(Xbox 360 Review) Zone of the Enders HD Collection

Developer: High Voltage Software / Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 6 = Fair

The number of compilations to hit the gaming market has expanded exponentially over the last several years. Everyone from EA to Ubisoft has taken to revisiting their catalogs in order to release collections from some of their most popular series, such as Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed. However, there’s been a subcategory of the collections market that has been especially fruitful for companies: the HD-updated re-release. Konami has been particularly active on this front, having already revisited two of their more well-known lines with 2011’s Metal Gear Solid HD Collection and 2012’s Silent Hill HD Collection. After hitting a high note with Metal Gear and something of a sour note with Silent Hill—especially for PS3 gamers—Konami is once again trying to recapture that old magic with the High Voltage Software-developed re-release of Kojima Production’s mecha-based action series Zone of the Enders.

Unlike Konami’s previous collections, which feature genre-defining releases that continue to find themselves in conversations and on Best Of lists, this one includes curios known more for their stylish break with the grim and grit of their contemporaries than for breaking the mold. That isn’t to say that either didn’t find an audience, as many gamers found that the original, which garnered significant interest thanks to the included Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty demo disc, was something quite unique for its time: an incredibly fast and incredibly stylish sci-fi-themed action game.

Zone of the Enders has all of the hallmarks of a Kojima Production release, crammed as it is with over-the-top encounters interspersed with drawn-out conversations tinged with quasi-philosophical waxings on life, war, and freedom. And after all these years, it still makes a striking first impression. As Leo Stenbuck, a colonist on the manmade Jupiter-orbiting satellite of Antilia, you must defend his home from the violent forces of a breakaway Martian militia known as Bahram. After a surprise attack leaves the settlement’s forces in disarray, Leo stumbles upon a powerful Orbital Frame battle suit known as Jehuty. Powered by the advanced combat AI ADA, Jehuty is an incredibly potent weapon capable of immense destruction and represents the colony’s only hope for survival, which is exactly why Bahram wants it.

While not exactly enthralling, the story does a good job of setting up a fierce struggle between a lone hero and a horde of invading enemies. The fact that the hero is walking around in a giant suit of armor bristling with weapons doesn’t hurt either. As Bahram runs roughshod over the colony, you will have to venture from one location to another in order to find passcodes to access new areas, unlock device drivers to gain secondary weapons, and shut down forcefields. There are also optional graded missions that involve answering S.O.S. calls to save as many survivors and structures as possible while battling rampaging patrols. Areas will be revisited frequently to advance the storyline and to grind for experience as you unlock additional items, such as frames for use in the sparse Versus mode. This early step at bringing an action title into an open world is impressive, and even more surprising today given the modern predominance of exploration in games. Still, as with many other elements of Zone of the Enders, it’s much easier to admire than enjoy.

It’s difficult to say what aspects of Zone of the Enders are the result of having to work around the technology of the day, and what are simply poor development decisions. In any event, the contrast between the game’s high points and its low points are striking, especially when viewed a decade later. You have a semi-open world, awesome-looking mechas, and some of the fastest combat around, but then you also have an incredibly drab world with cardboard-box-styled structures, very few enemy types, and a camera that can’t keep up with the action. For every encounter where you blast away and swing like a madman, feeling like a robot-destroying force of nature, there are far more where you’re left cursing the inadequate targeting system or feeling as if you had just fought the same battle 20 times before. Even worse, you’re often stuck listening to some of the most ridiculous, overwrought dialog and stilted voice-over work you’ve ever heard. It’s difficult to overstate just how annoying Leo is, or the depths of the dialogue’s absurdity. When you break it down, all of the game’s efforts at philosophizing about life and death and responsibility end up being a lot of nonsense—nonsense spoken by one of gaming’s whiniest, most irrational protagonists.

Seeing as how the game runs between five to six hours long—this includes the many, many cutscenes—you would think that there wouldn’t be enough time for boredom to set in. There are definitely some exciting moments throughout the game, but Zone of the Enders does a much better job of hinting at potential than actually realizing it. With only four or five enemy types and grinding boss encounters that require less skill than patience, the initially thrilling battles lose their luster—even with all of the bright sparks and dramatic camera shifts they entail. One of the most unfortunate causalities of the monotony is the combat system itself. For instance, Jehuty has a variety of moves at its disposal, including a laser for long-range attacks and an energy sword for close-quarters melee. Evasive dashes are also coupled with a charging mechanic for Dash and Burst attacks, allowing for even greater combat possibilities. If Jehuty is in motion whenever Dash is engaged, it will either fire several lasers at a locked-on target or go for a guard-breaking slash. Dashing while stationary will engage Burst mode, a charged state that can either channel the energy into an explosive ball called a Burst Shot, or into a wide-reaching spin attack called a Burst Slash. Combining these with the regular moves can make for quite a show. Despite the fact that the battles look like they are straight out of an anime, tedium eventually sets in as the limited enemy types make for an endless cycle of repetitive encounters.

There is also the sluggish camera that not only fails to keep up with the action but is also prone to get confused in tight spots, which makes fighting, and even just navigating, far more frustrating than it should be. The ability to move the targeting reticule allows for slight camera shifts, which should allow for greater visibility, but this is both a slow and temporary measure as the camera quickly shifts back to a centered view. Things are manageable when you’re in larger outdoor areas, but things quickly go downhill when you’re supposed to hit a semi-transparent object that cannot be locked onto, or shoved into corridors and tight rooms when it’s obvious the camera isn’t up to the task.

