FEATURE: "Zone of the Enders HD Collection" Review

Hideo Kojima's mecha masterpieces return in glorious 1080p

Video games and anime share a very symbiotic relationship. Whether it's through manga and anime creators as character designers like in Dragon Quest or newer Tekken titles, or anime and manga based around gaming like Sword Art Online or BTOOOM!, it's always very easy to find some anime in video games and vice-versa. Then, you have the full-on homage-type games that let you do all the kickass stuff you see in anime and manga, but have their own original worlds and story--this is where Zone of the Enders comes in.

 

The original Zone of the Enders was released very early in the PS2's life, bringing lightning-fast free-roaming mecha action to Sony's shiny new console. Two years later, a sequel was released, building on the first game's story and gameplay elements. While regarded well by critics and fans, the games have never been major blockbusters for Konami, which is why the HD Collection was such an unexpected surprise. Probably in an effort to build up anticipation for Hideo Kojima's mysterious "Enders Project," Konami has taken both ZoE titles and given them a fresh HD coat of paint for the Zone of the Enders HD Collection.

 

Zone of the Enders

I'm not gonna lie--I bought the original Zone of the Enders specifically for the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo that came with it. Thankfully, I ended up loving the free game that came with my fifty-dollar demo--Zone of the Enders was fast, frantic fun, and a great change of pace from contemporary mecha games of the time like Armored Core 2. The real surprise isn't how great Zone of the Enders looks after its HD upgrade--it's how well it still plays.

 

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Zone of the Enders has a smooth, slightly unorthodox control scheme for its nimble mecha Jehuty--the left analog stick is for movement, triggers are for locking on and dashing, and you control altitude with the North and South face buttons (Triangle and X/Y and B). The East/West face buttons (Square and Circle/X and B) handle shooting, striking, and grabbing. When it's time to fight, your mecha will automatically switch between ranged and melee weapons, letting you focus on insane aerial evasion and defense. For people used to today's almost universal controls, it may take a moment to get situated, but the controls feel natural and intuitive.

 

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What really sets Zone of the Enders apart are its themes--it's not just mindless mecha mayhem. The game does have the very stock anime plot of "boy stumbles into advanced war machine and must fight evil," but ZoE takes a very thoughtful and considerate approach with its chaotic combat in highly destructible environments. You see, that city you're fighting in is still full of people--if the fight drags on too long, or your aim sucks, or you just don't care that you Rock-Bottomed an enemy into an orphanage, you won't get as much XP or health at the end of the battle. Yeah, the game scores you on how quickly and cleanly you can finish enemies off while keeping your surroundings intact and keeping casualties to a minimum.

 

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Zone of the Enders is actually pretty freeform for a game released in 2001. You can travel between combat zones on the colony, letting you backtrack to look for items or protect survivors from enemy attack. Story segments break up the action, ratcheting up the tension as you push through the campaign. If anything, while ZoE has a good formula, it can get pretty repetitive, since it boils down to "find the enemy squadron with the passcode, scour surrounding area for items while clearing it of enemies, then move to the next area" in every single combat zone.

 

Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner

Things feel immediately different when you start the second game, which appropriately takes place two years after the end of Zone of the Enders. Instead of playing as naive and terrified kid Leo Stenbuck, you play as hard-edged blue-collar mech pilot Dingo Egret (that is actually his name), who also manages to stumble into the scarily advanced Orbital Frame Jehuty, mysteriously abandoned by Leo on a lifeless moon. Zone of the Enders has a nice HD upgrade, smoothing out jaggy polygons and adding detail to your surroundings, but Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner truly shines, making one of the best-looking PS2 games even more beautiful.

 

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After trudging uphill through a snowstorm in the mecha equivalent of a Ford Pinto, you're immediately thrown into a white-knuckle fight for your life, piloting the Jehuty through a canyon and fighting what feels like the enemy's entire air force. ZoE: The 2nd Runner is much more structured than the original game, taking you along a straight path from one battlefield to the next. Each area has some free-roaming and exploration, but you won't be able to revisit previous combat zones--the briskly-paced story rushes you from one confrontation to the next, making the game feel a fair bit shorter than the original.

 

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It's kind of a trade-off--the combat in ZoE2 is tighter and better-implemented, and you'll be fighting off ridiculously massive waves of enemies with a bigger variety of weapons and tactics. Most battlefields are abandoned or full of unmanned machinery, so you can fight unhindered--with the rain of missiles coming for you, it would be stupid to pull an Iron Giant and take it on the chin for the townspeople.

 

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Instead of ZoE's hilariously dated polygonal character models for story scenes, The 2nd Runner tells its tale with loads of beautiful animation and hand-drawn character art, but the dialogue is a huge step down from the original. It was almost like somebody took the original Japanese script and ran it through Babelfish, leaving us with nonsensical exchanges and flat delivery.

 

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Another thing to consider with The 2nd Runner over the original ZoE is a surprising spike in difficulty. Zone of the Enders had a pretty standard difficulty curve, forcing you to become a better pilot as the game went on, but you'll hit the ground running in the sequel. I notice that as I played more of The 2nd Runner, I did better when I stopped overthinking the combat and just reacted to situations as they occurred. This is a game that truly rewards good reflexes, precision dodging, and flexibility in combat, but it's not for people who "just play games for the story."

 

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Demo

Oh yeah, the demo for one of my most-anticipated games of 2013 is included with the collection.

 

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is Platinum's action-packed foray into the Metal Gear universe, letting players step into the metallic shoes of cyborg ninja Raiden for a non-stop rollercoaster of spectacular action. The brief demo takes you through a two-on-one fight, a short stealth segment, and two larger battles (one of which can be stealthed through if you're careful) before ending with a pretty by-the-numbers boss fight.

 

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Revengeance is immensely fun to play, with combat centered around parries, counters, and occasionally using the environment to your advantage--I cut down a streetlight, then hopped out of the way as it landed between me and a group of enemies, giving me some breathing room and a second to reassess the situation before jumping back into the fight. Unfortunately, the demo is very short (I can carve through it on Normal in about ten minutes without watching any cutscenes and forgoing stealth), and the PS3 version of the demo is riddled with screen tears, collision errors, and other game-breaking glitches. Hopefully that won't be an issue in the final game.

 

Zone of the Enders HD Collection gives you two great games in one package, with the added bonus of the Revengeance demo. It's amazing how well the ZoE games have held up over the years--"High Speed Robot Action" never gets old when it's done right. Here's hoping that Kojima's "Enders Project" delivers the same quality.

 

REVIEW ROUNDUP

+ Two already-beautiful PS2 games look even better in HD

+ Intuitive, comfortable controls let you focus on the frenetic action

+ The original Zone of the Enders makes you fight in crowded cities and consider your surroundings

+ Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner changes pace and lets you fight to your heart's content after forcing you to hold back

+/- The 2nd Runner has a pretty steep difficulty curve compared to the first game

- No Japanese language option in either game

- Voice acting, dialogue and story in The 2nd Runner are pretty ridiculous--a big disappointment compared to the original

- Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance demo is incredibly short; PS3 version of demo is incredibly buggy

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