Run, Jehuty! Run!
Who likes mechs? Raise your hands so I can see them! Higher, please. Okay, now look in the mirror. Ha! Look at yourself!
I kid because I'm a mech fanatic myself, as is the entire GR crew. Between "Boron Cannon" Brian Gee, "Double Barrel" Ben Silverman and me, "Shelmite Laser" Shawn Sanders, the mighty GR Endothermic Atmosphere Compound (or G.E.A.C., pronounced 'geek') is well protected.
So when our newest training simulator, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, was re-atomized aboard the GR orbital frigate, it was up to Shelmite here to put her through the paces. Well, those enhanced digital training programmers really know how to improve on a good thing in just about every possible way. She ain't perfect, but then neither are our replicated Doritos. And like the cheesy treats, she's hard to put down.
The 2nd Runner is the highly-anticipated sequel to Konami's two-year old mech shoot-em-up, which left many of us feeling a bit slighted and ravenous for more depth and technique. Konami has delivered this time around, beginning with a much more likeable character thrown into a vaguely more interesting story.
Enter Dingo Egret. While he doesn't run around on all fours shouting "G'day Mate!", he does have some kick-ass piloting skills and a tough-as-nails disposition, making him a much more tolerable protagonist than the whining savant from the first Zone of the Enders.
An evil, militaristic empire known as BAHRAM threatens all that is good, and it is up to you to put an end to their violent tyranny with the help of Jehuty. This is the exact same obscenely powerful Orbital Frame you manned in ZOE. As the plot thickens, it twists and turns and actually develops quite nicely despite the ubiquitous and often nonsensical dialogue famous in Japanese anime-style games. Many old faces, mechs and Orbital Frames from the previous game make their presence known in The 2nd Runner.
Missions and objectives are thrown your way via ADA, Jehuty's onboard computer. Following her markers to various checkpoints will lead you to wave after wave of enemy forces. You will need to protect, guard and escort accordingly. Gameplay depth is still a foreign concept, since we're dealing with a fairly straightforward shooter with no customization and little ship development. You fly, target and shoot - that's pretty much it.
However, new to the series is the ability to grab enemies, hurl projectiles in the form of structural support beams and panels, and even wield some nifty melee weapons and shields. The result is pretty cool to watch and gives the player many more attack options, which spices things up. Virtual pilots will also acquire exceeding more powerful weapons as the game progresses. These can be selected as you see fit, but I you'll likely stick with just a couple. There are more than 10 in all, and each has a pretty sweet particle effect of some sort to liven up the action.
Once again, the enemy AI is not quite cussed out like it could have been, opting for swarming over sophistication. Scads of small annoyances that can fill your screen if you allow them to surround your metal backside. This time, though, you can contend with such overwhelming forces easier thanks to your homing lasers. In true mech anime fashion, you can target literally dozens of enemies at one time and cut loose with a monstrous barrage of artillery to deal seething hot death to all who oppose you, Panzer Dragoon style. It really adds to the cinematic feel.
The cost is a significant framerate dip when things get messy, but aside from that, this is a very, very pretty game, one of the best for the PS2. Going for a more cel-shaded look this time around has earned them a much more smoothly polished showpiece. Textures are incredibly detailed and the light show can be magnificent. The level of interaction has been upped, adding to the intensity and scope befitting a true anime adventure. Buildings can topple under the stress of firepower or by tossing some poor sap into them, which looks damn good.
All this frantic action is still amazingly simple to control. The left analog stick controls your directional movement, while the right controls your cursor. Triangle and X control ascent and descent. Press R2 for your boost or dash and R1 to throw up your energy shield to block small arms fire. It all works together nicely for a surprisingly intuitive and remarkably tight experience.
The camera rotates around and does a fairly good job of giving you the best vantage point. Still, you'll find some trouble with indoor environments. Structures, ceiling and walls drive the camera nuts, and it will quickly become an asset to BAHRAM and a point of frustration for the Runner.
These are small credits to pays for such an exhilarating game, though. It doesn't hurt that Konami has thrown in great deal of unlockable single-player missions and a full head-to-head 2-player mode as well. Here you and buddy can choose from the games various mechs and Orbital Frames, one of which actually transforms from mech to fighter craft and back.
Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner improves upon the original through and through. We're happy they got it right.. Now if they could throw in some customization and maybe some RPG elements, this runner would knock the competition right out of the zone.