Despite the number of abysmal video game incarnations of the Gundam series, they just keep on coming. After all, with a successful line of merchandise including videos, toys and models, Gundam fans seem to gobble up just about anything, well, Gundam. Even if Gundam games tend to stink, that doesn't seem to sway developers from trying, again and again, to make some extra ends with new forms of giant robot fighting. They've got to hit one out of the park sooner or later, right?
Wrong. What can you expect from Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam besides an incredibly long, silly and Gundam-centric name? Unfortunately, just more of the same lame gameplay that has plagued most Gundam games with barely enough bones thrown in to keep fans enticed.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam (which, in the interest of saving my keyboard from any further punishment, shall henceforth be known as MSG) is a basic action game, giving you the power to control one of over fifty mobile suits from the Gundam universe against the forces of Zeon, Titans or AEUG. Unlike most Gundam games, it allows you to choose the side you wish to take through the Universal Century timeline. Depending upon which side you choose, you can change the course of Gundam history.
You'll spend most of your time in Universal Century mode. As soon as you've selected your side, you'll step into the cockpit of a Mobile Suit, choose from a variety of weapons and set out on a mission that usually involves a-sploding all enemy forces in a very small area. It's not brain surgery.
In fact, brains are nowhere to be found in MSG's straightforward gameplay. Despite being some of the most advanced mechanized units known to man, the Gundam tend to move very slowly, like rusty junk heaps that someone managed to power with a triple-A battery and a stick of chewing gum. Some suits can transform into a flight mode, but even this is a temporary respite from the normally slow hover. Moving around gets even worse when you take into account the lack of any camera control. All you can do is hit the targeting button to lock on to one of the enemies in the field and pray.
There are a few ways to deal with enemies once you finally get close enough to engage them. Most weapons, from beam rifle to clay bazooka, operate identically with slow, single-shot bursts. Ammo is extremely limited and best saved for a clean shot. Some suits, like the MSN-00100 and FXA-05D/RX-178, are lucky enough to have powerful rechargeable weapons, which can actually make a difference in the field.
But if you happen to be using a suit that isn't so well-equipped, the beam sword will be your true primary weapon. If you're close enough, you can start mashing the melee button to unleash a three-hit combo. Unfortunately, you also need to keep hitting the targeting button to find the enemy since the target lock doesn't work well in close quarters. The suits also come with a secondary attack, but these are often useless, along the lines of the limited ammo primary weapons.
After completing missions, you'll return to the timeline to select the next challenge. As the game progresses, more pilots and mobile suits become available, allowing you to experience the game from slightly different perspectives. In theory, players can change the course of Gundam history depending on the outcomes of their missions. For example, succeeding in a mission where a pilot was supposed to die - or vice versa - will result in tangent timelines. It's a cool feature for hardcore Gundam fans, but anyone lacking a degree in Gundamology will be instantly confused. MSG doesn't do much with the story to educate, instead just offering more of the same levels with different pilots and suits.
Gundam nerds will also dig the hundreds of unlockable goodies bought with points earned through playing. Most of these are illustrations and character/mobile suit bios, so if you're not a huge fan there it won't take long before you're disinterested. It would have been really nice to see an unlockable episode or something, but alas, no luck.
After you've had your fill of Universal Century mode, you can hop into Arcade or Survival to try your hand at more boring fighting. There's also a Versus mode for up to four players " not online, of course. If you happen to have a few friends around, you can play Deathmatch or Two on Two, although the bad slowdown might discourage you from playing at all.
Come to think of it, the bad slowdown is only the beginning of the game's graphical woes. Those of you who remember Journey to Jaburo (which came out about four years ago) will have a good idea of what MSG looks like. And with that many years under its belt, it definitely shows some sagging metal. The terrain and space arenas aren't very large, filled mostly with compelling stuff like wide, open spaces. You might find a building or two groundside, but don't expect any kind of detail. Even the stars of the show, the mechs, aren't that hot. The mobile suits show very little battle damage despite getting nailed repeatedly by all sorts of explosive bits.
The sound fares no better. The effects are limited to a few laser noises and some cheeseball voice-acting that makes you want to mute it all.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam (my keyboard could take it one more time, I guess) might sit well with hardcore fans, but there's very little here to interest non-fanatics. The clunky control and pathetically simple gameplay just doesn't cut it, and so little effort went into the decent "changing history" angle that it winds up falling flat. Perhaps one day we'll see a good Gundam game, but until then, all we've got is a scrap heap.