Review by LegaiaRules
"An Alternative Mission at the Front"
Square Enix's Front Mission series is often well-known for its strategy RPG entries. However, the series is also known for its tendency to experiment and change up the gameplay - namely a change of genres. To date, four Front Mission entries have been set away from its turn-based strategy roots: Front Mission Alternative, Gun Hazard, Online, and the upcoming Evolved. Between these four entries, side-scrolling shooter (Gun Hazard), massively multiplayer online (Online), third-person shooter (Evolved and Online), and real-time strategy (Alternative) have all been covered in the series. With respect to Front Mission Alternative, it lives up to its "Alternative" moniker as being arguably the most experimental Front Mission entry.
Being released just a few months after Front Mission 2, Alternative seems a bit like its chronological predecessor in terms of visuals. This is indeed true as both entries were developed on the same graphics engine. The beautiful and smoothly animated 3D sequences in Front Mission 2 are retained in Front Mission Alternative. However, the game is fully drawn in 3D as opposed to a mixture of 2D and 3D graphics. For its time, the graphical prowess of Front Mission Alternative represented the very best in PlayStation 1 technology. It's not a stretch to say that it is on par, if not better, than Final Fantasy VII, which was hailed for its excellent visual presentation.
The backgrounds come alive with plenty of nice little details such as cars roaming by roads, people running around buildings, and even Chocobos from Final Fantasy darting across the jungles. They also interact with the wanderwagens or WAWs, Front Mission-speak for mecha, in a number of interesting ways. Trees come crashing down from WAWs stepping on them, building signs get destroyed by flying bullets, and sand flies around the desert as the robotic legs stomp on the ground. All of this happens at an incredibly rock-solid 60 frames per second and minimal loading times - a remarkable turnaround of the serious loading issues that Front Mission 2 was notoriously known for.
The beautiful 3D visuals aside, Front Mission Alternative sports decent character art drawn by Ryuichiro Kutsuzawa of Wachenroder fame. It's not quite as elegant and stylish as Jun Suemi's realistic artwork in Front Mission 2, but it is a good fit nevertheless. A point worth noting is that Kutsuzawa accurately portrays the nationalities of Front Mission Alternative's cast quite nicely. The visuals are capped off by a clean interface that makes it easy for any player to jump right in and customize their units. Overall, Front Mission Alternative strikes all of the right notes in the visuals department.
Part of the beauty behind the Front Mission series is in its usage of two distinct narratives, the standalone and world, to truly breathe realism into the game world. The standalone narrative covers a core group of characters and their experiences, ending when the game is completed. The world narrative covers the events surrounding that core group and is on-going, thereby giving the series the feel of a serial drama. Front Mission Alternative doesn't quite follow this trend as it is the earliest entry set in the canon timeline. However, several of the world-related events that happen in the game influences events that appear in the later entries chronologically.
The standalone narrative covers the experiences of a group of Oceania Cooperative Union (O.C.U.) soldiers led by an Earl McCoy as they are sent to Africa. In 2034, the regional states that make up the Organization of African Consolidation (O.A.C.) wage war on one another for leadership of the consolidated state. This is known as the African Conflict. Earl and a small group of O.C.U. soldiers are sent to the South African United States (S.A.U.S.) and along with S.A.U.S. military personnel, they form the Independent Mobile Assault Company (IMAC). Using the new WAWs tailored for military use, IMAC is sent across Africa to suppress insurgencies and terrorist groups in the regional African states.
At first, IMAC is sent to deal with local threats in S.A.U.S. and a separatist movement known as the Zaius Independent Government (ZAINGO). Their usage of WAWs gives them a great advantage over conventional military weapons in Africa's diverse terrains. As they successfully deal with ZAINGO, the European Community (E.C.). suddenly decides to send part of their military to help stop the African Conflict. While their aid is welcomed by the African states, IMAC sees a different picture behind the E.C. military's involvement in the war. Rather than help bring it to a close, the outfit notices that they appear to be prolonging the war. Over the next few months, their suspicions turn out to be true as a link between the E.C. and the insurgents, revolutionaries, and terrorist groups in Africa is confirmed.
