The tenth game in the series, Front Mission Evolved, spins off from the core of the franchise (tactical RPGs) to bring mech-based shooting to the third-person shooter genre. Much like Bandai's epic Gundam games, Front Mission sees combatants facing off in massive robotic suits that are capable of dealing out damage from a distance (thanks to their guns) or up close and personal with melee combat. FME also tasks the player with taking to more traditional third person combat outside of the mechs, with missions taking place at a more personal level without the giant robot suits to protect you.
The story in Front Mission is that, depsite considerable technological progress, humans of the near future are still a bunch of trigger-happy morons. Country borders and alliances may have changed but the fact we're willing to kill each other with the slightest provocation has not - the only real difference is that now, a single man in a robotic killing suit can slaughter thousands of people or lay waste to a massive section of a city. For those familiar with Front Mission, FME is set 50 years after the events of Front Mission 5. If you're new to the series, fret not - no understanding of the previous events is required to get full enjoyment out of what's on offer in Evolved.
Cue Dylan Ramsey. Dylan is an engineer for a research company working on Wanzer (mech) technology. In the middle of a test sequence for their latest prototype (a handy explanation for the customary game-start tutorial) enemy Wanzers attack New York and Dylan is swept up into the fray. Without ruining the story, it's safe to say it's very traditionally Japanese; motivations of the key characters and the running interplay between them is hard to relate back to western archetypes, but if you're at all familiar with Japanese Anime it won't seem so strange. If not, just release your grip on reality and let the game weave its bizarre dialogue into an even weirder over-arching narrative. The characters are diverse and well characterized - particularly the saucy minx that works with Dylan. She's got that geek-chic thing going on and let's just say the polygons are put to good use in her character model.
The bulk of the game is spent in control of your Wanzer, where you must set about achieving some objective or another which will almost always involve obliterating copious amounts of enemy units (typically on the way to a key location). This is managed from the third-person perspective, with players simultaneously avoiding enemy fire and bringing to bear their own weapons systems on those of their enemies.
Players have up to four weapons available to them at any given time, depending on how they spec their Wanzer (more on that in a moment), each of which has a particular strength and weakness that must be considered in their use. The player can also activate a backpack device, the abilities of which vary greatly and can again be configured by the player. The combination of these weapons and movement puts quite a bit of strategy in the player's hands as they elect whether to take down a foe from ranged or by literally punching it into oblivion up close and personal-like. Initially it seems a bit hodge-podge but once you get used to the interactions of the various abilities, you find yourself flowing effortlessly from style to style as the situation dictates and the combat flows smoothly around you.
The environments you play in are a bit clinical, for example the (very) generic city purporting to be New York. Even 160 years in the future it's likely there would be elements of New York that would be familiar - not in FME, though. Here it's just generic buildings strung together with giant pipes and canals that form a linear environment to traverse with your mech. On foot the levels, while more detailed, lack the flow that typifies the work of a good level designer. Often you'll find yourself wondering where to go while surround by obstacles that would be easily traversable in reality however they inexplicable hamper your progress here. It's not that big a deal but it's noticeable simply because it's a gameplay trait that most other modern games have moved on from; it's level design from the Dreamcast era.
For those that lament the strategic element of previous Front Mission games, some solace may be found in the customization component of the game. Between levels players are granted, through a cumbersome but workable interface, the ability to significantly alter the configuration and appearance of their Wanzer. The depth of options is truly impressive, hampered only by the fact that you need cash to do anything and you don't generally get much as you play - leaving even moderately interesting stuff tantalizingly out of your grasp. If you're not interested in getting down and dirty with the customization, you can just choose from prebuilt Wanzer configurations (like the "Sniper" or the "Heavy Assault") - assuming you can afford it.
Actually charging around and blasting stuff in your mech is a "pretty fun" experience. If you're not at all interested in mechs, however, it will likely come across as a decidedly average experience. Actually seeing what's shooting at you can be difficult and despite the system that allows you to take down specific sections of an enemy Wanzer to disable them there's no way to actually target those components so you'll spend 95% of the game just wailing at them as if there was no such system. The actual targeting system, too, is pretty weak - you get away with it due to the high power and blast radius of your weapons in the Wanzer but you'll get frustrated using anything other than a shotgun when running around on foot. Targeting is more "Killzone" than it is "Halo", which is a shame. The on-foot stuff is the weakest part of the game as it is the most easy to compare to other third person shooters, most of which are far superior. On the whole, it feels a lot like the classic "Shogo: Mobile Armor Division" PC game of yore, which is high praise indeed.
The bulk of the combat (you vs. unnamed mechs, tanks, gun emplacements or soldiers) demonstrates quite clearly that your Wanzer is superior. You can take on numerous enemy Wanzers at once, obliterating each quickly almost regardless of your weapon choice. When you come up on a boss however, combat can be very drawn out with the enemy health bar taking an inordinate amount of time to deplete. This is one part of the game where tactics are important as frequently the layout of the arena you're fighting in will give you a strong advantage if you leverage it correctly.
Multiplayer exists and fares well at a technical level, with players that have poor connectivity to you having no apparent lag whatsoever. From a "fun factor" point of view, however, the extremely basic modes on offer combined with the relatively poor maneuverability of your mechs (compared to an agile human, at least) makes combat against other players a fairly dull affair. It basically comes down to who sees who first and which mech configuration is better suited in the matchup. It's fun enough and would likely be even better when played with friends who were similarly enamored with the genre but it's hardly going to convert fans of other online shooters over to the mech camp.
Visually it looks a lot like a Dreamcast game. That's not to say Dreamcast games weren't any good - on the contrary. But they had a particular look, with oddly shiny surfaces and other signatures of the texture compression system which, for some reason, is very reminiscent of the engine being used by FME. It's not bad but it has a very "Japanese Arcade Game" look about it which is hard to put into words. It also looks dated and would probably still have done so at the start of this generation of consoles, let alone midway through it. What do look great, however, are the mechs. If you're a mech person, you'll know what this is like; FME has it in spades. The mechs look, move and sound GREAT! Cutscenes are also pretty decent, with surprisingly well animated characters that ooze personality (even if they are a slightly weird pastiche of western norms).
The sound does what it needs to and not a whole lot more. Combat is generally fairly intense, with mechs making Transformers-like sounds as they clump around. Character voices are typically over the top or exaggerated, as you'd expect for a translated Japanese Anime-like game. There's even some accents from downunder, which actually sound ok(ish). Aside from the awesome on-foot shotgun sound, however, there's rarely anything particularly gratifying about any of the soundscape.
Ultimately FME is an interesting beast. Building on the name of games that have gone before it, it essentially leaves all of their gameplay elements behind as it transitions into the action genre. In doing so, it risks alienating the franchise fan base while doing very little to attract a new one. What's here is workable but only if you like the idea of future combat in giant, mechanized suits of armor; if that isn't enough of an appeal the actual game can only really disappoint you. It's only the poor provision for mech-fans in recent years that hold this game's score up to a respectable level so if you don't count yourself in their number, you're probably best advised to avoid this one.