Front Mission 3
Strategy Preview
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square EA
Available: March 2000
Players: 1
Save Game: Yes
Written by David Smith
Giant Robot Tactics - interested?

Strategy games as we knew them once are dying, I think. For years, as far back as a time when computer games were written on paper tape (HUNT THE WUMPUS~!), wargames and their ilk have held to a formula inspired by tabletop games: turn-based action on a grid-like battlefield. The principle distinction encountered in strategy videogames seemed to be whether that grid consisted of squares or little hexagons.

That's what strategy games were, and if you wanted a strategy game, that was what you got. And to be sure, there were folks out there who liked them - Romance of the Three Kingdoms and so forth always had a place in the markets of the eight- and sixteen-bit eras, although they certainly weren't anything resembling blockbusters.

All of a sudden, though, just a few short years ago, strategy games encountered a legitimate boom. I suppose Dune 2 and Warcraft can lay claim to the lion's share of the credit. I maintain that they were both just knocking off Herzog Zwei, but Herzog, despite the fact that it seems to have been the first real-time strategy game, was never anything more than a cult hit. Westwood and Blizzard brought real-time strategy to the masses, and in doing so, I believe they sounded the death knell of turn-based, grid-locked strategy games. Flash forward to the present, and even Koei, a company that's built itself around traditional strategy since the earliest days of console videogames, is leaping into the future with Kessen's blend of strategy and cinema.

While turn-based strategy takes its bows and prepares to leave the stage, though, it's certainly providing some fine games for us to remember it by. Witness, for example, Square's Front Mission 3, a blend of turn-based action, real-time 3D, a cinematic plot, and (drum roll please...) giant robots. Yes, Square calls them "wanzers" or something like that, but right-thinking folk will obviously shun that sort of silliness - these are giant robots, and fine specimens indeed. Given that the universe is conspiring against me in order to stop Super Robot Wars from ever being translated into English (and yet we get Macross VF-X 2? There is no Bob...), I'd say that this is probably the next-best thing.

Front Mission has a relatively long history, dating back to the Super Famicom. Like its three predecessors, Front Mission 3 (yes, it's the fourth in the series) takes place in a realistic, near-future world filled with Clancy-esque political and military intrigue. Kazuki Takemura begins the story as a civilian mecha test pilot, working on a new model for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, but as fate would have it, he stumbles on a plot to move Japan a few steps beyond simple self-defense. Eventually, the cast becomes embroiled in a potential war with the US - or is that really what's going on?

Front Mission 3 offers two different stories, or rather two sides of the same one - depending on certain decisions you make as you play through the game, you'll move down two different paths. The plot (either branch of it) is advanced through cutscenes that bookend every mission, as well as the occasional bit of CG (which is naturally lovely - this is Square, after all). Throughout the story, as you travel about Japan and the rest of the world, the game generally uses the real names of places and organizations, which I appreciate. Very few gamers will know where Yokosuka is, but I do, and I can't help but enjoy something that lets me show off my knowledge of trivia. It also kicks up the game's realism a notch or two, making it feel less like science fiction and more like a contemporary military thriller.

Be advised, however, that Front Mission 3 is still a strategy game. The story is just there to break up the battle sequences - like Final Fantasy Tactics, the core of the game is combat. Indeed, FM3's combat system will probably remind latter-day Square fans of FF Tactics more than anything else. There are no titanic summon animations, the sprites aren't quite as cute, and it's strictly turn-based (with none of Tactics' adoption of the FF active time system), but the rotatable 3D battlefield and grid range system should be pretty familiar. There are other touches from elsewhere around the Square map, though. As in SaGa Frontier, your characters can develop special attacks, which you learn and execute by chance during the course of ordinary battles. The damage allocation system, meanwhile, is the same that's been a staple of mech games for years. Each combatant has different hit-point values for a variety of locations, which take damage randomly or selectively depending on what sort of weapon impacts them. To eliminate an enemy completely, you'll need to destroy their main body, but you can more easily cripple them by targeting their legs or arms. That may save you trouble in the long run, since enemies will often surrender if you destroy their ability to move or fight back.

Different weapons will target different body parts, or simply fire a random spray at all areas of the enemy. That's one of the many issues you'll have to deal with when it comes time to outfit your squad of mecha. Between certain battles, you'll head for the hangar and the ever-present giant-robot-weapons-items-and-armor emporium (man, why isn't there one of those here in LA?), where you can refit and re-equip your team as suits your level experience and style of combat. There's a vast variety of weapons, armor, parts, and other items, and the unusually appearance-conscious (e.g. me) can customize the names and colors of their robots.

Looks, after all, do matter, even in a strategy game. Luckily, there's no need to make excuses for FM3's graphical presentation - as strategy games go, it looks quite good.

Well, wait, was that an excuse? Oh, forget it.

Anyway, even if it's painted in very "military" tones (lots of grays and browns, a la Metal Gear Solid), Front Mission 3's real-time 3D graphics certainly get the job done, and when it takes the occasional step into the fresh air, some of the outdoor battlefields look quite pretty. The mechs, of course, are mechs, and stomp around in classic fashion. I would have hoped for a little more authority and weight to their presentation - as it is, the models' low polygon count makes them look a little weedy - but we can only expect so much from the PlayStation. Anyway, if all I want is mecha action, I'll play Armored Core 2 in a couple of months. Front Mission 3 does its robots well enough, and does a fine job with the world and people outside them. The character design occasionally reminds me of Chrono Cross, which isn't necessarily a good thing, but in general the portraits are quite nice. The gem among them is Emma, who has a Reiji Matsumoto sort of look that I'll always be a sucker for.

I, of course, am quite fond of this game, even in its unfinished format (the translation has some awfully sticky moments here and there). I like the story, I like the characters, I enjoy turn-based strategy when I'm in the mood for it, and in case you didn't already know, I dearly love giant robots. This certainly isn't a game for everyone, though - if the pace of classic strategy is too slow for you, which is a common sentiment these days, you'll be bored to tears. But if you've no objections to the genre, this is typically fine Square craftsmanship, and an excellent addition to their ever-growing American lineup.

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