Friday, February 8, 2008

Mecha as Icons and Representations of Characters

A big part of the Front Mission series is that the player can customize his teams mecha (known as wanzers in the game world). Each wanzer is constructed by purchasing a body, arms, legs, and backpack as well as both hand-held and shoulder weapons. A wanzer can be created using parts from different models, allowing the player to create custom machines. This is a major game element of the Armored Core series as well. However, while constructing mechs can be a lot of fun, there is a problem that arises from it. Because of certain game mechanics, including this customizability, mechs in Front Mission are less distinct, and in a way less identifiable and memorable, than mecha from other series.

This can be a problem because the mechs are often the most predominant and evocative face of a character in a mecha game or series. In Front Mission 1 and Front Mission 4, the player only sees facial portraits of the main characters outside of their mechs. I don't think the player ever even sees the face of of the main characters of Armored Core games. However, even in mecha anime series where the main characters get more screen time than their mechs, the machines they pilot are a big part of their image. Furthermore, mechs often serve as the faces of countries and organizations. In the original Gundam series for example, all of the Mobile Suits piloted by Zeon pilots had distinctive mono-eyes that moved around on tracks. They all had a unified look. It is easy to tell apart different sides on a battlefield just by looking at their mechs.

However, the Front Mission series lacks this. When I was playing Front Mission 4, I had real trouble identifying what mechs were appearing in the cinematic scenes. Since part of the plot involved one country using certain models of wanzer to pin the blame of an attack onto another country, this was actually a pertinent story detail. Even though the Front Mission world is divided into 3 major factions, none of these factions have clearly differentiated mechs. For example, in one early cutscene in Front Mission 4, I noticed that my allies' mechs had integrated gun-arms and no discernible head. However, I later fought a completely different, completely unrelated faction later in the game that used mechs that looked nearly identical.

A big part of the problem in the Front Mission series is that the player and the enemies are constantly upgrading to completely new mechs. Since the player has to change mechs every three battles or less to completely new models, you don't have much time to get used to a certain appearance for your characters. As it is, I can barely remember what my character's mechs even looked like past their paint schemes and general size. And since the enemy mechs looked different every time, I never was able to develop a good idea for what they used. All of the mechs in both Front Mission 1 and 4 kind of blur together. There is one major exception to this in Front Mission 1: Driscoll, who pilots a distinctive black wanzer called the Type-11DS which is larger than a normal wanzer.

However, there is one element of the mechs in Front Mission that I can clearly remember: their weapon load-outs. Since what weapons a mech is equipped with is highly dependent on the character's stats, every character tend to use the exact same kinds of weapon on a constant basis. So Elsa used both a machine gun in one hand and shotgun in the other, while Darril used a shotgun paired with a melee weapon. This kind of consistancy helped a bit, and helped identify various characters.

Another set of mecha games that I have to draw some comparisons to are the Xenosaga games. In Xenosaga Episode 1, the characters have their own mechs called AWGS that could be customized to use different hand and shoulder weapons, much like a wanzer. However, since the mechs themselves did not change in appearance but are instead simply upgraded, they are much more memorable. However, since the stats of the mechs were not dependant on the stats of the pilot, the mechs could be swapped around between different pilots, and only one character ever piloted a mech in a cut-scene, they tended to feel tacked on instead of serving as a second face for the characters. So while it is improved over the Front Mission series, it still can do better.

From what I have read on GameFAQs, it seems that Front Mission 5 did make some improvements on the system. In Front Mission 5, there are much fewer mechs, but they can all be upgraded and refurbished to have better stats. So, a character can go through much more of the game using the same mech if the player so chooses. This approach does maintain the customizability factor from older Front Mission games, but does allow each character to be better associated with certain mechs.

The next thing the Front Mission series needs to do is make it much clearer what factions use what machines and make every faction stick to those machines in cut scenes. That consistancy would help give the UCS, OCU, and EC more distinctive faces, so it is obvious what faction is appearing in every cut-scene. Giving major plot characters consistent and distinctive mechs (like Driscoll's Type-11DS) would also help.


rpger77 said...

Actually, you couldn't be anymore wrong about Front Mission's lack of unity or memorable elements. As an IP that's well grounded in realism, the wanzer industry resembles the real-life automobile industry. Companies aren't loyal to a particular world power and this is shown throughout the series. The U.S.N. company Diable Avionics(based in U.S.N. America) supplies most of that world power's wanzers, but they also deal with the E.C. on the side. Jade Metal-Lyman(based in O.C.U. Australia) is a major contributor to the O.C.U. military, but their products are also bought by the Republic of Zaftra and any interested parties.

On the matter of wanzer unity, all companies have a distinct theme that separates them from the rest. Jade Metal-Lyman often names their wanzers starting with the letter "z". Diable Avionics often names their wanzers based on weather terminology. Design-wise, the company opts for simplicity and reliability(see General Motors in real-life). Their flagship Frost line shows this through its blocky, rough design. The models produced by E.C. company Intergehen give off an alien influence through their organic frames. Their naming scheme is based off of German terminology since the company comes from E.C. Germany.

On the topic of wanzers that standout, Jade Metal-Lyman's Zenith and Diable Avionic's Frost series are the posterboys of Front Mission. Both have appeared in every game and are very popular among the fans, moreso with the Zenith. Other iconic wanzers include Sakata Industries' Type 11 Raven(originally an enemy, but playable in Front Missions 2 and 5), Leonora Enterprises' Giza series, Schnecke's Igel series, and Sender's Uisk series. For company origins, they are as follows:

Sakata Industries - O.C.U. Japan
Leonora Enterprises - O.C.U. Australia
Schnecke - E.C. Germany
Sender - E.C. England

There's a lot more I could go on here, but the point is that Front Mission is unique. It's certainly not unrealistic like Gundam or too sci-fi like Xenosaga. For what it is, it's an excellent portrayal of real-life in many ways.

rpger77 said...

On the comments about Front Mission 5, that's also wrong. The game has the most wanzers out of any installment, just barely missing the 100 mark. The installment with the least is Front Mission 3 with a mere 32 wanzer models. It's the same with other parts(weapons, backpacks, etc.) as well, Front Mission 5 having the most at over 250 whereas Front Mission 3 only has a little over 100. The closest thing to Front Mission 5's parts total(over 350) would be Front Mission 2, which has a combined total over 300.

The new Remodelling process allows for so many parts in Front Mission 5. Simply said, the player can optimize parts in any concentrations as long as they have the required funds(CP and RP). Remodelling is not necessarily upgrading or refurbishing as you posted earlier. Anyways, optimizing parts in certain concentrations will result in a completely new part from the same set. A Frost optimizing HP and Defense yields Frost HW, but optimizing Defense only yields a Blizzaia. From a Blizzaia, optimizing Weight results in a Blizzaia L.

Another thing that goes well with the Remodelling process is the visual changes with parts. The past installments repeated the same polygon models for derivative parts. Parts in Front Mission 5 visually change when Remodelling is used. This gives each derivative a distinct look that separates it from the other models in its set. All-in-all, the Remodelling process is an excellent addition to Front Mission 5.