Zone of the Enders laid a very solid gameplay foundation which The 2nd Runner built upon very extensively. It essentially took all the systems and features of the first game and multiplied it by a hundred, and in this case too much of a good thing wasn’t bad at all.
The first game introduced a very sublime and smooth combat system, borrowing some elements of Virtual-On where the nature of the attacks would vary depending on the distance between you and your foe. It also introduced this fluid, authentic, and seamless floating sensation. The 2nd Runner retains that solid foundation and adds so much more to it. You can perform volatile and context specific actions which involve interacting with the destructible environments, and the attack combinations are far more diverse and varied compared to the simple (yet still effective) approach of the first game.
The 2nd Runner gives you so many types of sub-weapons that you feel a little spoiled for choice, but they’re all utilized effectively throughout the course of the game. Where the first game barely had a dozen enemy types, The 2nd Runner throws armies upon armies of numerous enemy types of all shapes and sizes. The same goes for the bosses, which were impressive in the first game but The 2nd Runner once again introduces a much wider and varied cast of boss characters, ranging from towering behemoths, to intense close quarters combat, and even a battle that was strongly inspired by Psycho Mantis (Metal Gear Solid).
Simply put, The 2nd Runner gives you more of everything… and I mean a lot more.
Despite having solid combat mechanics, Zone of the Enders was somewhat lacking in terms of encounter design. Enemy attack patterns were very simplistic, so even though you had a wide array of sub weapons and combat options available to you, there was no need to actually use them. The game lacked any meaningful degree of challenge, and you could easily get through it by simply charging every enemy and melee attacking them. Even bosses, which should be the most challenging encounters in the game, basically amounted to impressive looking damage sponges that never required you to employ any unique combat strategies.
The 2nd Runner made key improvements in these areas, ramping up the challenge and demanding that the player make use of all the tools at their disposal. To go along with the improved enemy variety on a visual level, the game also features a ton of tactical variety between different types of enemies. Benefiting from vastly improved combat AI, each enemy type has very distinct attack patterns and tendencies, requiring severely different approaches by the player in order to defeat. The improved enemy patterns extend to the boss fights as well, with bosses possessing elaborate behaviors that require unique strategies to overcome. Across the entirety of the game, The 2nd Runner consistently provides a greater degree challenge than its predecessor, which helps keep the player engaged throughout.
We both agree, The 2nd Runner builds upon the foundation established by the original and makes key improvements to come away with better gameplay.
When it comes to overall game design, it’s really the case of apples and oranges.Zone of the Enders and The 2nd Runner may share the same core gameplay but the game design couldn’t be any more dissimilar. The first game featured a single overworld where you could visit smaller arena-like levels at your own pace and choosing, the idea was to explore a single game world as you would in an adventure game, with emphasis on objectives and organic puzzles. The 2nd Runner on the other hand plays like a linear fast paced action game, with heavy emphasis on combat and featuring more focused and varied set pieces in a variety of different locations. On this topic, we find ourselves divided on these two varying approaches to game design.
Don’t get me wrong, The 2nd Runner is one roller coaster of an action game and is perhaps one of the most genuinely thrilling and epic action-driven experiences in gaming. However in my view, the first game was far more ambitious and special in its design. While it may not have achieved genre defining greatness with its approach, and it certainly left much to be desired in its scope and length, but when it was all said and done the vision of Zone of the Enders still ended up winning me over.
What Zone of the Enders did so well was that it made you feel like you were inside a living breathing space colony, one that you could explore freely in a non-linear fashion. Unlike its more chaotic sequel, the first game was all about absorbing your surroundings and exploring it at your own pace. In many ways it felt like an adventure game akin to The Legend of Zelda, although not nearly as grand or immense in scope and depth.
What I enjoyed about the design was that it felt very organic, as the game world was constantly reacting to you and your actions in real-time. Unlike the second game where you pretty much barged in guns blazing, Zone of the Enders made you care for the game world, because a crucial aspect of the design required you to literally protect the space colony. The game featured these S.O.S missions where you need to quickly and swiftly protect human settlements from enemy attacks, but even outside these optional missions the game constantly made you mindful of your surroundings, encouraging you to fight in a manner that would cause minimum damage to them. It’s such compelling part of the design that many do not seem to appreciate, but I felt it really did so much in creating an immersive game world.
