Great Expectations

Let me begin by saying that in my personal, humble opinion, Dickens blows.

Despite being insanely busy at work, burdened by obligations at church, physically fatigued and beleaguered trying to finish painting our house before winter, and very pleasantly distracted by my wonderfully developing daughter, my wife persuaded me to acquire a couple of new games this weekend. (Please note that no part of the above is an exaggeration, some may even be understated. Especially the part about Dickens…) I still had some credit left on the Best Buy gift card I received for my birthday, and there being a few new goodies on the market, I just had to figure out what to get. We <3 Katamari was an obvious choice, mostly bargain priced at $30. If it had been $20, like the original sold for, I would also have been able to pick up Evil Dead: Regeneration, which sells for $20. Unfortunately, that will have to wait, because there wasn’t quite enough left for it after I picked up a copy of Indigo Prophecy, which sells for $40. I’ll try to post my initial reactions to Indigo Prophecy tomorrow, but let it be known now, that so far, I am pleased.

These recent acquisitions coincide coincidentally (which is how all things should coincide, coincidentally) with my completion of Front Mission 4 (FM4). I’ve been playing FM4 for a while now. My final save had 150 hours logged to it, but that is deceptive. I think it is probably safe to say that at least half of that time is from the game being on with nobody at the helm. Not something I usually do – I tend to reload games when I’ve put them down for a spell to keep the game time accurate. But it doesn’t really matter with FM4, since it is a turn-based strategy game – an ideal type of game to play when you have a new baby: it can be played with one hand, it’s turn-based so you can stop anytime to tend to more important matters such as dirty diapers, it has a quicksave feature that allows you to save in the middle of the battles so you can quit playing when necessary, and – most importantly – it has lots of neat mechs making lots of neat explosions – and babies like that!

(I suppose it should be noted that FM4 has an extremely repetitive soundtrack (2/3 of the game are simulator missions, and every mission in the simulator has the same crappy march theme – though it does make good music to which to bounce a baby.) which can make it a very tedious game from a spectator’s point of view. Some might even say that hours of watching mechs shoot at each other over and over gets boring too… Let me just leave that by saying that at least one member of my household did a little happy-dance when I completed the game. Of course, I then proceeded to start a New Game+… (maybe that’s why she was so encouraging about getting new games…))

[Caution: monkey about to have a flashback]

I used to collect G.I.Joes. I was in about 3rd grade when they started making them again – the small action figures that we are most familiar with these days. At the time, there were only a dozen or so action figures in the collection, and about half that number of vehicles. And COBRA, for being the international terrorist masterminds that they were, only consisted of two action figures: Cobra, andCobra Officer. Go Joe. Anyway, the vehicles came packaged with neat, fold-out color catalogues of the toys in the current series. I still have the catalogues from the first four, maybe even five, series. My friends and I spent many a recess period poring over each new catalogue, deciding which characters or vehicles we wanted first, and imagining the stories that would play out upon said expected acquisitions. The observation can be made here quite easily that instant gratification is not necessary for a child to be entertained. No soap boxes today, so I’ll move along…

I could be wrong, if I remember I’ll check tonight to confirm, but I believe in the third series a character named Zartan was introduced. Zartan was a mercenary employed by COBRA who was a master of disguise. In the cartoons and comic books he’s able to change his skin color in a chameleon fashion to blend in with his surroundings, in addition to being able to don convincing disguises a la Mission Impossible. He also lived in a swamp and had a cool swamp skier thing upon which to ride around. The toy, from the eyes of a grade school boy, incorporated all of these character devices wonderfully! Zartan wore a cowl over his head because it fit his mysterious idiom. But, the toy came with a face “mask” that could be slipped into the edges of the cowl so Zartan could assume another identity. When not in use, the mask was stored in a specially fitted depression in his backpack. When using the mask, Zartan’s handgun could be stored in the backpack. Such purpose and engineering! And the swamp skier could be disassembled and stored in this crate that Zartan could pull around, pretending to be some destitute homeless person dragging around a bunch of junk. But, the really, really cool part, was that Zartan was color-changy! He wore a breastplate that had a temperature-sensitive sticker under it. When it got hot, or was in the sun, it changed color. But better than that, if stuck in the freezer or left in the sun for awhile, Zartan’s plastic skin would change color to a dark, bluish-green! Ohboyohboyohboy!!! I yearned to add this wonderful specimen of toy engineering to my collection. I saved my money, and finally, the day came when my mom took me to Target and I was able to purchase my very own Zartan! I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I wanted to run to the toy department, I wanted to tear into the box as soon as it was in my hands, I didn’t want to wait while we drove home lest I lose a piece in the car…

