In the last decade, paperback novels, celluloid film and broadcast television in the United States have seen a major upsurge in material vaguely classified by media critics as "techno-thrillers." This was largely due to the writings of one man, Tom Clancy. Reputed as a former insurance broker turned author, Clancy pen several novels with an absorbent amount of detail and in-depth knowledge of military hardware and their political underpinnings. These novels, which include The Hunt For Red October and Clear And Present Danger, struck a chord with a generation of readers and became so popular that film adaptations and television projects soon followed. Computer games also followed suite and saw similar rises (mostly from Tom Clancy's own software house Red Storm Entertainment) in the genre. Even the more traditionally adolescent targeted console market has seen more "techno-thrillers," and this is no more apparent then in Squaresoft's release of Front Mission 3 (FM3) on the PlayStation.
FM3, at its core, is a turn-based strategy game where tactics and control are concerned only as far as a squad of four soldiers rather then an army of thousands. What has always been a trademark of the Front Mission series (Parts 1 and 2 were never localized for the North American market) is that all the soldiers under a player's command pilot Japanese anime-styled combat robots known as Wanzers (pronounced Van-ser). Aside from all the anime appeal, what really sets this particular title apart is the imaginatively complex story elements (which unfold linearly in typical console role-playing game fashion in-between battles) and the way they are executed with very Clancy-esque twists and turns. Not only are there two different storylines (which play out depending on a seemingly harmless decision a player makes at the beginning of the game), but much of the details are fleshed out in the game's Network feature (a self-contained Internet complete with pseudo email, mock Web sites and hacker warez!). No matter how the story unfolds, government cover-ups, military espionage and conspiracies of global proportions are all abound, and the lives of seemingly ordinary characters are put to the test in extraordinary circumstances.
In that regard, FM3 is a game with high aspirations to which it lives up to, but barely. What makes it such a close call is a few things. First, the actual characterizations of all the protagonists in the story fall short. FM3 paints an incredibly vivid and believable vision of a future where nations are wrought with internal as well as external conflicts (most of this is conveyed through the mock Web sites and reiterated in the dialogue). Alliances with foreign countries often appear paper-thin, perceived threats of war seem to loom over every government action and rival political parties are just itching for coup-de-tat at a moment's notice (is this the future or present?). The histories and motivations of individual characters are interesting and believable enough as well. It's just a shame that the speech and mannerisms of each character isn't always a fitting match for the engrossing backdrop. Rather then getting a cast of emotionally charged characters and dialogue that reeks of wore-torn bitterness and paranoia, we get a script that's sometimes about as deep and preachy as some of Steven Segal's recent straight-to-video schlock. It's as though the person responsible for the back-end plotting and character profiles isn't the same person who wrote the screenplay and script.
The game's worst offender has to be the lead protagonist, Kazuki Takemura, who comes off immature—not by design, but because he is so poorly written. His misguided attempt at locating his sister on a military base, and the way he opposes military forces in doing so, early on the game is so ridiculous and improbable, that it nearly ruins the credibility of the remainder of the game. Kazuki's continued quest to rescue his sister (when he doesn't even know if she's in danger) turns into an all-out obsession and gets to be laughable as his single-mindedness in locating her comically disrupts the dialogue in the most inopportune times and seems nonsensical amidst all the international crisis. In all fairness, Kazuki represents an extreme on the negative side, and there are some other characters that are worthy of praise, like Jose Astrada. His motivations and dialogue, which stem from him indirectly, causing the death of his wife and child during a military operation, is not only powerful, but consistent throughout one of the game's scenarios.
Another thing that hurt FM3 are peculiarities in the gameplay. FM3 is no different from most turn-based strategy games in that players spend a great deal of time making preparations by outfitting soldiers with weapons and equipment and then proceeding to a gridded battlefield where chess-like decisions determine the outcome of a battle. For FM3, planning and preparation is comprised of scavenging, buying, selling, building and configuring your own Wanzers to personal preference. On paper, that all sounds great, but I wasn't so enthused by the final execution. It was extremely difficult to tell the strengths and weaknesses of one Wanzer model to the next (unlike the MechWarrior series which separates mechs into classes) because displaying and navigating informational stat windows proved to be too obtuse and difficult when it came to making such comparisons. Of course it didn't help that despite having dozens and dozens of different Wanzers, most models were indistinct and fell largely into two categories, powerful ones that could haul heavy artillery or mobile ones that were better suited for assault weapons and hand-to-hand combat (something that would have saved me much time and headache if I had realized it earlier).
My other gripe in the gameplay department deals with actual battle system. Most strategy games interject a high degree of realism in simulating battlefield conditions and situations. This high degree of realism usually makes the game more difficult to approach, but the end results are ultimately far more depth and satisfaction than other styles of play. FM3 doesn't quite adhere to that philosophy in a number of ways, and I think the game is lesser because of it. First of all, computer AI (artificial intelligence) doesn't behave realistically and is tactically inept. Enemies will remain virtually stagnant until player-controlled characters reach within their parameters. Groups of enemy Wanzers rarely function as team and do not capitalize on tactical advantages like overwhelming the player with greater numbers. Even more out of whack are the Battle Skills. Along with gaining experience points in battle, characters are often magically endowed with many different special abilities and attacks known as Battle Skills. What's completely uncharacteristic of strategy games is that these Battle Skills randomly activate under certain situations. So rather then give players the opportunity to plan their tactical use—the very essence of what a strategy game is all about—the whole Battle Skill issue is left to what is essentially pot-luck.
On top of the poor characterizations and strange peculiarities in the gameplay, I also found that despite Squaresoft's valiant efforts in trying to squeeze every last bit of life out of PlayStation's rendering capabilities, the graphical presentation in FM3 was still inconsistent and rather lacking. Some prerendered CG (computer generated) cut-scenes littered through out and hand-drawn portrait artwork used during dialogue were fine, but the 3D visuals rendered in real-time during story sequences and combat were a whole other story. Severe amounts of problematic clipping could be spotted everywhere. Low polygon-count models of humans were unbelievably ugly and animated with choppy stiffness. Perhaps the worst thing about the graphics was the severe crookedness of straight textures in the environments (a problem commonly found in older 3D graphics processors that don't have any perspective correction feature). I ordinarily wouldn't make such a small technical quibble if it happened on rare occasions (like in Metal Gear Solid), but in FM3, I noticed the crookedness on many occasions and it got to be a painful eye sore.
With all the negative comments that I've lobbied against FM3, readers may find it strange that I still gave the game a rather positive rating. There's no mistake because I'm usually most vocal about games that fall just shy of greatness. FM3 may have many faults, but there are many positives as well. I found the Network feature to be a very unique approach and provided much needed diversity from a genre that is almost always plagued with repetitiveness. The final integration of the Network to the actual gameplay isn't as tight as I would have liked, but it still deserves recognition for being so comprehensive and convincing. Also, despite my complaints against the idiosyncrasies of the characters and the unrealistic battle system, I was still impressed with the story elements overall (especially the dual scenarios that feature surprisingly different missions, characters and plot direction), and I was never bored with the combat aspect of the game. I devoted more time to FM3 then any other game in recent months (over 60 hours, beating one of the two scenarios entirely), and it's accurate to say that it captivated my attention. FM3 probably won't go down as one of all-time greats, but it's certainly earns its stripes as a techno-thriller.