The frustrations continue with the better but equally exasperating Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner. As with the original, initial impressions are very positive. The graphics look better, there are new enemy types, the targeting reticule is more responsive, the camera swivel is quicker, and the combat system has been improved. The sequel is an all-around better game, there’s no doubt about it, but many of the original’s faults have found their way into this iteration alongside the improvements, and a whole new crop of problems arises as protagonist Dingo continues the war against Bahram.

Jehuty is back, and ADA is capable of arming it with even more secondary weapons while also making use of a new multi-unit lock-on laser. Grabbing and environmental damage have also been improved and work in tandem to make for some awesome encounters. Combos now have directional finishers that send enemies flying into walls and structures for additional damage, but certain items within the areas can also be grabbed for combat, such as beams to swing and hurl, and plates to use for shielding. Enemies can also be grabbed and used as weapons to bash other enemies; they can also be finished off by tossing them into walls and objects. New graphical effects also give combat more flair, with clouds of dust enveloping enemies as they slam into walls and eye-catching flashes highlighting the clashing of metal. Snatching a pesky grunt, bashing his cohorts to death with its increasingly damaged shell, and then spinning around and tossing it into another approaching enemy for a double kill looks as cool as it sounds.

However, as with the original, the game’s reach exceeds its grasp. The extra enemies help but fail to add enough variety, and in fact, they play havoc with the camera and targeting system. The camera might be more responsive when swiveling, but it’s just as bad when it comes to keeping up with action and just as erratic in tight spaces. The lock-on system is no better, often focusing on poor targets and making it a chore to reorient the camera. Neither can keep up with the action, which is even faster this time around, and the sequel unfortunately includes far more indoor areas than the original. For whatever its problems, the targeting system from the original managed to attain better hard locks than the sequel’s, which frequently automatically shifts targets, even those that are almost behind you. And for reasons I cannot fathom, the same button that shifts the camera also switches locked targets, even though that function is already assigned to another button; attempting to take manual control of the camera, which is only natural given its slow speed, results in the targeting system flicking between enemies. An unlock function is available, but it is unbelievably slow and largely negated by ADA’s immediate targeting of other nearby enemies. The most frustrating moments are the times when I knew I was going to die because the enemies, bolstered by a new mosquito type that attacks in hordes and another that endlessly spawns new enemies (and is of course a pain to target), would send the camera into a frenzy as they swarmed in, causing my health to plummet as I struggled just to get view of the action.

There are a great many head-shaking moments throughout The 2nd Runner, many of which left me completely baffled. For instance, there is a level that consists of a web of hallways and cargo bays, with each bay holding about two dozen crates. Somewhere in one of those crates is a guy who randomly spawns whenever you fail to blast the correct crate. There are only vague hints as to where he is, and the choices are never narrowed to a reasonable amount. I wasted 20 minutes trying to find him. Twenty minutes of roaming, fighting, and guessing. Pointless. And that is just one example of many. All of these are interspersed with areas that are actually well designed and work around the camera and locking system’s weak points, which are great, as well as endless conversations of droll dialog, which aren’t great. The dialog actually managed to get worse at the same time as the cutscenes increased in both number and duration. Be prepared to sit for five-plus minutes of terrible back-and-forth arguments and dramatic encounters with lines, like “Are you the jerk who filled Mars full of holes?”

The free-roaming segments from the original are gone as well. Although most levels are inexplicably confined to narrow corridors, some allow for a limited amount of roaming. It’s in these areas where, as with the original, weapons and frames for Versus mode are tucked away. But there is an extra set of icons now, and these unlock EX Missions. These missions are only available once the game is complete, as with a New Game+ mode that allows for even more frames to be found, and they allow you to play through story events, attempt to kill as many enemies within a set time, and refight boss battles as any of the unlocked frames and using a variety of rules (e.g., no lock-on, only close combat, etc.). These are exactly what the game needs to give it some weight because the campaign sans cutscenes is fairly short.

There is one particularly noteworthy battle towards the end that played out like a Dynasty Warriors game, with Dingo, Leo (in the Vic Viper!), and a squad of Space Force troops in LEV battle armor, fighting hundreds of enemies. So much of this encounter is done right. Not only did ADA not automatically target friendlies as I attacked—a problem that caused no end of headaches in previous missions—but there was a lot of space, the enemies attacked without pouncing and bouncing me around, and nearly all of the secondary weapons came in handy. These are the moments where it’s obvious the developers knew what to do, making you wonder why they didn’t do it more often. For fans of mecha games, there are few moments as exhilarating as this final push.

I did, however, encounter a handful of technical difficulties. A patch has been released that improves performance, but the game not only crashed after the patch was installed but once again afterwards. Slowdown occurs as well, but it has been largely mitigated to transition scenes and only occurred infrequently during combat. On the technical proficiency scale, I’d place the collection closer to Hijinx Studios’ Silent Hill HD Collection than Bluepoint Games’ Metal Gear HD Collection. The results are by no means terrible, but the game would definitely benefit from another patch.

Zone of the Enders HD Collection is a so-so update of two games that haven’t aged particularly well. While both can easily wow with their great visuals and fast-paced combat, and will do so many times throughout their cumulative 11 hours, they more often than not get bogged down by an erratic camera, shoddy targeting mechanism, and poorly designed, repetitive encounters. The excellent demo of Metal Gear Rising included in the package only illustrates how much progress has been made in terms of pacing and responsive controls in action titles. It’s just a shame the Zone of the Enders games couldn’t have been updated to put those lessons into effect.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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