Reaching beyond the bounds, So sings Maki Kimura in the theme song of Zone of the Enders: The 2ndRunner, aptly named Beyond the Bounds. As the sequel to Zone of the Enders (a.k.a. the game that came with Metal Gear Solid), 2nd Runner has a lot to make up for. Known for its repetitive action and Evangelion-ripoff storyline, the first game was a small and insignificant footnote in the history of the PlayStation 2, but with Metal Gear visionary Hideo Kojima at the helm, the series has experienced a revival of epic proportions and has cemented itself as the de facto mech game on the market today.
We have to make this stand.
What are we waiting for?
Itís now or never!
It all starts off innocently enough, with blue collar miner Dingo Egret searching for Metatron (the ultimate energy source in the ZOE universe) on Callisto, a moon of Jupiter. Here he stumbles across the Orbital Frame known as Jehuty and its computer unit ADA just before the military force known as Bahram demolishes his crew. The discovery of Jehuty sets off a course of events that sees Dingoís death and rebirth, and a retelling of his dark past. Along the way, Dingo encounters several characters from the first game, including Viola and Leo Stenbuck. No longer the wannabe Shinji Ikari farthead he was in the first game, Leo has matured and actually grew a backbone in the years following the first game. Letís not forget that heís also got a kickiní Orbital Frame named Vic Viper. Yes, that Vic Viper. Did I mention that it transforms from ship to fighter? Unfortunately for Dingo and the rest of our heroes, Nohman and the ultimate badass mech Anubis also return for a final showdown with Jehuty.
The storyline, for what itís worth, is actually quite good. Dingo is a likeable character that can go from tough guy to tender heart in minutes, and Nohman makes the ultimate adversary with his arrogant attitude. Supporting characters like Leo and Ken Marinaris do a great job of fleshing out Dingoís personality while still maintaining their own important positions in the story arc.
What really impresses in ZOE2 are the graphics. Sure, Konami and Kojima are known for their great camerawork and awesome special effects, but this game takes it to the next level. Even the tiny Mosquito enemies blow up real good, and thatís not even taking into consideration some of the cool warping effects for weapons and enemies, like the Ardjet Orbital Frame. These special effects come at a cost, though. In many instances when thereís too much going on the screen at once, the game will slow to a crawl. This is especially evident near the end of the game.
With the relatively small cast of characters in the game, a great amount of detail is paid to each one to ensure that they are the absolute best they can be. Although Ken Marinaris may seem like your typical busty female, her fiery red hair echoes her tough-girl attitude. Likewise the Orbital Frames personify their runners perfectly. What sets apart the Orbital Frames from your ordinary mech is that they are capable of expressing emotion in each cut scene; it feels like itís the Orbital Frames, and not their respective runners that are talking to each other. To move the storyline forward, the FMV cutscenes that were used in ZOE1 have now been replaced with anime cut scenes that do an extremely good job of blending in with the action. Itís eerie how close the 3D models found in the game match their anime counterparts.
Like the gameís cut scenes, the musical score gives many of the stages in the game an epic feel and captures the pace of the action. The various renditions of Beyond the Bounds are particularly good and keep the mood and theme of the game consistent throughout the adventure. Surprisingly the English voice acting in the game is well done; at the very worst the voices are tolerable and theyíre among the very best ever when the actors are on their game. The only downside to the voices is the sometimes laughable dialogue that occurs, such as "Outta my way!" and "Find another way!" It's stuff like this that brings the game down, although Konami managed to minimize the occurrence of conversations like these.
The real impact that ZOE2 makes is with its gameplay. Kojima and the rest of his team really did a great job of expanding on the lifeless combat in the first game to create an experience that puts the player in a you-vs.-the-world battle. While the combat wasnít too bad in the first game, itís been beefed up since then with an All Way Laser attack to complement the Burst attacks and a vast array of subweapons that are all useful and fun to play with. The various situations that the game puts you in are also unique, especially the bosses that youíll face along the way. Each boss requires a different strategy to take down, and with the helpful ADA to guide you, each enemy may be a tough task but none seems impossible. ZOE2 becomes a game you can actually see yourself getting better at because the gameís learning curve goes up gradually without being frustrating.
The only slight against the game is that the action is actually too fast for the game to keep up with. Although the automatic lock-on does wonders in helping you find your target, the camera can be become very jerky because of it, resulting in a dizzying experience. In the vertical levels, combat can also be a pain, as the camera (and controls) are more suited for horizontal combat. The fact that you canít actually dash up and down makes chasing enemies above or below you a pain in the rear.
While the game is a short experience (most players can beat this game on Normal mode in 4 - 5 hours), it ends at the perfect moment, and before any of the action becomes repetitive. Sure, you wonít be able to use your nifty end-game toys as much as you would like to, but luckily you can always start a new game with all of your subweapons and the different forms of Jehuty.
On top of this, there are a huge number of alternative missions that you can play through so you can fight an endless stream of enemies without the hassle of going through cut scenes. One interesting alternative mission is Zoradious, which is essentially a 3D Gradius clone that stars Vic Viper. Sure, this mini-game may seem like it was just slapped together in a matter of days - and it probably was - but it speaks volumes of the effort that Konami put into this game before it was shipped.
With vastly improved gameplay and the best graphics youíll find on the PS2, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner is one of the best action games youíll find this year and gives the rest of the industry an example of how to listen to their audienceís feedback in order to improve their product. Despite the minor flaws scattered within this title, there is just so much right done here that itís easy to forgive. This is a finely crafted opus that no PS2 owner should be without.
Click on the Vic Viper sketch below to download the Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner trailer (QuickTime - 21.6MB) from last year's Tokyo Game Show.
· · · Reno