Review by LegaiaRules
"To the Fifth Front Mission We Go"
Front Mission is Square Enix's first strategy RPG series and has made its mark in the strategy RPG genre. The series is one of the longest running and regarded as one of the best by fans of the genre. Each game, while having its unique perks and the like, all retain the definitive Front Mission element: the mecha known as wanzers. Combat revolves around these 20 foot machines of steel and in a gritty, realistic world that closely parallels modern-day times. Although the series has received a reasonable amount of success and attention in Japan, it has failed to do so in North America and Europe.
As of now, only three installments have seen releases outside of Japan. Those installments are: Front Mission First (renamed Front Mission for the North American version), 3, and 4. The series was formally introduced in North America and Europe through Front Mission 3 in 2000. Several years later, Front Mission 4 saw its North American release in 2004. After another long hiatus, Front Mission First was finally released overseas in North America during the end of 2007. Despite these three releases, the Front Mission series has yet to gain any ground beyond Japan.
As far as commercial and critical reception goes, the three installments have had varying degrees of success. Front Mission 3 is considered to be the best and surely sold enough to warrant the localization of Front Mission 4. Front Mission 4, on the other hand, is seen as the worst critically and its commercial failures are well documented. This leaves Front Mission First, which is seen as a decent but outdated game and its sales seem to be neither disastrous nor successful. One can deduce that the series has been poorly handled overseas, such as informing newcomers about what Front Mission truly is.
Few overseas fans seem to realize the true essence of Front Mission and this can be attributed to being introduced to the wrong installment. At its core, Front Mission is a series that emphasizes the following: strategy over RPG aspects, gritty realism over surreal fantasy, and long, epic wars over quick, small skirmishes. Furthermore, the series owes its inspiration to Intelligent Designs' Fire Emblem series. As one can expect, the dedicated and loyal fans that started from the very beginning in 1995 have a different outlook on the series in its entirety.
To these loyal fans, Front Mission First is a fine game with great overall presentation, but is marred by unbalanced and simplistic game mechanics. Front Mission 2 is a significant improvement over First in many ways, particularly in strategic depth, but suffers from serious accessibility issues. Front Mission 3, while catering to new fans, is heavily disliked for downgrading the game mechanics and feeling too upbeat for a Front Mission game. Front Mission 4 fared better as it returned to roots, but was criticized for leaving out many Front Mission features and feeling rushed in general.
Potentially taking these insights and commentary into account, series visionary Toshiro Tsuchida announced that a new installment was in development. This one was said to be based off all of the praises and criticisms from the previous installments. Furthermore, the new installment would take a completely new approach in storytelling. This new installment was given the title Front Mission 5: Scars of the War. Using Front Mission 2 as a base foundation and incorporating the best aspects from First, 3, and 4, Scars of the War is the best Front Mission experience to date.
If there was one area that Front Mission 4 was lacking in presentation, it was definitely in the area of visuals. While its atmosphere remained true to the gritty realism, the overall aesthetical value pales in comparison to other offerings in the RPG genre. While certainly impressive for a strategy RPG, which normally are not graphic-heavy, many players felt it was not up to PS2 standards. Scars of the War, however, easily surpass the visuals in Front Mission 4; it also matches well with the visual heavyweights such as Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts or Monolith Soft's Xenosaga series.
First, the environments are more vibrant than ones in Front Mission 4. An abundance of special effects are used to make the environments truly feel alive. Watching the rain drop and creating small ripples or the heat distortions in deserts are two examples of this. Furthermore, wanzer actions visually affect on the environment. From kicking up the dirt in jungles or creating big ripples from traversing in the water, it truly does feel more realistic when battles take place. Sometimes, it is worth it to avoid skipping the battle sequences and enjoy the beauty of the scenery and its details.
Likewise, the wanzers receive significant upgrades in detail and polygon count. The visual improvements are good enough to match even the highly detailed units in From Software's Armored Core series. Wanzers convincingly appear as the machines of war that they are on battlefields. A plethora of visual techniques are used in making wanzer actions more visually pleasing. Lighting effects, blur techniques are some that make the actions and animations more fluid, which are already impressive without any special effects. For fan service, wanzers now act as they do in the cutscenes, such as dashing to move and attack and 360 degree melee strikes.
Moving on, camera angles are more dynamic and well executed. The dynamic, shaky camera angles reflect real war footage, whereas the angles from above are akin to a helicopter newsflash. Both camera angles can be manually controlled depending on which view looks better. When combined with the said upgrades, the battles successfully give off a strong war-like atmosphere. While these improvements are nice, it's not what makes the graphics so memorable. It's the introduction of living world, complete with actual 3D character models, which make Scars of the War stand out.
