Front Mission Evolved Interview

11 Jun 2009  by   Paul Younger
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All that time ago at E3, I got the chance to sit down with Square-Enix and Double Helix and find out what we can expect from the forthcoming Front Mission Evolved. This takes the series, which has previously been almost exclusively a set of turn-based strategy games, into the realm of the third-person shooter. Intrigued, I endeavoured to find out the how and whys behind this change of direction.Taking part in the interview were Shinji Hashimoto, the Square-Enix based producer of the game (speaking through an interpreter); Jeremy Lee, the development director of the game at Double Helix; and Michael Saxs Persson, the VP of the studios at Double Helix.First things first, then! Can you give us a bit of background on the game?LEE: Front Mission Evolved is a third-person shooter for 360, PS3, and PC. The franchise has been around for a long time and it’s a revered franchise in Japan. The US markets and Europe aren’t as familiar with it, so for some people it might seem like a really shocking progression to make a third-person shooter. From Square’s perspective, it’s something that they’ve always wanted to do with Front Mission, and they’ve taken Front Mission in different directions with previous games like Gun Hazard and Front Mission Online. What we want to do and what we’re doing is we’re really collaborating with Square on this title. Square’s designed the characters and the storyline, and taken a really collaborative role in the design direction. I think fans will be excited because you get to do some things with your Wanzers that you haven’t been able to do with them in the previous games, but it’s still maintaining a strategic element to it, and the storyline, the political intrigue – it’s just moving into an action realm.How are you keeping the strategic elements intact? Front Mission let you outfit the Wanzers in different ways, it had different ways of disabling enemies…LEE: It’s really great. There are some big elements that we’ve kept that are pretty cool and customisation is a huge part of the game. You build your Wanzer in the way that you think is best for it. There are a lot of interchangeable parts, amd we’ve got every weapon from the previous Front Mission series and then some new ones that you can upgrade. There are also strategic ways in which you can disable your opponents. We have some cool effects that we can only do now on next-gen consoles where we can blow off arms, blow off legs, disable them electrically: we can do a lot of really cool effects.Front Mission, as a turn-based strategy, was always about the team. Do you have other Wanzers in your squad in Evolved, or are you on your own?LEE: You have a squad with you. Your squad has an important role in the storyline – they’re not generic soldiers that just follow you around, they’re key characters in the story. And they have their own personalities. They talk to you, they make decisions on what they want to do, they support you in different ways.So how are the squad controls coming along? Can you order them around?LEE: No. They do it all on their own. Because they’re story characters they have a real reason to want to be independent. Rather than the other Front Missions where you played as a series of characters and customised a series of Wanzers, here you’re playing as Dylan, with the Wanzer you upgrade throughout the entirety of the game, that you keep getting attached to. Your wingmates are part of the story, and they’ll support you, but they’re very much individual characters that you don’t have any direct control over.{PAGE TITLE=Front Mission Evolved Continued}Are there a lot of other characters, then? And how do they join you – is it a linear game, or do you have choices as to what to do next?LEE: Without getting too much into the story –You’re not able to talk about that?LEE: Well, it’s a Front Mission game, so there’s a lot of political intrigue, a lot of twists and turns – characters that you thought were on your side maybe aren’t, and then there are new characters coming in and out. A lot of the story is told real-time. We don’t want to cut the player out every five minutes to tell them the story, but it’s definitely a Square product, so there are really cool CG elements in there. But the thing about squad gameplay is that we have a robust online component, so you can develop teams, there’s voice chat, you can design your squad in a certain way and take it against other squads. So you might develop something like, say, you’re the heavy mech, I’m the sniper, Saxs might be in the support role and then we can build strategies around that.With the online play, does your squad stay intact as a whole through matchmaking and leaderboards?LEE: There’s both online matchmaking and leaderboards, there are ways to get your group together and customise them together so you can choose your colours together, there’s clan support.Does the plot tie into the previous games, or is it a complete revamp?SAXS: It ties in, in terms of the lore of the story, and the factions that exist are what you would expect. It’s like an evolution of the universe. It’s not a case of taking things away and starting the universe again.LEE: The Square-Enix team has the visionaries for the whole Front Mission series and they’re really heavily involved in making a continuation of the universe and an expansion of the universe. So if you’ve played previous Front Mission games you’ll get a lot of backstory.How’s it been working with Square-Enix?LEE: It’s been really good. Every publisher experience is different; this one is really collaborative and there’s a lot of trust as far as there are things that we each say, like “Here’s what we’re really good at,” and we rely on each other to supply what we need.SAXS: Square-Enix has a lot of experience in shipping very consistent titles. They support their franchises very heavily, they’re very serious about characters and story, and that makes us very happy – they take good care of the product. This is a collaboration between us and Square-Enix. They solicited ideas, found out what we thought about the universe, and then they came to the table with the story and scenarios and CG, and we had an action game take on the writing.LEE: It’s important to mention for fans that what we don’t want to do is to make an American game, but we also don’t want to make a Japanese game. I don’t know how many development teams have done this but it’s really a blend of Eastern and Western cultures, and there’s a lot of collaboration in terms of “How do we make a really good game?” So we’re making something new that hopefully will be successful in multiple markets.