The Zeon is looking for a few good bullet-sponges.
The Gundam series has exploded in America over the past few years. Although it's been around since the '70s, it took off in the US with the introduction of Gundam Wing. Though it's never really captured the mainstream, it certainly has a very dedicated hardcore following.
Gundam tells the ongoing story of two warring factions: The Federation, who occupy Earth, and the Zeon, who left Earth due to overpopulation and now want to come back. One of the most captivating aspects of Gundam is that no side is the clear-cut hero and no side is the villain. Often, you find yourself cheering for either of the two.
Still, you always wind up playing as the Federation. Now for the first time you get to take on the role of the Zeon in Mobile Suit Gundam: Zeonic Front, the second installment of Gundam on the PS2. The first, Journey to Jaburo, was an action title that failed to hold up. Zeonic Front, however, fuses action and with real-time strategy and in many ways succeeds where its predecessor had failed.
Zeonic Front has nothing to do with Gundam Wing, which may come as a disappointment to fans of that particular series. Wing is based on a sort of an alternate reality - the story line is a variation of the traditional Gundam and the Mechs are much more elaborate. Zeonic Front follows the normal timeline of Gundam, so you won't see any Deathscythes, Sandrocks, or Heavy Arms - just good old fashion Gundams and Zakus.
You play as the Zeon running various sorties on Earth. You begin each level by planning your route through the stage, or you can use the default one provided. This can literally take hours. When laying the path, you must determine which way to go, which command to execute once a point is reached, and which direction the team should be facing once they arrive there. The routes are important because you usually have more than one team, and as you switch to one the computer takes over and follows the other.
What troubles me is the fact that while laying a particular path, there is no way to tell where the enemy is going to be. So for all you know your route can bring you right in front of a tank division ready to put some lead in your diet. Some kind of enemy indicator would have helped, but instead you must go through the level, get shot at, die, then and go back and plan another route. The trial and error gets tiring and takes away a bit from what is a very original take on Gundam gaming.
After routes have been plotted out, the game shifts into a third-person action game. Thankfully, Zeonic Front's control is quite forgiving and follows the scheme of first-person shooters. The left analog stick controls movement, right looks around, and the shoulder buttons are used to fire. It's pretty intuitive.
During a mission, you are often in control of two and sometimes three different groups. The AI becomes very important; there's nothing worse than watching your computer controlled forces run around in circles, getting stuck behind things, just standing there, or following you around despite the orders you issued. But this isn't the case, as the game pulls through with solid AI.
You'll see your comrades engage the enemy with no hesitation, boost over obstacles and stay in a group in order to focus their attacks on a single target. The AI offers great support in both the teams you are commanding as well as the computer controlled ones.
Most of this game will have to be learned while playing because the instruction book is awful. It does a wonderful job of describing the Zaku's capabilities, but doesn't spend enough time on how to execute these moves. Though after each mission training levels are unlocked (which provide a great deal of help), the learning curve can be tough.
Zeonic Front is impressive graphically. The environments and the Mobile Suits themselves are very smooth - the shading and shadow effects are particularly well done. There's some noticeable pop-up, but the game generally looks good.
In addition to all of the classic Gundam sounds, the overall effects are done very well. There is great deal of ambient sound, which adds some life to this already intricate game. It pains me to hear good Anime butchered by horrible English voice-overs. Luckily, Zeonic Front allows you to play with Japanese voices and English subtitles. However, the English voice acting is exceptionally good in this case and is actually worth a listen.
Zeonic Front is very complex and very difficult both in gameplay and storyline. It's definitely a game you shouldn't play at four in the morning after a half case of Corona. But if you're up to a good challenge, you might want to give it a try. Even those who don't follow the Gundam universe should still find some pleasure here.