Front Mission 5: Scars of the War gets the distinct honor of being the first Front Mission game to truly immerse the player to a cast of characters in a 3D world. Gone are the days of 2D portraits and in comes 3D characters interacting with one another. For a Square Enix developed game, the character models are as good as ones from its other products such as Final Fantasy X. Aside from this, players explore bases and interact with people in pre-rendered backgrounds. No doubt does this help make the military theme more believable and better immerse the player into the game world.
To top things off, Front Mission 5 is blessed with fast load times and a very steady 60 frames per second. Rarely will the game experience any form of slowdown, thus battles and cutscenes remain very fluid and smooth. Without a doubt, Scars of the War is the best looking strategy RPG for the PS2 and one of the better looking RPGs in general. It even compares to some next-generation offerings in the strategy RPG genre. For those with a high definition TV, the game is truly a sight to see.
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, even after the game is completed. Front Mission 5: Scars of the War follows this storytelling style, but takes a different approach in presenting it.
The standalone narrative covers the military career of a soldier named Walter Feng over the course of several decades. During this time period, he participates in many conflicts worldwide. As a member of the United States of the New Continent (U.S.N.) military, Walter participates in the war against the Oceania Cooperative Union (O.C.U.). Upon the conclusion of this war, he enlists in the Strike Wyverns outfit with the U.S.N. navy. After several years, Walter is assigned to the U.S.N. central government's top anti-terrorism outfit, otherwise known as the Barghest.
Year after year, Walter becomes witness to hidden truths and insights regarding the conflicts he participates in. Many of these truths and insights come from his closest friends and colleagues in Randy O'Neill, Edward Collins, Lynn Wenright, and Hector Reynolds. Through his experiences, Walter undergoes many changes and begins to think about his purpose in the U.S.N. military. Likewise, he wonders why he enlisted in the first place. Through the passage of time, he is drawn to the on-going war on terrorism and, with his colleagues, searches for the truth behind this war.
As stated earlier, Scars of the War presents the plot using a different approach and this is most evident through the world narrative. There are two main differences in how it is presented in Scars of the War. First, the standalone and world narratives are essentially fused. That is, Walter's own experiences are directly affected by the events going on in the world. In previous installments, the core group's experiences are rarely affected by the events surrounding them. This might seem confusing, but do read and pay attention to the following example.
In Front Mission 4, the core group of characters from one scenario leaves on a trip to an enemy nation. The core group's objective is to acquire evidence of the enemy nation's wrongdoings, but this operation eventually fails. As they return to their homeland, one character informs them of a potential world war because of events that happened since their leave. The standalone narrative covers the journey to and from the enemy nation, while the world narrative covers the events leading to the world war situation. The point here is that the standalone and world narratives progress at different paces.
The second main difference lies in the fact that the world narrative covers the time periods of numerous installments. These installments include Front Mission 2089: Border of Madness, First, 2, 3, and 4. Interestingly, unresolved plot elements from the said installments are fleshed out in the world narrative. As Scars of the War progresses, the said loose ends from each installment are resolved with the passing of time. By the end, all of the major plot elements come to full circle. Therefore, loyal fans are rewarded for their dedication as the previous installments are finally given a proper closure.
Continuing on, Scars of the War deals with the two most prevalent themes in the entire series: nationalism and internationalism. Although each installment has dealt with contemporary issues such as war, politics, and society, none have addressed the said themes. However, their world narratives have hinted that the notions of nationalism and internationalism are somehow tied to the conflicts. In a sense, the previous games were merely the prelude to the main act. Thus, Scars of the War concludes the world narrative by looking at the original conflict between nationalism and internationalism.
In terms of character development, Scars of the War focuses only on a handful of characters as the plot is more world-driven than character-driven. However, this doesn't mean that the characters suffer from poor development. Walter is the most developed character in the entire series as his views evolve due to his experiences. The other main characters, while having less attention, are well developed through their interactions with Walter. Minor characters, due to one game mechanic, are relegated to a side role but they are developed as their life experiences are heard in conversations at bases.
Aside from the protagonists, the main antagonist is not introduced until much later in the game. One may think that the antagonist was merely fodder, but a closer investigation of the events leading to the first encounter reveal that their presence was there all along. Actually, this is an understatement as the main antagonist has been hinted in Front Mission 2089: Border of Madness, First, 2, 3, and 4. The main antagonist's role in the series is pivotal to the struggle between nationalism and internationalism; their actions are truly felt for those who have played the said installments.
Overall, Scars of the War has one of the greatest plots seen in the strategy RPG genre and is easily the best one for the series. From pacing to character development, it is evident that great care was done to ensure that quality was not sacrificed. The only fault is that only loyal fans who stuck with the series since its conception can truly appreciate the beauty of the plot. To this end, every fan should make an effort to play the previous installments before tackling Scars of the War. Subtract 1 point if one has not played all five installments and 2 points if one has not played any of them.
