Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Zone of the Enders: A Retrospective and Analysis at the End of the Universe

[Note from Jake: As I expand the stable of A Capital Wasteland writers, I introduce the affable, all-seeing Austin Lucas!]

In 2001, a demo for the highly anticipated Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released. Oh, and a game came with the demo… Zone of the Enders, a self-described “mecha anime simulator featuring never-before-seen aerial gameplay.”  After the breakout success of Metal Gear Solid, creator Hideo Kojima’s status as one of gaming’s great icons was solidified. Not to diminish from his earlier  forays into the medium, but things were forever changed after MGS. So when Kojima was set to produce a new non-Metal Gear game, people took notice.  The inclusion of a demo for a new MGS really grabbed attention though and would drive sales for Zone of the Enders.  I was just a Kojima neophyte at the time, so clearly my purchase can be attributed to an infatuation with giant robots. 

High Speed Robot Action

Don't worry you'll get to play as Snake too
Gameplay-wise, Zone of the Enders was on the cutting edge as much as the titular Enders were at the end of inhabited space. Z.O.E. was fast, and it was fast before the party really started getting crazy later that year with Devil May Cry. Altitude control, another unique feature, might have seemed unnecessary when you could simply lock-on to enemies.  However, it is a key part of the aesthetic of the game and one that works in conjunction with Z.O.E.’s high speed to give a true sense of movement and a degree of energy to the combat, which stylistically fits in with the sleek mechanical designs of artist Yoji Shinkawa.

Instead of a game and a demo, those who purchased Zone of the Enders really just got two demo discs.  One for the previously mentioned MGS2 and one for the yet to be announced Zone of the Enders 2.  It doesn’t take a thorough examination, a moderately quick glance will suffice, to determine that Z.O.E. is essentially nothing more than a proof of concept for future iterations of the franchise.  That might be overly critical of Z.O.E. but anyone who has managed to make it through the final boss encounter can probably attest to this.  It is not that the game is incredibly unpolished or that there are glaring issues that need to addressed, but instead that Z.O.E. as a standalone game just seems to be a taste of things to come.  Despite playtime being padded by cutscenes, Z.O.E. still manages to be a rather short experience, even with a bit a backtracking.  The anticlimactic manner in which the final fight plays out doesn’t help Z.O.E.’s case either.

                While the gameplay might have been attempting to push the boundary and help usher in the new generation of action games, no one has ever accused the story elements of being too original. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an antisocial boy with family issues stumbles upon a powerful machine and uses it to defend his space colony from an invading force willing to commit indescribable atrocities in the name of independence.  Leo is that ubiquitous youth who is thrust into the “cockpit” of Jehuty a ridiculously powerful mech called an orbital frame.  ADA, Jehuty’s onboard AI, guides him in his quest to stop the destruction of his home; this quickly turns into a fight for survival.  Obstacles along the way, mainly in the form of massive STG style bosses, require Leo to seek out upgrades for Jehuty.  Additional challenge missions arise due to SOS’s from other colonists.  The goal of these side missions is to quickly defeat all the enemies in a given area while minimizing collateral damage.  Since they are side mission they can be ignored but it’s hard to live with yourself if you do.  There is also a nice coating of melodrama and existential angst is applied to the stock story.  Some might enjoy the philosophical quandaries this produces such as “What actually constitutes being alive?” and “What is the purpose of living for those who have no life?” but this might just turn off others that don’t want to hear the issues of a 13-year-old boy in control of a giant war machine.  The game is billed as a “mecha simulator” after all and it shows in how the setting and story are laid out. 

Stand up to the Je-hu-ty
Not much time is spent on exposition, but some world building is done through the game’s tutorial, presented by ADA.  She explains the importance of Metatron ore that makes a bulk of the super science in Z.O.E. possible, especially the vector traps and orbital frames.  People who really care for this kind of stuff can explore it further in side material released alongside the game, namely Idolo, an anime that occurs 5 years before the events of the game.

Get your ass to Mars: The 2nd Runner

Zone of the Enders and its sequel The 2nd Runner (Anubis as it’s known in Japan) have more or less coalesced into a singular existence. They operate not as consecutive iterations but as consequential occurrences; there is a bit of retroactivity to The 2nd Runner. The core gameplay was established in the first game, but 2nd Runner is a refinement to the point where these tweaks transcend the game they were introduced in and feel as if they had been there the whole time.  This will then explain any overemphasis on the speed of the first game due to bleed over from the second’s near superluminal speeds.

Travelling beyond the bounds
The back of the sequel’s box says it all: “Bigger. Better. Faster.” The enemies are more varied, the combat is more intense, Jehuty is quicker, the explosions are prettier, and the stakes are higher. If you liked Z.O.E. then it is almost a foregone conclusion that the sequel will tickle you right in your fancy too. If you didn’t like Z.O.E., chances are you didn’t play it; you more than likely will enjoy the new hotness of The 2nd Runner. I realize that by this point it sounds as if I’m fellating the game (insert obligatory “cockpit” joke here), but it truly is one of my favorite games of all time. Of all time. The gameplay is exhilarating and strikes a nice balance of the speed and power that comes with controlling a machine approaching God, yet still emphasizing the risks and threats created by the story.

