When 2001 came around, players around the world purchased Zone of the Enders; not because they knew what the game was about, but because what the game came with. Packaged with every copy of Hideo Kojima's High Speed Robot Action title, players were given a demo to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. I remember reading a review in a magazine back when it came out, saying something along the lines of "I paid 50 dollars for a demo, and got a pretty good game as well." That basically sums up my original view on the first game.
It was a pleasant surprise to play a mecha-based game where the controls were tight, fluid, fast and chaotic. Then in 2003, KCEJ along with Hideo Kojima, who was still acting as producer, released the sequel Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner. It was exactly how a sequel should be: it looked better, played better, fixed some of the issues its predecessor had and was a much better package on its own. It didn't even need a demo for 2004's Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater!
Almost a decade since that happened, Konami has released an HD collection of both games. It's designed for fans and veterans of the series and hopefully for newcomers that missed the opportunity last generation. HD collections can and have been pretty hit and miss, with some that clearly show a great deal of care, while others clearly show a lack of effort. That being said, where does this collection lie? In truth, it is a solid effort by the team at High Voltage; however it's not without its faults.
The first ZoE plays from the perspective of young Leo Stenbuck, an incredibly whiny brat who's had his whole world turned upside down once BAHRAM invaders attacked his colony on Antillia "“ a satellite orbiting the planet Jupiter. BAHRAM, led by the enigmatic Nohman, sought to harness the power of Metatron "“ an energy source that powers Orbital Frames "“ the name given to the series' mechas. Leo accidentally stumbles upon an Orbital Frame named Jehuty, and in a hasty decision, steps into what has become an entirely new meaning of the word 'cockpit.
Leo is then guided through sectioned portions of Antillia to fend off the remaining BAHRAM forces with the help of Jehuty's AI, ADA. You also have help from a woman named Elena on the Atlantis, a large ship from Earth which went to Jupiter to prevent Nohman from obtaining both Jehuty and Anubis. While the nod to Egyptian Mythology is intriguing (Djehuti and Anubis), the story itself is fairly simplistic and incredibly short, clocking in at a generous 5 hours. Leo is almost entirely unlikable due to childish naivety and ignorance of the world around him. Now, I understand he's made to be this way "“ he is a kid after all, but some of the dialogue will surely have even the thickest skin cringing. That being said, any and all complaints I have with him are completely irrelevant since I am playing as him, piloting Jehuty "“ the true star of the game.
Jehuty can move, fly and hover in three dimensions, and use booster jets to dash for short bursts of speed. Its basic commands are ranged attacks that allow you to shoot at enemies, or come in close for melee/blade combat. My opinion on the controls now are exactly the same as they were back in 2001, and that is that this might be the best control system for a mecha-based video game. It offers a fine degree of control without feeling clunky or, if you'll forgive the pun, robotic. The original ZoE's drawback was its lock-on function. The camera would at times try to fight with you and your lock-on ranged dashing attack wouldn't always hit. The draw distance for your attacks also has some problems with it; some enemies, notably bosses, can have attacks that take the entire length of the screen, whereas you need to be within the fixed range or else your attacks will simply disappear.
The visuals for ZoE definitely show the game's age with the cutscenes, but High Voltage should be commended for doing a good job cleaning up what they could with the actual gameplay. Unfortunately, it's not perfect. There are instances where the game's frame rate dips significantly. This can be a little irritating, especially when the game relies on a sense of fluidity when in combat. But as a whole, the game looks much better than the original.With Zone of the Enders 2, players assume the role of Dingo Egret "“ an ex-member of BAHRAM who also accidentally stumbled upon Jehuty when mining for Metatron on Jupiter's moon, Callisto. The plot takes an interesting turn when, as Dingo is eventually captured by Nohman, he is then repeatedly shot and near-death before being surgically attached to Jehuty. Now, he and Jehuty are one; his life exists through Jehuty's. And as one being, Dinguty's task is to gain the power necessary to stop Nohman once and for all.
The story feels more personal this time around because of the previous relationship between Nohman and Dingo. The cutscenes are fantastically done by the famous animators at Sunrise. KCEJ clearly took the criticisms from the first ZoE to heart, because the structure of The Second Runner's campaign is more varied, the bosses are more frequent and far more memorable, and the game itself is longer. Not only that but it also contains the single coolest upgrade ever - you will feel awesome.
The gameplay is largely the same as the first, but more refined. Zone of the Enders was a great foundation; The Second Runner took that and improved on it in many ways. The most notable difference is that the lock-on now properly works! Yes, my complaint with the first game was completely remedied in the sequel. Jehuty can now target multiple enemies by holding the Square button. Enemies also have a proper health bar, which is a welcome addition. The first ZoE had a grab function that felt underdeveloped; a problem that was fully realized in The Second Runner. Jehuty can still grab enemies but also swing and throw them into other enemies. Not only that, but there are objects around you that you can use as weapons, like large poles, or shields "“ like square panels from buildings. The Second Runner also ditched ZoE's hub-world style of play in favour of keeping the story moving at a consistent pace with a more linear focus. This to me was a good decision, as some of the missions you will do in the first game feel uncoordinated at times.
Even from a visual standpoint, The Second Runner raises the bar set by the first. Animations look better all around. Environments look more detailed and have better effects and the overall cel-shaded aesthetic looks gorgeous. However like the first game, this does seem to suffer from dips in framerate. It's a shame; the PS3 and 360 should not struggle with these older games, so it seems that more work could have been done to perfecting the performance. I wouldn't be surprised if the developers were to continue to support the collection with patches, but as it stands the collection is just shy of true greatness because of these shortcomings. The soundtrack contains a lot of incredibly catchy electronic music, and if you were one of the fortunate few who scored a Limited Edition copy of the collection, you will be able to listen to a selection of remixes from the soundtrack.
Aside from the main campaigns, both games have a versus mode where you can try out different Orbital Frames. It's a great way to waste some time, and there is an option for offline multiplayer action. The Second Runner has additional VR missions to further extend your play time.
Despite some infrequent framerate hiccups, and a general dislike for one of the two main protagonists, the Zone of the Enders HD collection is still highly recommended. For fans of the series, the games have never looked better, and for newcomers you get a chance to experience a mecha-game unlike any other. The price may seem a little steep for games that fall on the short side, but quality is always better than quantity and regardless of the minor performance issues, this is still a quality collection.
|Unrivalled mecha-based combat|
|Incredible Cel-Shaded visuals|
|Great animations from Sunrise|
|Leo 'Crybaby' Stenbuck|
|ZoE1's lock-on camera|