The Front Mission series is much like other strategy RPG offerings, but it has its own twists to an otherwise predictable formula. Each player-controlled unit pilots a wanzer which has 4 separate parts. The body keeps the wanzer operational, the arms are for equipping and using weapons, and the legs grant movement and evasive capabilities. Destruction of each part significantly cripples the wanzer and destroying the body removes it from the battlefield completely. While destroying the body is top priority, it is often beneficial to remove the arms and legs beforehand.
The majority of key factors regarding mission play are in static values, meaning that the Front Mission series leans more towards strategy than the RPG aspect. The RPG aspect refers to the ability for units to learn new combat abilities and gaining levels for fighting enemies. It also refers to traditional RPG elements such as buying gear at shops or talking to people during intermissions. Of these features, the customization aspect is the main factor that attracts fans to the series, with the ability to create wanzer setups out of any combination of parts.
Although it has game mechanics seen in Front Mission First, 3, and 4, Scars of the War takes the most inspiration from Front Mission 2. This is no surprise as loyal fans regard this installment as the best in the areas of strategic depth, game balance, and overall functionality. While Front Mission 4 did bring back a number of features from it, the game failed to truly surpass its predecessor. Scars of the War picks up where Front Mission 4 stopped and finishes the job, all while implementing features that were praised by many fans from the other installments.
Starting off with Front Mission 4, features such as weather and time conditions were removed. These were merely game elements that played no significant roles in mission play. Links, however, are retained and have been revamped to be more intuitive and user-friendly. By equipping a link skill corresponding to a certain weapon class, up to six units can participate in Link battles. Despite this move, Link battles do not simply operate like they do in Front Mission 4 though. Links are also affected by pilot types and a variation of the Honor system from Front Mission 2 (more on these later).
While Front Mission 3 is not well liked by loyal fans, some of its features are retained in Scars of the War. The biggest feature is the ability to optimize parts and make them stronger. This ability, now known as Remodeling, is greatly expanded upon. The player has the freedom to choose how they are optimized as opposed to following a linear path. To great effect, this balances out the gear that the player can equip and use. Mission branching also returns for a handful of missions, which are accessible through mission choices or actions done in certain missions.
As stated earlier, Scars of the War takes a lot from Front Mission 2. The most noticeable feature is the Job system based off of that installment. Each pilot specializes in one of the six Jobs: Assault, Gunner, Jammer, Launcher, Mechanic, and Striker. As in Front Mission 2, only specialists gain the most out of their area of expertise. However, pilots can freely train in other Jobs without being severely handicapped through weapons and such. This allows for some degree of flexibility in how players can improve their pilots, but class diversity is still encouraged for best performance.
Another element brought back from Front Mission 2 is the concept of pilot types. That is, each pilot has different AI behaviors in battle. These behaviors are further affected by friendly fire (more on this later) and the Honor system. The former determines how pilots act when attacking and the latter determines how well they work with their squad. Through the latter, the concept of morale returns with changes. That is, the pilots on a squad are affected by the squad leader's actions and their conditions. Needless to say, this gives the player more options on how to proceed with missions.
The last major element from Front Mission 2 is the Action Points (AP) system. Action Points revolves around the idea that actions expend a number of points to use, such as attacking. Although later seen in Front Mission 3 and 4, it would be wrong not to credit which installment had it first. Scars of the War uses the one in Front Mission 4, but it takes inspiration from mechanics seen in Front Mission 2. Tied to pilot types, pilots do not always expend their AP and may conserve them for other actions. Minor features such as flanking are also brought back for Scars of the War.
Last but not least is Front Mission First. As many of its features have been carried over to the other installments, the game's only noticeable addition is mission briefings. Like other returning features, this one has been greatly expanded in two ways. First, missions are explained through detailed summaries with pictures to identify key objectives or enemy threats. Second, the player can scan a 3D virtual overview of the battlefield. This feature was first seen in Front Mission 2, but it has been improved in the area of providing key details about the enemy composition and such.
Having discussed its predecessors, there are tweaks and additions that Scars of the War makes. First, the interfaces have been streamlined to be more functional and less cumbersome. This is evident with customization as the menus involved it in have been merged into one, cohesive interface. Next is Scouting, which is the ability to recruit pilots at the bases. The list of recruits increases as the player progresses further into the game. This is a good safety net in that the player can freely recruit pilots to prepare if they need certain specialists for upcoming missions.
The other major addition is the concept of friendly fire. While this was present in previous installments through artillery weapons, Scars of the War is the first to truly implement this concept. Essentially, anything in a weapon's line of fire is subject to being hit, ally or enemy. All ranged weapons except for melees are capable of causing friendly fire. In addition, all ranged weapons do not necessarily travel in a straight line; shotgun rounds tend to spread out. Thus, unit positioning takes a more significant role in battles to avoid harming allies unintentionally.