Although the world narrative does not directly affect any of the events in the future entries, it does influence how things turn out in the next few decades. Several of the key themes in Alternative such as colonial manipulation and imports & exports of natural resources play a role in Front Missions 2 and 4. Apart from the narratives, character development in Front Mission Alternative is a mixed bag. The members of IMAC have a decent share of growth, but supporting characters and antagonists are mostly brushed aside. Another thing worth noting about the story is that there really isn't any downtime, so to speak, where the player can talk to their characters and other supporting cast. The game is very linear in that it is split into briefings and missions...with nothing else in-between the two.
Being one of the few genre spin-offs in the series, Front Mission Alternative is an RTS game. Instead of controlling the action through turns, the player controls their units in real-time. While most RTS offerings are known for the capacity to produce units for combat, Front Mission Alternative does not have this function. The player is still able to customize their units no doubt, but there is no structure or unit creation in the traditional RTS sense. Also, unlike in the other Front Mission entries, the traditional four-parts-per-unit system is not present. The wanderwagens or WAWs only have one armor parameter and if this is reduced to zero, the unit is removed from the battlefield completely. To compensate for the lack of the four-parts-per-unit system, shield functionality has changed to act as a secondary armor parameter rather than something to reduce damage.
The majority of key factors regarding mission play are in static values, meaning that Front Mission Alternative leans more towards being a pure RTS rather than an RTS with RPG elements. The RPG elements in the game refer to the ability for units to learn new combat abilities and increase their piloting proficiency when fighting enemies. It also refers to traditional elements such as buying gear at shops and customizing units. Of these features, the customization aspect is the main factor that attracts fans to the series, with the ability to create setups out of any combination of parts. While the amount of parts is significantly lower than the usual Front Mission entry, there is enough variety to encourage repeated playthroughs and increase the game's replay factor.
However, the options available to the player during mission play is rather limited. The player can only move their units through a set amount of waypoints, or towards enemy platoons for offensive purposes. In terms of AI behavior, the player can switch them from offensive and defensive states, and switch their targeting priority from either one enemy unit or all enemy units in range. Aside from these, the player can choose to retreat their platoons from battle and call in the supply platoon for ammo reloads and to trade their damaged shields for new ones. Finally, the player can enter first-person mode, where they can view the action from inside the WAW and can even manually target enemies. (though the action will still be AI-controlled) For an RTS, the lack of options do not offer much in the way of strategic and tactical depth.
Fortunately, where Front Mission Alternative lacks in playable options, it makes up for it through its deep weapons and range system. Introduced in this particular entry of Front Mission is a proper range system. Unlike in the original Front Mission and Front Mission 2, weapon accuracy is now affected by the distance between the attacker and the target. For example, a cannon round at close range can easily hit an enemy unit. However, if there was a much larger difference in terms of distance between the attacker and the enemy, it's possible the enemy can dodge the incoming round. The range mechanics affect each weapon differently and adds a new layer of strategy to the Front Mission foundation.Thanks to the new range mechanics, weapons are not just a simple case of statistics.
Weapons now have varying firing trajectories, hit properties, and even reload times. A machine gun may have great firepower, but it is fairly inaccurate and has long reload times. Likewise, a handgun's low power is compensated for due to its high accuracy, ability to pierce through armor and its fast reload times. Grenades fire in an arc-like trajectory, which makes it useful in situations that require targeting of enemies in an area with buildings and structures. Missiles curve and home in on their targets, making them worth equipping against helicopters. Cannons fire a fast moving projectile, but it's a straight shot that can be easily dodged. Rockets have plenty of ammo and curve slightly, making them worth using against big mobile weapons and armored vehicles. These are all great changes that balances all weapons out in a fair manner.
In addition to the range and weapon changes, the auxiliary backpacks have also been reworked. The item-carrying and turbo power-adding backpacks of the previous Front Missions are not present in Alternative. Rather, a whole new batch of backpacks have been introduced in their stead. Spare magazines, auto-gatling guns, fire control systems, smoke dispensers, and even night vision scopes can be equipped - all have very unique uses on the battlefield. The night vision scope backpacks in particular paints the visuals on first-person mode green - it's a nice addition that makes the game more realistic and believable.
In regards to missions, most of them are simple destroy-all-enemies materials. There are a few exceptions where you need to destroy a particular unit, or protect an ally platoon until they reach their destination. Even though all of them have unique terrain conditions and enemy placements that test your knowledge of the range mechanics, weapons, and backpacks, it's pretty disappointing from an RTS standpoint. Most missions just come down to using the right setups and take only a few minutes to complete. Given that the timer is set to 30 minutes for each mission, they should be longer, larger-scale, and offer a number of objectives in order to complete them. While there is a ranking system in place to reward efficient play, it doesn't really do much in the way of making the game more diverse.
