Managing to make droids dull


“Front Mission 4” for PlayStation 2 is a turn-based combat-strategy game in which players pilot robots. All of these elements, except maybe the giant robots, are central to understanding the latest offering from Square Enix.

“Front Mission 4” follows two seemingly unconnected story lines. In the first, several German military bases are destroyed during surprise attacks. An investigation is launched by Durandal, a European Economic Community company similar to Airbus that makes giant combat robots instead of commuter jets.

The other story line begins like the movies “Four Kings” and “Kelly’s Heroes,” with a band of rules-breaking soldiers discovering a load of gold in Columbia. Instead of driving tanks, however, these soldiers drive . . . yup, giant combat robots.

These aren’t just any giant robots, mind you, they’re Wanzers ( pronounced Vanzers) — robots that look and move like humans and can be outfitted for close combat, medium-range combat or long-range combat. OK, I take that back, except for the fact that they are called Wanzers these robots are exactly like any other giant robot.

Complaint number one is that when everybody is riding in giant robots, the fact that they are in giant robots becomes more or less insignificant. Giant robots are only cool if everything around you is small.

The battle mechanics are tried and true and older than computer games — maybe older than computers. The action in “Front Mission 4” is broken into turns. During your turn, you move your men within a pre-described special circumference and attack one enemy that is within your range. When completely healthy, your robot may be able to move anywhere within a 1,000-yard circle.

If your robot has a machinegun or long-range missiles, you may want to move away from the enemy to keep space between you, because once you have moved, you finish your turn by attacking an enemy — and the enemy gets to respond if it can. Robots with melee weapons, for instance, can only strike back if you are right beside them. Robots with shotguns are not effective at a distance.

Through most of the game, you control squads of robots. During your turn, you get one move to place each of your units into strategic locations, you can fire on enemies or repair your Wanzers, and then the enemy gets a turn to do the same.

You can forget about slugging it out in these battles. Your squads are almost always outnumbered, so you’d best get used to the idea of slipping your melee robots in close and placing your projectile robots at a safe distance while your gun-toting Wanzers move around the field.

In theory, as the game goes on, you upgrade your robots and become more powerful. In truth, as you become more powerful, the enemy robots become more powerful and more plentiful. You actually lose ground.

Turn-based strategy is older than computer games — it is a staple in board games — but it still works. “Front Mission 4” may not bring anything new to the table, but the game controls and objectives are clear.

It is in the presentation that “Front Mission 4” disappoints. The computer graphics movies between the battles are nice, but the battle graphics are disappointing. The story is mildly interesting in the beginning but wears down. Less than one-third of the way through the game, you may find yourself hitting the “START” button to skip the animated sequences, which is a shame as those are the only parts in the game with really good graphics.

And then there is the way the dialogue is relayed. Little avatars of game characters appear on the bottom of the screen beside text boxes. Sometimes these text boxes are accompanied by voice acting, most often they are not. Either way, this is beyond cheesy. I mean, this is the Super Famicom way of showing dialogue. It harkens back to the days of such early 1990s hits as “Star Fox” and “U.N. Squadron.” Frankly, this little bit of retro styling detracts from the rest of the game.

Despite decent game play, “Front Mission 4” plays like an old school robot — clunky, slow and obsolete.