I never owned a PS2, but I spent many hours of my middle and early high school years playing Sony’s cash cow at friends’ houses. One of the games I remember most fondly is Mobile Suit Gundam: Zeonic Front, released in early 2002 in the United States. Recently, I had a chance to replay some of the game (again, on a PS2 belonging to a friend) and this experience reminded me just how superb a mecha game it is. I realized, however, that Zeonic Front is insanely different from most mecha games out there. Today I’m here to tell you what aspects of Zeonic Front should be incorporated into future mecha games.
When most people think of mecha games, they think of piloting a single, awesome robot that blasts apart decidedly less-awesome robots in wild fire fights. These battles often involve lots of flying around and countless laser beams covering the screen, culminating in climactic final battles where the player fights through legions of hundreds of enemy mecha before confronting the Big Bad, himself piloting either a superior suit or some sort of gigantic space frigate.
Zeonic Front is nothing like I just described, save for the fact it involves mecha combat. Instead, the game tries to answer the question every ten-year-old mecha fan has asked at some point: what would war actually be like if it involved Mobile Suits? As you can imagine, battle is not nearly as intuitive or streamlined as most mecha animes and games make it appear. Control of your suits takes a little getting used to, as the movement relies on dual analog sticks and turning your suit is slower than one might expect. Furthermore, while some suits have jetpacks that allow for brief jumps, flying is out of the question and at best you can hover for a few key seconds to dodge an attack or scale terrain. While this does take getting used to, this movement aspect forces the player to think ahead about how to position their troops, rather than simply diving headlong into the fray against whatver Federal Forces lie ahead. There is also a radar system in place which is useful for determining where to move; the player can switch between radar, thermal, and sonar depending on the situation, with each offering its own advantages and disadvantages. Though movement in the game takes some getting used to, there’s no doubt that it adds an interesting tactical layer.
Another great aspect of Zeonic Front is the fact that, rather than controlling a single pilot in a single suit, you control a team of Mobile Suits. In each mission you can have up to three teams, each consisting of up to three Mobile Suits. It is often necessary to switch from team to team, where you control the leader who can give orders to his or her subordinates. Furthermore, before each mission you have the opportunity to change what Mobile Suits each team pilots, switch around the leading pilot, and even attach upgrades like smoke grenades or basic cloaking devices to your suits. This adds a new level of tactics to each battle: it’s not always in your interest to use the largest squads with the biggest guns, as sometimes you need to accomplish a stealth mission. Ultimately, the force organization aspect is one of the coolest parts of the game and is something other mecha titles could utilize to great effect.
Now to the part everyone’s been waiting for: weapons. As you can probably expect from my discussion thus far, fighting in Zeonic Front aims for realism as best it can. Your guns have limited ammo, so spraying bullets wildly isn’t smart. Enemy suits and vehicles also possess specific weak points, usually the rear, meaning it’s key to sneak around and get shots from behind. Furthermore, your weapons’ damage is correlated to range: if you’re too far from the target, your attacks are practically harmless, but the closer you get the more effective they are. However, moving in too close puts you in the enemy firing line as well, meaning it’s often prudent to retain just the right distance from a foe. Interestingly, there are missions in the game involving enemy Gundams; as any fan of the UC timeline knows, Gundams obliterate Zakus and this game is no exception. When fighting against Gundams, its often required to run rather than engage them head on, a defnite departure from mecha games which usually focus solely on combat. Incorporating these aspects into a mecha game will surely make the experience more interesting and require more thought than simply “charge ahead and shoot ‘em all!”
Zeonic Front is far from a perfect game, but it contains several aspects that try to emulate real-world warfare. The tactical nature of the game sets it apart from any other mecha title I’ve ever played or heard about. Though by now the game is over a decade old, it still holds up fairly well. If you can, dust off your PS2 and see if you can get yourself a copy! If not, let’s hope another game comes along with similar mechanics.