Storywise, The 2nd Runner ups the ante of the previous installation as it delivers on all the vague and nebulous conflict implied in the first game. The new protagonist, Dingo, battles across Mars to stop his foes. As Leo was defending his home, so too does Dingo, except he’s fighting to basically stop the destruction of the universe. The change in frame runners, what the pilots are called (now the title makes sense, doesn’t it?), is set up quite nicely by the relationship Leo develops with ADA. Leo was the prototypical young reluctant pilot, and Dingo is the standard former soldier that got sick of fighting.  Naturally Leo as a character is dynamic since he was still coming of age when he got drawn into a conflict that made him question the purpose of life. Conversely, Dingo remains relatively static throughout his appearance due to the fact that he is a veteran who knows where he is in life and is confident in himself as a person.  Though Leo might not be the focus of the sequel, he is not forgotten and his growth is clearly displayed. For those more familiar with Metal Gear Solid: in Z.O.E. it’s as if you get to play as Raiden for the tanker mission and Snake for the Big Shell.

Homing Lasers: Itano Circus the weapon
Beyond the Bounds: morality in Z.O.E.

                The change in pilots allows for a further analysis of life and death at the end of the universe.  It is established that Leo is firmly against killing and that he holds all life dear, including artificial life. He does everything in his power to save people--getting anything less than a perfect score on the SOS missions will reiterate this fact. Not even ADA’s congratulations on an “A” rank softens the blow of his inability to save everyone. Leo appreciates all life; not only does he spare his enemies lives, but he even tries to save the primary antagonist (who’s responsible for the death and destruction of his friends and home).  Nearly all of the enemies are AI controlled or unmanned mechs, so you don’t have to suffer from him angsting over defeating every enemy. Interestingly, though the human involvement in combat has been reduced thanks to unmanned weapons, the human cost of conflict remains high, or might even be greater, due to the destructive power and outright disregard for life displayed by the enemy faction. BAHRAM is willing to destroy a space colony to get Jehuty and then the entire Mars sphere is engulfed in war.  Dingo offers an alternative to Leo’s justifiable, apprehensive approach to battle. Dingo’s status as an ex-soldier confers a willingness to do what must be done in order to accomplish his mission.  He’ll kill enemy soldiers yet try to protect his comrades as best he can; this includes seeking retribution against those that would casually throw away the lives of his former allies.

Heaven and Earth one hit sure kill cannon
Shift to Vector Cannon mode.  All energy lines connected.  Landing gear and climbing irons locked.  Inner chamber pressure rising normally.  Life ring has started revolving.  Ready to fire.
The fringes of a franchise about living on the fringe: Z.O.E. spinoffs

Idolo is an anime that attempt to shed light on the events that set the stage for Z.O.E.  It deals with the creation of the first orbital frame, the precursor to Jehuty and its twin.  The story also fleshes out the conflict between Martian colonists and the Earth government that led to the prominence of the antagonist faction BAHRAM.  While not impressive on its own, it works well within the greater context of the series as it helps to explain the rationale of all the key villains.

Left: old and busted grid work
Right: new hotness arcadey dodging and aiming
Besides the previously mentioned anime and two main games, there are two other entries into the Z.O.E.-verse.  Fist of Mars, or as it’s known in Japan 2173 Testament, is a turn-based strategy RPG for the Game Boy Advance. In terms of gameplay, it is Super Robot Wars lite. There is a manual evasion and hit system in the game that imparts a sense of control not usually seen in such games.  The story plays out very much like a mecha anime (26 episodes) and turns any melodrama found in the primary series up to 11.  Chances are if you are playing the game you know what to expect.  The series of events in FoM helps to set up the conflict in 2nd Runner, but unless you really care about the Z.O.E. backstory or need a mecha visual novel it’s not really on a recommendation list.

It could happen
The other entry is the TV series Dolores, i.  It serves as a prequel occurring after Idolo and before the first game.  Unfortunately I cannot comment directly on its quality, an issue I plan to rectify since it’s near the top of my backlog.  Not too many speak of it either, but those that do usually do so in a rather positive light.  One point of praise for the series is the protagonist, James Links.  This stems from the fact that he is up there in years and has a family, and then he actually acts like a family man.  After a history of teens and other young males taking the spotlight it is a nice change of pace.

Kojima reaches for the key demo
Space Jammin’

Music: it’s a thing, and games invariably have it. The music in this series is fantastic in part because of how well it reflects the game. It is primarily a collection of electronic sounds that have come to be representative of space and super science.  I can’t say for certain but I think at some point the pulse of energy coursing through Jehuty’s Metatron frame syncs perfectly with the rhythm of the music. There is also a degree of hollowness to the sound of the game, which creates an almost haunting air.  A collection of faint piano and strings combined with vague chants drives the feeling home.  This ties in well to push the sense of ominous dread associated with a battle for the fate of life as we know it.  The soundtrack included in the upcoming limited edition HD collection is enough justification for my preorder, but a nice artbook is also a welcome inclusion.

What does it all mean?

"Z.O.E. 3 when?" has long been a joke amongst the faithful.  The 2nd Runner’s low sales were thought to signal the demise of the franchise, yet Kojima has been on record multiple times claiming that he wished to make another Z.O.E. entry.  Thus I have eagerly awaited the completion of whatever the latest Metal Gear project has been since it means Kojima and crew are free to work on Z.O.E.  Every time he has been wrangled back into working on Metal Gear is bittersweet, since I love me some Movie Gear, but it dims the glimmer of hope for the sequel near the top of my wish list. The crazy thing is Z.O.E. 3 has been announced and is in production.  Despite this development I figured a bit of proselytizing could only make the future of the series more certain. A lot was said, but this is a very important piece of entertainment to me, so anything less wouldn’t feel right.  What my whole retrospective basically amounts to is this: the Z.O.E. HD collection is already out in Japan and reaches our shores next week. Get hype.

No comments:

Post a Comment