Other notable elements include the Battle Simulator, Survival Simulator, and the Arena. The Battle Simulator, from Front Mission 2 and up, is a feature where players fight in simulations to train their pilots. The Survival Simulator is a new feature where one pilot goes through a set of floors and collects items. The Arena, seen in Front Mission First and 2, returns with changes. A means of getting extra funds, Arena matches are now controlled by the AI for player and enemy combatants. For fan service, characters from every Front Mission, including Scars of the War, can be fought in the Arena.
Outside of mission play, the intermissions are done differently in Scars of the War. The player can freely roam around areas of a base to do various things. These include customizing wanzer setups and talking to military personnel. Speaking of military personnel, plot materials from other installments are referenced in conversations. These include all of the ones mentioned earlier, but Front Mission: Alternative is part of this as well. In essence, this is the Network feature seen in Front Mission 2 and 3, except brilliantly disguised through talks with military personnel.
Taking playability and learning curve into account, Scars of the War is very user-friendly. The control scheme is intuitive and the streamlined interfaces make it easier for anyone to dive into the game. A tutorial system is readily available at all bases for those who need to understand some things. While the game is tailored towards dedicated fans, newcomers can ease into it if they understand the fundamentals. Overall, Front Mission 5: Scars of the War is a tremendous improvement over its predecessors and is the true successor to Front Mission 2 in terms of game functionality.
A strong visual presentation augments a strong musical composition as far as overall impact is concerned. Scars of the War does not disappoint in creating powerful, moving pieces of music. Hidenori Iwasaki, the main composer of Front Mission 4 and Online, returns for Scars of the War. From hearing the compositions, it is evident that Iwasaki has refined his techniques further. The pieces are well placed and portray the military theme that Front Mission promotes. Deliverance is a wonderful piece which shows Iwasaki's progression as a composer.
The musical compositions aside, the voice acting is well done and very convincing. It is evident that the Japanese talent took great care in giving the characters life without sounding fake. Sound effects are more diverse, particularly in the areas of weapons and part damage. Weapons actually change in sound as they become stronger through Remodeling. Each part gives off different sounds as they are hit; this makes the damage a wanzer takes more convincing. Thus, the audio for Front Mission 5: Scars of the War delivers an aurally pleasing experience that is worth listening to.
Despite being a more user-friendly game, Scars of the War is not exactly a walk in the park. The missions, while they are mostly standard destroy-all-enemies affairs, have special factors to look out for. These factors are: battlefield conditions, environmental dangers, mission updates, etc. Likewise, the AI is more intelligent than in previous installments. It has a good understanding of numerous battle tactics, such as friendly fire, range, unit priority, and Links. Furthermore, the AI capitalizes on player mistakes made in battle. Needless to say, it pays to understand how everything works.
Like in Front Mission 2, Scars of the War rewards players who execute swift, decisive assaults to complete missions. That is, players are given bonuses if missions are cleared quickly with minimal losses incurred. Though not mandatory, meeting these conditions is encouraged. The funds needed for Remodeling are hard to come by, but much of it can be earned through excellent mission performance. The conditions change per mission or if the player is on Hard Mode, a new addition to the series. Hard Mode is yet another nod to Front Mission 2, which was notorious for its brutal but rewarding battles.
Fun Factor: 9/10
A strategy RPG is often fun to play if it has well executed game mechanics and looks visually pleasing. Front Mission 5: Scars of the War has this area covered with ease. The streamlined interfaces make it less of a chore to do things, such as customization. Dramatically improved visuals and more cinematic camera angles keep battles lively and exciting. Series fans can enjoy the return of revamped game elements from the other installments. For replay purposes, Scars of the War has New Game + and Hard Mode for those who want to make a dream team or difficulty as steep as Front Mission 2's, respectively.
In conclusion, Front Mission 5: Scars of the War is a true masterpiece and one of the greatest strategy RPG games to date. Visuals have received a massive upgrade through its new cinematic direction and the implementation of 3D characters. The plot is beautifully done and rewards loyal fans of the series as it gives proper closure to the other installments. Game functionality is at its finest with the return of numerous, enhanced features while using Front Mission 2 as a base foundation. Aurally, Hidenori Iwasaki has created a memorable soundtrack with strong voice acting and solid sound effects. The learning curve and difficulty progression are just right, even though the game caters to series fans. By all means, series fans and even genre fans should make every effort to try and experience a masterfully crafted product such as this.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 08/15/06, Updated 08/11/08
Game Release: Front Mission 5: Scars of the War (JP, 12/29/05)
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