the later missions when you have to constantly skip between the action of 3 platoons that are under attack.

Mind you, the problems addressed above are by no means serious flaws: these are merely factors to account for as a matter of taste. These are the vicissitudes of a real-time combat game that appeals to many, but not all.

In the grand scheme of things, this game is an excellent and highly polished alternative to mainstream strategy games. The graphics engine is nothing short of astounding, and despite its comparatively simpler control interface for a more general appeal, the amount of action involved and the management required keeps this game hard-core. Definitely worth checking out, as is always the case with Square.

-- Kevin Cheung

1997 Square
Last updated:
October 05, 1998

 

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