Robots of Future Past.
Okay, before you start lighting your torches and sharpening your pitchforks, let me say that I am a fan. I read every preview and poured over every screenshot leading up to the original's PS2 release. I blew through it in two long sessions in the attic of the house I grew up in, because the TV up there was the biggest we had. When Konami showed the HD Collection off at a recent press event, I lit up like Times Square. But go into this with a clear head: What you're really buying is an upscaled port of Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner.
The HD remake market is a potentially treacherous place for the video game critic of the 21st century. A cracked, scarred battlefield fraught with landmines like nostalgic fans and modern-day expectations—it can be hard to know how to approach it. I, much to the chagrin of those who edit my reviews [Not me, good sir. ~Ed. Nick], tend to give something of a brief history lesson when I assess a game, because I think context matters. But even when you place it against its native backdrop, the truth of the Zone of the Enders HD Collection is that you're paying $40 for something that's a collection in name only.
“Collection” implies the rounding up of several games and a stack of old art, music, and information—at least that's what it has come to mean in the gaming world. Sure, ZoE HD gives you sharpened up versions of the two console releases the series enjoyed, but that's literally all it gives you. No expanded content, no bells or whistles, and certainly no options outside of the ones originally offered when the games first hit shelves in '01 and '03 respectively.
The breathtaking new intro movie accompanied by the hauntingly beautiful “Beyond the Bounds” embodies all the potential, imagination, and allure the franchise can bring to bear, but once it ends, you are left to crash back down to a disappointing reality: Zone of the Enders just wasn't a very good game, and its sequel, The 2nd Runner, while a marked improvement, is still well shy of greatness.
There's simply no reason to play the original Zone of the Enders again. I loved it dearly in its day, even when critics tossed it aside for its barren level design and half-baked adventure elements, but I can't tell anyone to sit down and devote precious gaming time to it when there are so many more worthwhile experiences to have. Bringing it up to HD resolutions has only hurt it, exposing the simplicity of its enemy designs, and highlighting the emptiness of the world it takes place in. Melee combat is as fast and fluid as you remember, but sadly, you still can't commit seppuku with your laser sword to save yourself from experiencing the whince-worthy cutscenes and VO work. Even the game's fans would tell you it had problems, and time has done nothing to remedy any of them.
No, the main draw here is definitely ZoE's superior sequel, The 2nd Runner, which casts off the dead weight of its predecessor and becomes the lean, mean robot action game it always should have been. Combat is made more satisfying by a wider array of attacks, a larger variety of enemy types, and bigger, more frequent battles with less dead space between them.
Still, there's no escaping the other-ness of its controls. Granted, there might not be a better way to capture a robot that moves like an EVA on crack while it slashes and dashes about at dizzying velocities, but it definitely takes getting used to, and it never quite feels “right”. It does, however, remain responsive enough to manage all the action, which can get downright chaotic, and the overall effect is a satisfying sense that you're actually piloting something rather than simply pushing an avatar about. This subtle distinction is the best thing about ZoE, and the 2nd Runner showcases it dutifully.
Despite the collection's redeeming second entry, the dearth of features and overall polish is hard to look past. You truly get both games “as is” in every sense of the term—no autosave, no camera or control options, not even a soundtest to survey the series' spectacular soundtrack with. Even the framerates haven't been stabilized. ZoE still runs as smooth as ever, but The 2nd Runner pushed the PS2 a lot harder and no optimizing has been done at all. It remains playable throughout, but this is still inexcusable. It's literally the same game upscaled to HD resolution standards. Especially given that no other graphical improvements have been made, there's simply no good reason both titles can't run at a constant 60 fps.
The best reboots and touch-ups make former greats relevant in new ways for a different era of fans. Zone of the Enders HD Collection on the other hand is really just for one person—the hardcore ZoE fan who never got their hands on The 2nd Runner, or did but always wanted the mission mode from the Europe-only Special Edition release. For everyone else: Move along, these aren't the mechs you're looking for.