That's right—a nine. Loyal readers of the site may recall my less-than-favorable review of the original Zone Of The Enders back in 2001. Despite a great battle engine and the attachment of Hideo Kojima's name, it was a shallow bore that sold more copies than it deserved thanks to a massive wave of hyperbole and the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo disc it was packaged with. The project was massively unsatisfying, and I couldn't understand why an illustrious house like Konami would release such a half-baked product. Evidently, someone at Konami HQ must have been thinking the same thing.
After being so ruthlessly frank reviewing the previous game, I'm certainly not about to pull any punches with the sequel. I can say with complete confidence that Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner is everything the first game was not, and far more. Not only did the developers correct, expand and improve upon every aspect, they have authored one of the most utterly perfect synergies of gameplay, direction and storytelling that I've ever witnessed. The game had me completely in its grip from start to finish, and I don't think I've experienced anything quite like it.
The only element that really succeeded in the first game, the 3D control scheme, is present and in full effect. Players fly an Orbital Frame (in essence, a nimble flying robot) called Jehuty. It glides with ease in all three dimensions using the DualShock 2's left analog stick, quick and responsive at all times. The right stick handles camera movement and switching between lock-on targets. Primary attacks are handled in a context-sensitive manner, with the square button unleashing a searing blade up close and firing projectiles from far away. There are a variety of other attacks, all depending on the distance from the target and whether Jehuty is moving, dashing, or hovering. It may seem a bit unnatural at first, but the control scheme proves to be extremely effective when the chips are down.
The game's sub-weapons can be selected from a convenient menu with the push of a button, during which time play is wisely paused. Receiving large upgrades, the sub-weapons are actually far more important than they were before, and are now pivotal to success. For those who prefer the up-close-and-personal approach, your Orbital Frame can also grab enemies and objects for use as weapons or shields. Since real weight is given to employing different tactics, Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner leaves nothing to be desired from its smooth, well-rounded combat. Blindingly fast and just as lethal, any major concerns about the controls and depth of the engine were laid to rest almost immediately.
Once the structural basics were established, I was deeply immersed in the slick introductory areas and amazed by the high level of attention paid to every detail. It's not hard to get drawn into the experience. Going seamlessly from hyperkinetic melee to top-quality anime cutscene and back again, the game eschews discrete "levels." With an extremely cinematic and fluid progression between play and non-interactive storytelling, Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner transcends standard directorial conventions and feels like nothing so much as the most perfectly paced thrill ride imaginable.
The story itself might be a bit too stilted for its own good, but it's leagues better than the preachy, pedantic plot of the last game. The clumsy CG has also been upgraded, now beautifully rendered animation. Events center around zoologically-named Dingo Egret. A former military man, he happens to stumble upon Jehuty during a scavenging expedition and gets drawn into a civil war between planets. The dialogue shares more than a passing resemblance to Metal Gear Solid 2's narrative style, but in a far more logical and restrained way. With elements of interstellar colonization, rights of sovereignty and bonds between soldiers, there's a nice mix of large and small issues that fit together reasonably well. It may not be successful on all levels, but I can appreciate the scope and seriousness of the attempt.
The in-game graphics are every bit as masterful as the hand-drawn cinemas. Featuring a unique semi-Cel-shaded technique, the stylized nature of the visual design is accentuated and smoothes the transition between watching and playing. Everything looks unbelievably sharp and vibrant. Frames pulse and hum with living energy, and watching their swarms of radiant lasers turn enemies into fiery whorls is every bit as satisfying as it sounds. The smoke and dust effects are equally impressive, and when players progress to the advanced portions of the game the unbelievably psychedelic encounter with Orbital Frame Anubis will bring you to your knees.
However, none of the plot or aesthetics would make the game especially notable without all elements being unified into a greater whole. Each scene of story gives exactly the right amount of motivation for the upcoming gameplay, and each gameplay sequence directly feeds into the next exposition. The lack of discrete separation between levels creates a non-stop flow that builds over the course of the game into a dynamic, rapid-fire assault on the senses. Once you start, the unstoppable momentum will make it nearly impossible to put the controller down before seeing the ending. The inertia that coalesces is simply stunning, and practically redefines what an action game should be.
That said, there are still a few small technical issues to be solved. As in most 3D games, the camera will occasionally cause problems. With the automatic lock-on feature, Jehuty instantly seeks out the nearest enemy and goes into "orbit" around it until the lock is disengaged or the foe is defeated. With only a few enemies, it works marvelously well and relieves the player of any need to worry about orientation. But the system runs into trouble when confronted with thick crowds. Occasionally, you'll encounter dozens of targets at once (and in one case, literally hundreds). In those instances, the camera goes into a wild spin as you lock-on, dispatch, and re-focus on targets in lightning succession. Players will know the true meaning of chaos during these moments, since all you can do is keep slashing and hope for the best.
Besides the camera issue, the game does not allow players to reassign the button configuration. With time things eventually became workable, but I was generally unhappy with the ascend/descend controls being assigned to the face buttons. It was tough to circle a foe while charging a weapon, dashing to evade fire, and flying up or down, all at the same time. The stock system definitely works, but I don't see the harm in letting players rearrange things to suit their individual preferences.
The only other concern that some will raise would be the game's relatively short playtime. I certainly don't see it as a problem, though. I'd much rather experience something the way it was meant to be experienced than go through the motions with something artificially fattened to extend playtime. Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner is exactly the length it needs to be, no more, no less. More games should follow its bold example. But, for those who crave quantity with their quality, there are a good amount of extras present. Different versions of Jehuty are unlocked for replays of the main game after completion, along with an extra mission mode made up of various challenges. There's also a Vs. mode, and a hidden Gradius minigame using a Vic Viper Orbital Frame (complete with Ripple, Laser, Options and theme music!)
I was literally rocked by Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner. It's one of the finest examples of multimedia convergence I've ever seen, melding visual storytelling's streamlined pace with blindingly fast action and non-stop drive. By the time the credits rolled, I felt as though I had just disembarked from a five-hour roller coaster ride. In my review for the first game, I called it a stripped-down skeleton whose only achievement was a solid combat engine. Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner not only retains the innovative engine, but succeeds everywhere the original failed. This near-flawless balance of programming prowess and artistic vision is not to be missed.