Review: Zone of the Enders The 2nd Runner: Mars

Some games age more gracefully than others.  Arcade games like Moon Patrol or Asteroids are exactly what they need to be already, so playing them today is every bit as good as when they came out, assuming you’ve got a taste for the genre.  Super Mario Bros, Alundra, Final Fantasy III/VI, Earthworm Jim and hundreds more are good as they are or only need a little bit of mental adjustment to dive in.  The advent of 3D, though, was a rocky time, and the PS2 era saw developers working on fundamentals that, honestly, even today still sometimes get fumbled.  Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner came out in 2003 at a point when a lot of problems were solved but the fight to tame the in-game camera was still raging, and while Zone of the Enders The 2nd Runner: Mars has brought the game into 2018 with modern resolutions and a high frame rate it also carries along the camera issues that were baked in to the game’s design.  Accept that there will be several rounds of swearing at early-2000s gaming problems, though, and there’s a fantastic giant robot sci-fi action-fest waiting in the civil war on Mars.

Dingo Egret is content to be a worker on Jupiter’s moon Callisto until he finds the orbital frame (giant robot) Jehuty just as the Martian military force BAHRAM attacks.  Jehuty was the same orbital frame used in the first Zone of the Enders by its hero Leo, and it’s still a beast of a machine capable of lightning-fast attacks both ranged and melee.  After a brief, optional tutorial Dingo leaves Callisto and ends up on Mars, where his former ties to BAHRAM and the pretentiously-named leader Nohman cause all sorts of anime-style drama.  Thankfully once the bulk of the intro is out of the way the action kicks in the cutscenes hang around just long enough to provide a plot-based transition from one new location to the next.

Jehuty is basically a juggernaut, massively overpowered and a blast to control.  It automatically locks on to the closest enemy and a single button switches between ranged and sword attacks.  The boost lets Jehuty not only move faster but also gives alternate attacks depending on movement, with the sword-swipe and charged shot breaking through shielding enemies while the multi-lock-on laser can target either an enormous amount of enemies at once or concentrate it all on a single one.  The alternate attack button can be used for a grab move, letting you pick up marked chunks of the scenery to use as enhanced protection or for a thrown projectile, and this works just as well on enemies.  As you beat bosses they let reward you with sub-weapons that can be swapped out at will for the grab, giving you a variety of skills ranging from what’s functionally a force-push to a massive cannon that takes several seconds to activate but does incredible damage once fired.  Hitting the left bumper pauses the action and brings up the sub-weapon menu, so you’ve never stuck in the middle of a fight with the wrong secondary ability out of reach.  The action flows fast, and once you start reacting at the speed it wants, you can flow through piles of robots with differing abilities, crushing one after the other at lightning speed.  Jehuty is incredibly powerful and once you’re dialed into its systems nothing stands a chance against it.

Except for that camera, of course.  While open levels or big inside levels fare well, there are multiple areas in the game where the most deadly foe isn’t part of a robot swarm but rather a lack of situational awareness.  The camera automatically locks on to an enemy, keeping it mostly at the center of the screen, but that means there are other things you can’t see that would be awfully helpful to know about.  With an enemy ahead and a pole or metal sheet behind there’s no way to use the latter on the former without backing up and hoping you land in grabbing range.  One boss fight in particular sees you inside a multi-staged torus going up against an enemy that charges at you quickly, and standard attacks don’t work.  You need to grab the lesser enemies and use them as shields, which is hard to do when you need to focus on two different things at once.  On the one hand, the boss has rapid attacks so you want to focus on it, on the other the smaller enemies are good at reversing a grab so you need to focus on them to get a hit in first, throwing them off balance for a second to get the grab in.  Another level sees you dropping through what’s basically a deep well with pistons slowly crunching in from the sides, crushing anything between in a one-hit kill, and it’s far too easy to not know you’re within the squishing area until too late.  The tight focus on a single enemy is great for fast combat but terrible when needing to keep track of more than just the one objective, and there are a few too many levels that would be nearly impossible if Jehuty wasn’t such an overwhelmingly powerful machine.

Of course, Zone of the Enders The 2nd Runner: Mars is fully VR compatible, so there’s a brand new way to view the action.  The VR view is from Jehuty’s cockpit, complete with Dingo’s body replacing yours, and you can look up to see the robot towering above your head dishing out damage.  It sounds amazing on paper but, at least in the PC version that I’m reviewing, its implementation is just amazingly bad on the technical side.  Say you’ve been playing ZOE2 normally and want to switch to VR.  First things first, you’ll want to hop in and change the screen resolution so the game isn’t trying to render itself twice at headset resolution and then again full-screen HD.  Then you’ll probably need to exit the game, because there’s no Re-center View button and if your headset isn’t facing forward you’ll need to sit at a weird angle.  Once you’ve restarted (after manually closing Steam VR, because it won’t restart otherwise) with your head exactly where you want the game to set the viewpoint you’ll also need to make sure to keep still a second time when a cut-scene comes on.  The first time I tried VR I had to sit at a 45 degree angle, which worked fine for both gameplay and game-engine cutscenes, but there are also anime cutscenes and those ran not only straight ahead, where I’d want to be facing in the first place, but at an angle because apparently I’d twisted my head a bit when the first one ran.  This is nothing a Re-center View button could fix, but there’s no keyboard command or menu option to do this.  And honestly?  Once it’s working VR is a nice gimmick but hardly worth the effort.  There are plenty of games out there that VR makes a perfect addition to (see Thumper, for example) but Zone of the Enders 2 isn’t significantly enhanced by it.

Closing Comments:

Despite its issues I honestly enjoyed my time with Zone of the Enders 2.  The VR problem was overcome by simply not using it and the camera is a relic of the game’s age.  When the action gets moving and Jehuty is dashing from one enemy to the next in a series of homing lasers and sword-strikes it feels fantastic, with the ultra-fast attacks making for incredibly satisfying combat.  The story is ridiculous and the dialogue terrible, but somehow it all comes together as a wonderful relic of the early 2000s.  It’s easy to forgive a few rough edges when taking the game in context of when it was created and fixing its issues would take a complete rebuild rather than a remaster.  Zone of the Enders 2 The 2nd Runner: Mars is a great recreation of a game that was amazing back in its day, and while not all of it stands up to the test of time, more than enough does to make it worth hopping in to a mech and lighting up the skies with burning robot shrapnel.

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