I also enjoyed the more non-linear sense of progression which involved completing certain objectives and solving organic puzzles. One such situation involved a real-time boss battle that would cause certain death if you chose to charge in, instead encouraging you to take a step back and take note of what you observed in order to find a logical solution.
As short as it was, Zone of the Enders made every inch of it count and so its unique design and flow certainly left a lasting impression. To me the design of Zone of the Enders was far more meaningful than the summer blockbuster action approach of The 2nd Runner.
With other topics, I have an appreciation for the game I don’t quite prefer, but in this instance I feel very strongly that the overall game design in The 2nd Runner is far superior. In my initial playthrough of Zone of The Enders, the only reason I was able to make it through to the end was that I was quite enjoying the fast and frantic gameplay. The level design and mission structure really began to irritate me by the game’s end, and I was glad when the game finally mixed things up a bit in the final stages.
Where Zone of the Enders features bland, lifeless square arenas, The 2nd Runner takes you on a journey through a variety of intricately designed levels that are both visually and structurally distinct. The levels no longer have the freedom of exploration present in the original game, but I’ll take smartly designed linearity over the freedom to explore emptiness every time. The mission design is also improved through simplification in The 2nd Runner. The first game featured many optional objectives that forced you to revisit previous levels, and often the game made you take a wild guess as to which level actually contained this objective. The Second Runner doesn’t have any of these types of optional objectives, but it results in a much quicker pace and removes the annoying backtracking requirement.
The 2nd Runner also does a much better job of filling the levels with interesting things to see and do. There are a handful of fantastic set pieces in The 2nd Runner that really bring a degree of variety and substance to the game. Every level in the first game basically amounted to an urban environment for you to kill enemies within, but The Second Runner takes you to some truly impressive scenarios, especially for a Playstation 2 game. Years before Uncharted 2, The 2nd Runner featured an astounding boss fight on a moving train, and later on there is an incredibly impressive airship battle high in the sky. Nothing in the first game can come close to either of these sequences, but even the standard levels in The 2nd Runner are much more engaging than those in Zone of the Enders.
It certainly does sacrifice some of the player’s freedom when compared to the first game, but the improved level design, interesting and varied environments, and some truly impressive set pieces are the reason I think The Second Runner is better designed.
In terms of design, while we agree that the inherent differences in these games lead to one clear winner, we disagree on which is the better approach to design.
Zone of the Enders – 1
Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – 4
I can appreciate a lot about what Zone of the Enders tries to do, but ultimately I feel like the execution didn’t match the ambition. The 2nd Runner built upon the things that the first game did right while heavily altering or outright scrapping the things it didn’t do all that well. In my mind, this series is the perfect example of how to take a game with solid ideas and a strong foundation but uneven execution and follow up with a sequel that can truly be called a great game. Some of the original game’s vision was compromised for the sequel, but the result is a hands down better game. There’s certainly something to be said for pure ambition and artistic vision, but sometimes depth, mechanics, and execution win out, and this is one of those times.
Zone of the Enders – 3
Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – 2
I adore both games, The 2nd Runner really improved upon the first game in areas that mattered while offering a excellent action packed experience with jaw dropping set pieces. However, as an overall experience the original Zone of the Enders to me was far more memorable. The 2nd Runner was a relatively safer undertaking as it did things that gamers were guaranteed to enjoy, while Zone of the Enders was far more brave and daring in its ambiguous ideas and motives.
Zone of the Enders came out at a time when gaming had entered a new era and the expectation for that next generation experience couldn’t have been any higher. Zone of the Enders was forward looking in that regard, and despite its length it gave a very promising indication of endless possibilities and potential of video games.
Even as I played it recently in the HD Collection, I couldn’t help but admire its ambitions and I applaud it for being able to execute such lofty promises despite some obvious shortcomings. The 2nd Runner may have aged better, but Zone of the Enders still succeeds at providing a mesmerizing escape into a believable game world when you really give it a chance.