This winter, braving a blizzard with my pregnant wife, I went on a shopping spree and purchased a clutch of games. FM4 was a bargain for about $10. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of love for turn-based strategy games in the US. Maybe that is because there just aren’t that many to play. Admittedly, the only ones I’ve played are Ogre Battle (which isn’t really turn based), Final Fantasy Tactics (which is a wonderful and beautiful game), and Front Mission 3. FM4 had only been out for about six months at that point, but most of the people who were going to buy it, loyal fans to the series and genre, had already acquired it. Being a Squenix game, I’m sure stock was a bit disproportionate. Anyway, great deal. But, it wasn’t high on my play list, not against titles like Resident Evil 4 (RE4) and Shadow Hearts: Covenant (SH:C). Actually, it was dead last.

I don’t remember exactly when I started thinking about FM4 again. But after finishing SH:C, and conquering god mode on God of War, I went back to play through RE4 on professional. That was around my daughter’s due date. FM4 was the last new game on my stack, perhaps the last new game I’d be getting to play for a long time, so probably then did my thoughts bend to its subtle gravity.

For those not familiar with the FM series, and that is probably most of you, assuming anyone is still reading at this point, it is (as already mentioned) a strategy game that features mechs (called wanzers in the FM universe – walking tanks). The series has bounced around temporally, but it takes place a century or two in the future, in a time where such technology exists to make giant, walking, humanoid, armored robots a viable – preferable even – component of the world’s military. What fans of the series cling to, is that the series depicts mechs in a realistic fashion, with articulations, details, and armaments that make sense (even if power sources and control mechanisms are nebulous and greatly debated), instead of the fanciful anime mechs of Gundam, Zone of Enders, and Armored Core. Players control a small squad (in FM4, a six-unit team) of different mechs. Each pilot has an initial weapon preference, but the player can outfit their units however they wish. Different manufactures have different models of wanzers, each tailored to specific tasks or budgets: gunners are more mobile, have less armor, and heavier arms for accuracy; missilers have heavy powertrains, low mobility, but high armor; etc. Players can buy stock mechs or customize by swapping arms, legs, and bodies to create a finely tuned machine of mecha-death. And that’s what I started thinking about…

FM3 had a slightly different approach to upgrading wanzer parts. While some new (supposedly better) parts were made available throughout the game, the primary way to improve your units was to upgrade the stats of the equipment you owned. Enemy wanzers could also be captured, meaning that you could sell them for money, or scavenge them for better parts. Since you had a relatively finite number of stock parts with which to assemble your mechs at any given time, and since due to the upgrade feature it was possible for parts that were crappy early in the game to become the best parts later in the game with maximum upgrades, I thought it would be a good idea to make a spreadsheet to help design my wanzer configurations. Luckily, someone had already gone through the trouble of recording all of the parts and their stats in a faq. I just had to figure out how to write macros that would let me sort and store the information in a useful manner. I think I was pretty successful, as using my spreadsheet on my laptop as I played worked out very well for me.

I decided to revise my spreadsheet for FM4. Instead of upgrades to individual parts, FM4 has lots of different parts. I thought that would make my task easier. What I found, was that there were other pieces of information that would be useful when looking at prospective builds, and things quickly got tricky. But I prevailed – mostly – and was able to setup a new spreadsheet that manipulated a database of parts and stats such that one could easily setup efficient wanzer configurations – something that is not done (easily with clarity) in-game.

Now I was excited to play FM4, a game that previously was just a $10 gimmee that I’d get to when I got to it. Now I had spent many hours studying the game mechanics and wanzer equipment. I wanted to see what the mechs and weapons looked like. I wanted to test my spreadsheet. I wanted to play the game! I was excited, and I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to finally load the game who’s demo hadn’t really left me too impressed. And when I finally got home, and was able to play, I had a good time.

FM4 is a solid strategy game. It isn’t incredibly difficult, but does have a few hidden challenges that unlock more maps and potential prizes. I really enjoyed the game mechanic changes from the previous game, particularly linking and skill acquisition. The story wasn’t as good as FM3, and while it starts with some intrigue and interesting characters, it fizzles out to be mediocre at best when finally told. But the story serves only to tie the missions together, and that isn’t even necessary, considering that, as mentioned before, 2/3 of the missions are simulator battles that aren’t part of the story. Turn-based combat with giant robots – that’s what the Front Mission series is about, and that’s what you’ll get if you play FM4. And if you do, I’ll even let you use my spreadsheet


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