Over the years Hideo Kojima has become synonymous with one thing and one thing alone: Metal Gear. The bar of excellence he created with Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation, and the amount of anticipation that has surrounded his PlayStation 2 sequel is enormous. When it was revealed that he would be heading up as producer for another project at Konami Computer Entertainment Japan on Sony’s machine, the excitement level around Zone of the Enders started bouncing to new heights. In recent months Zone of the Enders has become known as the game that comes with the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty demo, but fortunately, as we have discovered, Zone of the Enders could have easily stood on its own, despite some flaws.
Zone of the Enders takes place far into the 22nd century, at the point where the human race has been able to expand a permanent presence to other plants. Merely one of many, Antilia is a colony orbiting around Jupiter. Leo Stenbuck, Zone of the Enders’ main character, has always been the kid that other children decide to pick on and make fun of. One day he is caught stealing from a UN Space Force facility, but as he and his friends are being yelled at, an enormous mech appears out of the sky, is shot down by an opposing robot and collapses on Leo’s friends. Scared for his life and the loss of his comrades, Leo flees through the now burning city and stumbles upon the enormous “Orbital Frame” called Jehuty. Accidentally falling into its cockpit, Leo is sucked into a world where the future of mankind becomes dependent on his skills as a pilot of Jehuty.
At a glance, controlling the Jehuty robot seems a daunting task; Zone of the Enders’ camera shifts around so quickly and rapidly that keeping up with the action can be intimidating. As soon as the game puts you in control, though, it becomes aware that there was much development time spent making sure that the game’s camera and control scheme worked in unison to produce a startling combination of drama and action that takes moments to understand and hours to fully master. Moving the left analog stick moves the mech forward, backward, up and down, while triangle moves it up and X swoops it down. Tapping the R2 button starts a dash maneuver, and using this in conjunction with the freedom of movement allows the user to manipulate the control of Juhuty to an unparalleled degree. The first few seconds are disorienting, but soon enough, twirling around and popping off speed dashes to escape enemy attacks becomes completely second nature.
There was only one moment during the game where control became a problem, and it’s when precise shots are necessary. Without spoiling, there’s one point during Zone of the Enders where the goal is to destroy a random series of tiny, white dots surrounding a spinning cylinder, and the right analog is used to control the crosshair. What makes it difficult is that not only does the crosshair move at a snail’s pace, but sometimes it “spreads” out, making it tough to pull off a specific shot. Since the amount of ammunition in this mentioned scenario is limited, having to move to another area, grab an ammunition box and begin shooting all over again can become an annoyance.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty holds onto the crown of graphical realism, but in the world of fantasy, Zone of the Enders is the king. There are times when the game will switch between FMV and real-time, but other than the addition of motion blur, it’s hard to tell the difference between them – it looks that good. There’s never a time when the game drops below its silky smooth 60 frames per second, even when there are six incredibly modeled and animated enemies taking pot shots at you at the same time. The first time that the Juhuty mech steps out from its holding garage and floats in mid-air, there’s a feeling of awe. This is experienced several times throughout Zone of Enders, especially when the boss mechs (which are absolutely huge – we’re talking screen fillers here) arrive.
If I were to stop writing about Zone of the Enders at this point and grade it thus far, it would easily garner up an A. It hurts me to do so, since there is so much about KCEJ’s beautiful mech fighter to like, but there are some nasty pitfalls, as well. The worst of all comes in the form of the game’s length. The easiest way to put it would to say that I booted it up for the first time at 12:00pm and finished it just before 5:00pm on the same day. There are harder difficulty levels (I completed it on normal), but it doesn’t change the objectives that need to be completed, it just changes the strength and amount of enemies in a given area (and even does little; pounding on the dash button in random directions can avoid most any maneuver). Finishing Zone of the Enders is an absolute cakewalk, which is so tragic for a game that had such an enormous amount of promise based upon its visuals and fighting engine. It would have been better if there was an incentive to play through Zone of the Enders multiple times, but beyond the opening of a two-player battle mode, there is no real reason to push through the world the Jupiter colony of Antilia second time.
While minute in comparison to the problem of game length, Konami of America should be thrown into a mud puddle for hiring such a terrible group of voice actors to drive the character’s lines in Zone of the Enders. If you pay attention, the emotional depth of Zone of the Enders’ plot, as short as it might be, is actually quite moving, but especially in the case of Leo, the amount of emotion that the voice actor put into the lines is pitiful. During times that he should be acting valiant or upset, he always, no matter the situation, continually sounds absolutely happy, feeling no care in the world. I almost started chuckling during the moment where Leo breaks down crying; it carries no feeling to it at all. Besides Leo, Zone of the Enders is in the same boat of Shadow of Destiny: some of the voice acting seems to fit right in the character, while other times it’s hard not to wonder what the person was thinking when they were reciting this line of text into speech.
It is almost hard to describe how open ended KCEJ made Zone of the Enders; I’m not sure if I can recall a video game that has left itself more wide open for a sequel than. There are numerous gaps in the story that are never answered during those five hours of playtime, and at the end you are simply left wondering about why you weren’t able to do this and what a character meant when they said that. In fact, it almost seems that KCEJ chopped off the end of the game to push the title out the door (ala Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, or to perhaps to get word on Metal Gear Solid 2: SOL out?). You cannot explain the more intricate details of the plot misgivings without giving away what happens, but needless to say, the idea Zone of the Enders 2 is probably well into development already would not be surprising.
Zone of the Enders is one mixed bag of PlayStation 2 goodness. If KCEJ had taken an additional six months to lengthen the game and fill in the missing plot elements, the final product likely would have ended up making the inclusion of the Metal Gear Solid 2: SOL demo a much less important point. As it stands, the sequel can’t come soon enough.
-- Patrick Klepek