Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Zone of the Enders HD Collection (Review)

Not many mecha games make it outside Japan, but Hideo Kojima’s (of the Metal Gear series) Zone of the Enders and Zone of the Enders: the 2nd runner, which were released in 2001 and 2003 respectively for Playstation 2, are two of the few exceptions. After Konami’s recent releases of the Silent Hill and Metal Gear HD collections the time has come for the ZOE franchise to come to the PS3. This new collection is naturally smaller, considering that there were only two ZOE games released – not counting the Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, which was released for the Game Boy Advance and cannot be included for obvious reasons.

The games take place in the future, when humanity has managed to set up colonies on Mars and Jupiter. High ranking people on Earth have begun imposing harsh taxes on the colonists who are also called “Enders”. In consequence some of the colonists have started to protest and soon enough an outbreak sprung. One of the rebel groups involved in the outburst is BAHRAM. Among the weapons used in this conflict are mechas called orbital frames, which use the Metatron energy ore in order to function.

In the first ZOE game a young boy called Leo Stenbuck is caught in the middle of everything when BAHRAM attacks his Jupiter colony. After he manages to escape his captors, and while trying to flee, he finds and enters an orbital frame by the name of Jehuty. Soon enough he becomes acquainted with A.D.A., Jehuty’s installed AI and with her help he eventually manages to pilot the mecha and ward off BAHRAM’s forces. Unfortunately for Leo, the Jehuty ends up being what BAHRAM was initially after. Eventually our protagonist finds out that Jehuty has a specific mission to fulfill and, whether he likes it or not, he has to see it through.

The game’s story is not very complicated but still manages to be quite entertaining. Although there are several other characters introduced, mainly appearing to offer guidance to Leo in his quest, overall the majority of dialogues take place between Leo and A.D.A. The relationship between a human and an AI is explored as the two begin developing a relationship; where at first A.D.A. seems to be quite cold and operates strictly as a machine, eventually there is a noticeable change in her ‘behavior’ after she has had a few conversations with Leo.

The game plays mostly as a 3rd person action RPG with a combination of long range and melee attacks that can be performed by the Jehuty. There is a number of locations that the player can visit using the navigation map and as the game progresses new areas become available. When the Jehuty enters battle there is a pretty efficient targeting system which locks on an enemy, allowing the orbital frame to move around them and perform different attack combinations. In general, the battles of ZOE are fast-paced and fluid, and different enemies need different attack strategies in order to be defeated. The game’s boss fights mainly involve other mechas that Leo has to fight and they are not very difficult to get through once you get the hang of it. Additionally, there are a few upgrades that the Jehuty can receive during the game. ZOE is a relatively short but enjoyable game which sets up the ground for the story of ZOE: The 2nd runner.

The 2nd Runner begins where the first game ends. Trying not to spoil too much, the game still involves the Jehuty orbital frame along with A.D.A but this time stars a new pilot, Dingo Egret, a former BAHRAM member. Nevertheless, a few familiar faces from the first game make an appearance in the sequel. The 2nd Runner was – quite rightfully – considered to be a vast improvement compared to the first game, featuring a more complex storyline and greater character development.  We also get to find out more about things that have occurred during the events of the first ZOE game. Once again the themes of a relationship between a human and an AI are explored; fans of Kojima’s work are bound to identify his style here as well.

Much like its predecessor, The 2nd Runner features the same trademark high-speed gameplay, only this time it has been quite enhanced. The enemies, the battles and the bosses seem grander and more polished; this time the 3D cel-shaded graphics make the game feel much more like an anime. The main difference in gameplay that the two games have is that the sequel is much more linear than the first ZOE. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the enjoyment; on the contrary, it seems to suit the game quite well. The 2nd runner is also significantly longer and a bit more challenging; once again, the high speed battles are still probably the most enjoyable aspect of the game.

When it comes to the HD collection, a few but significant changes have been made to the games. The graphics have received a noticeable polish, making both titles look great in HD. Overall, both ZOE and The 2nd Runner look smooth and appear to have aged comparatively well. Especially considering that these games are 11 years old. Additionally, new anime-style movie sequences have been added which is definitely a plus. On the other hand, unfortunately not everything is well for the new ZOE HD collection, as both games seem to be experiencing some framerate dropping and slowdown issues, especially during ‘heavy’ battle sequences. Although this problem is not enough to spoil the overall enjoyable experience, it definitely is visible during certain times, which is regrettable, considering that neither of the original PS2 games had such an issue.

As the first ZOE game of 2001 came with a demo of the then much anticipated Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the HD collection features a preview demo of the upcoming Metal Gear Rising. It is logical for the two series to be connected in a way, mainly because of Hideo Kojima, but also due to the contribution of  Yoji Shinkawa who did the character and mechanical design for the Metal Gear Solid series and has designed the mechas for ZOE. Nevertheless, it is sad that here is where the ‘extras’ for the ZOE HD collection end. One would think that with both an OVA movie and a 26 episode ZOE anime series some more media relative to that universe, or at least a ‘making of’ documentary, could have been added to the collection, especially since it only consists of two games.

Besides the lack of extras and the framerate issues the ZOE HD collection is still a good bargain for both those who played and loved the games and want to revisit the universe and those who have missed them when they first came out. Zone of the Enders is a short but good game, and The 2nd Runner is an excellent game which took what was good about the first one and made it even better. The games’ exceptional and fluid gameplay still provides a quite enjoyable experience even after all these years. Fans of the action genre, and fans of mechas, should find the ZOE games worthwhile. In the end, this is a decent collection of two great games which could have been given a little bit more attention in order to do them some justice.

Overall: 81/100

Originally written for New Game Network

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