Also, Front Mission Alternative suffers in terms of things to do outside of missions. As mentioned earlier, the game is split into the briefing intermissions and the missions themselves. There are no intermissions set in towns, villages, camps, cities, or other locations where the player can learn more about the world of Front Mission. There are no other secondary game modes such as Front Mission 2's Arena and Network, which is a shame given the unique settings of Alternative. With just the briefing intermissions and the missions, the game feels very bare-bones in this area. It's a real shame since a part of what makes Front Mission memorable is its ability to immerse players into the game world...unfortunately not as much for this entry. This pretty much summarizes Front Mission Alternative in a nutshell.
In regards to controls and interfaces, they are quite user-friendly. The control scheme uses all of the buttons on the PlayStation 1 controllers, but the layout never gets confusing. The clean interface makes it easy to set up pilots and units without much of a fuss. The inclusion of pre-built unit and platoon setups is a nice addition to help newcomers adjust to the demands of RTS gameplay. Lastly, newcomers can rely on the built-in help feature which explains much of the customization and game mechanics in a clear manner.
The aural aspects of Front Mission Alternative are the game's weakest. Although the series is well known for its ever-changing choice of music and compositions, Alternative really goes out of its way in this regard. Using the talents of famous Japanese disc jockey (DJ) Riow Arai, Alternative features a very unusual techno soundtrack. There are different arrangements of the tracks Arai composes, but this pertains mostly to tempo and pace changes. The soundtrack is weird, odd, and comes off as being out of place in the end. Fans of techno might find something to like, but for everyone else, either get the mute button ready or approach the music with an open mind. The sound effects, on the other hand, are more acceptable. A lot of nice booming, loud explosions accompanied by the thumping walks of the WAWs do their job in keeping the action on-screen exciting.
Front Mission Alternative is a relatively easy game in comparison to its predecessor Front Mission 2. Although lesser difficulty can be a good thing, it hurts in Alternative's case. Difficulty progression is relatively constant in that many can be cleared without much trouble. The truly challenging missions are far and few in Front Mission Alternative. One major factor for this is due to the briefings, which are greatly expanded upon from the original Front Mission and Front Mission 2. Briefings not only can be used to analyze the battlefield and enemy placements, but they also give away other important information about the mission. Players can now get a detailed assessment of the enemy composition, the topography of the battlefield, and the objectives of the mission itself. As the action is entirely AI-controlled, a player can make the needed preparations during customization, sortie for the mission, and sit back as the AI takes care of the rest.
Furthermore, failing a mission does not mean the end of the world. A player can do a mission up to four times before they get a game over, and can play through the game as long as they have not incurred a total of 20 game overs. Failing missions does have a negative effect of lowering the performance rankings and given that most parts are rewarded through doing well in missions, players should try their best not to lose. Apart from these, don't expect much of a challenge from Front Mission Alternative.
Fun Factor: 7/10
Front Mission Alternative is a fun game for newcomers to the RTS genre, but genre veterans might not have as much enjoyment of the game. While the game is arguably the shortest Front Mission entry and its 30+ missions can be done in a few minutes, it does offer replay value in the form of branching missions and multiple endings. Simply said, by performing well or poorly during certain missions, the player can gain access to a different set of missions which has its own ending. This branching begins as early as the first mission so if someone wishes to see the full extent of Front Mission Alternative, keep some memory card slots free for this purpose.
Apart from its faults, Front Mission Alternative is a solid spin-off game that is worthy of carrying the Front Mission name. The strong 3D visuals and animation are truly amazing for its time and rank up the very best on the PlayStation 1. The standalone and world narratives are nicely done, but the characters could use more time to develop and mature. While the RTS playability options are far and few, the new range system along with the reworked weapons and backpacks provide some much-needed balance on this front. The aural presentation is certainly odd and should be approached with an open mind. In conclusion, Front Mission Alternative is a game that series fans should check out and play.
While no official localizations exist for this Front Mission spin-off, be on the look out for the fan translation...it's coming!
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 08/16/10
Game Release: Front Mission Alternative (JP, 12/18/97)
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