{PAGE TITLE=Front Mission Evolved Continued}So – being cynical for a moment – it’s not just an action game that’s designed to try and break Front Mission into a Western market. It’s more than that, it’s globe-spanning.SAXS: Yeah. We think we have an IP that’s been worked on for over 10 years and we want to have the broadest possible exposure to that. A strategy game was probably never going to get it broadly accepted in the US. There are a lot of hardcore fans of the Front Mission franchise, and in our studio alone we had between 10 and 20 people who were hardcore fans. They played every iteration that came out in the US, and attempted to play every one that only came out in Japan. The litmus test for us was “What do they feel about us taking that and expanding it into the action genre?” and all of them were really appreciative that the universe continues. That’s what everybody wants to continue.So why Front Mission now, in particular?HASHIMOTO: Part of the idea to do this came from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which I love. When I saw that, I saw the way in which real-time action games can be cinematic and dramatic, and so I thought “that could really match Front Mission” and thought that an action game would work well for a Western audience. An RPG game wouldn’t be as popular to a broader audience, and I didn’t want to add a number to it. I wanted to reinvent the series and start fresh to make it accessible to another audience.Call of Duty is extremely linear, with waypoints, mid-mission checkpoints, and the like. Is this more open? Do you have choices of what mission to do next?LEE: It’s a little bit of both, without revealing too much about it. We have a story with a lot of political intrigue and a really cinematic experience, and we want to tell that story. On the other hand, the way that you customise your character is really important, so you can experience missions in different ways depending on how you customise it.Will missions tend to be viable regardless of what sort of Wanzer you’re in?LEE: You get a mission briefing and your squad will suggest ways in which you can design a Wanzer for that particular environment. We have Arctic environments, jungle environments… you traverse a lot of the globe. In some cases, well: spider-type legs may not be a good idea for a desert environment. In other areas the customisation is up to you.Can you give us an idea as to how a typical mission would play out?LEE: They’re all a little different. You follow a storyline, and as the mission starts, you get a briefing, a 3D-map, a bit of story, with your squadmates joining you on this in some cases. Then you get objectives as you go because the storyline is driving you forward. At first it’s a personal progression for the main character, Dylan, and you have objectives that you want to achieve in that mission.SAXS: By and large, the story will be linear at the end of the day, but some of the experiences will be different.Replayability, then.LEE: That’s why we’re doing the multiplayer.{PAGE TITLE=Front Mission Evolved Continued}So multiplayer is a big, big focus, then? What sort of game modes can we expect?LEE: We can’t tell you how many there will be, but there’s obviously gonna be deathmatch, team deathmatch, we have a game mode with strategic points on the map that you want to control, that sort of thing.SAXS: The game modes run the gamut of interesting things to do with the Wanzers, and we’re focusing a lot on the team, so the maps are built for different sized teams.And how far along is the game at the moment?LEE: We’re about 50%. The next 50% is a lot of balancing, because it’s really important that we get the balance right, both for online and single-player. When you can customise thousands of different combinations of Wanzers, the team needs to make that the gameplay is balanced.SAXS: There’s a big focus on not just slapping on stickers, but also material customisation, and having a lot of other things you can do with your Wanzers to customise them.A huge amount of parts and decals, then, and the ability to do pretty much whatever you want with them?LEE: Well, we made a Lakers Wanzer!(Everyone laughs)Hashimoto-san, how do you personally feel the series is being handled with this particular version?HASHIMOTO: Each of the companies have their own strengths. For story, assets, and CG graphics, we’re really strong, while Double Helix are really good at making real-time action games and they have their own multiplatform engine, and so we’re combining these these things to make a great product.Is there anything particularly cool about the game that you want to talk about? What, to you, is the most amazing thing?LEE: To me personally, the most amazing thing is how these two genres can work so well together – how a Front Mission strategy RPG feels really good as an action game. The ability to control a Wanzer, to feel the weight and feel the movement and move through these really beautiful environments that we’ve been crafting just feels perfect.HASHIMOTO: My favourite part is the vehicle customisation. It’s great to have the chance to express yourself so that when you’re playing multiplayer, you can really show off your Wanzer to everyone.SAXS: We haven’t talked about this before, but the contrast between being in the mech, but also getting out of the mech. The missions where you’re outside, you get a really good feel for the size of your Wanzer and a feel for your character, and when you get back in your mech it’s the best feeling in the world.So how does the on-foot play handle, and factor in?LEE: There are certain areas that a giant Wanzer can’t go – like in this room, for instance. (Laughs) So there are reasons why Dylan and his squad need to get out of their Wanzers and traverse an area that isn’t accessible normally. That gameplay is really fun too because, as Saxs said, you really feel how small you are. You also have a variety of weapons and I think the gameplay on foot will be accessible to people who’re used to playing Call of Duty.SAXS: Once you’ve been shot at by a full-sized Wanzer battalion, you get a feel for size. (Laughs)

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