Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Essentials #30: Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner

The original 2001 Zone of the Enders was one of the first truly next-gen titles on the Sony PlayStation 2. Offering intuitive controls with full movement along three axes, its revolutionary design was the perfect video game realization of many an anime fan's dream of mech combat in three-dimensional space. Or, at least, the framework was there. In practice, the disappointing final product suffered from a number of design flaws unrelated to the controls and movement. The game lasted less than five hours, yet the experience grew quickly and painfully repetitive within that meager play time. The mission and enemy variety was just too limited to keep things interesting, and the heavy-handed story and wimpy protagonist didn't help matters. Ultimately, it felt like an underdeveloped tech demo, and the retail release became notable more for its inclusion of the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty demo.

As was clear from its ending, however, Zone of the Enders wasn't over. Konami Computer Entertainment Japan and legendary producer Hideo Kojima took the criticisms to heart, and, for the 2003 sequel, they set out to deliver the triple-A experience that the first game should have been. Writer Shuyo Murata, later of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots fame, was assigned to direct, while regular Kojima collaborator Yoji Shinkawa returned to guide the look of the game with his stunning mechanical designs.

Like its predecessor, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, known in Japan as Anubis: Zone of the Enders, was a mech action game heavily influenced by such anime classics as Gundam and Macross. Hewing closer to the Gundam end of the spectrum in its plot, the series explored issues of colonialism and independence, "Enders" being a pejorative term used by despotic Earthlings to refer to the oppressed colonists of Mars and beyond. Most of the activity in The 2nd Runner, however, revolved around a struggle between two powerful mechs and their pilots, providing some more emotional Macross-inspired action and drama.

In a strange reverse of the unpopular player character change from MGS to MGS2, replacing the whiny and shrill-voiced protagonist of the first ZOE was the unfortunately named Dingo Egret, who took over as the more mature and masculine "Frame Runner" (pilot) of Jehuty, the mysterious "Orbital Frame" housing an advanced AI by the name of ADA. Original protagonist Leo Stenbuck returned as a supporting character, and, as they did with Raiden in MGS4, Kojima's team actually managed to make him cool by aging him up and placing him in the cockpit of nothing less than the Vic Viper from Gradius, remodeled in The 2nd Runner as a transforming mech a la the Valkyrie from Macross. Speaking of which, ZOE2 contained one of the niftier secret modes in video game history in "Zoradius," a 3-D recreation of the first stage of Gradius.

In classic Kojima fashion, about half the game consisted of lengthy cut scenes of characters spouting off about power and ideals, freedom and liberty, and the validity of artificial life. I think there may have been a love story in there as well. As a fan of both mecha anime and the Metal Gear Solid games, I couldn't get enough of this stuff, though I should say that, perhaps because the setting was more outlandish, the dialogue in ZOE2, while still verbose, felt typically more endemic and less ponderous than in Metal Gear. It was subservient, rather than intrusive, to the gripping anime movie story of intense personalities and harrowing situations.

Freed of the near-future military aesthetic of the Metal Gear series, Shinkawa's Orbital Frames in ZOE resembled more lithe and agile versions of the Metal Gear Ray, crossed with the restrained beastliness of the Evangelion units. For The 2nd Runner, Konami additionally got fan favorite artist Kazuma Kaneko, he of Atlus's Megami Tensei series fame, to guest design the game's most weirdly hideous mech.

In addition to its ambitious mechanics, the first ZOE, released so early in the PS2's life, initially drew a lot of attention for being probably the most graphically impressive console game around at the time. On reflection, it was a lot of blandly repeating stages and enemies, and the polygonal cut scene models were somewhat generically PS2. Even Shinkawa's mechs, the highlight of the game, were too sharp and overly shiny, and Jehuty specifically had a slightly gaudy metallic blue and red paint job.

By the time the sequel came out, the Xbox and GameCube, with their richer palettes and more dramatic lighting, had already made the PS2's specs appear primitive by comparison. Yet ZOE2 was even more attractive at the time of its release, thanks to some crucial artistic decisions that made the most of the technology to produce one of the more visually striking games of its generation. Like the PS2 Metal Gear titles, there was a unified theme to ZOE2's look that turned the PS2's washed-out colors to its advantage. Most closely resembling MGS2, it sported a more filtered, less plastic appearance than the first game, with a very cool, predominantly blue-green color scheme. Some subtle cel-shading on explosion effects lent it an appropriately cartoony anime feel, and the CG cut scenes were replaced with hand-drawn animated sequences, giving ZOE2 a more distinct identity among PS2 action games.

As for how it played, the superb combat mechanics were largely the same as in the first game. In Gundam-esque fashion, the Orbital Frames of ZOE were equipped for battle at any range, and, beyond auto-targeting, the game would actually adjust the player's attacks automatically according to the proximity to the target. Thus, the same button that fired beams from afar would switch to saber attacks when up close. The 2nd Runner expanded Jehuty's arsenal considerably, adding a grab maneuver to hold or throw enemies and objects, a multi-lock ability to target clusters of enemies with impressive Macross-esque volleys of homing lasers, and a slew of other sub-weapons that the player could alternate between, usually at ADA's suggestion.

In ZOE, all of this action ran at a very high speed, and the sequel ratcheted it up a notch further, making for a brilliantly fluid giant robot dance of swords and lasers, as Jehuty zipped from one target to the next, firing off a flurry of projectiles in one direction, before skewering an enemy primed to intercept from behind.

The greatest failing of the first game was that there just wasn't a lot to do once the player became acclimated to that flashy ballet. Awesome boss battles aside, most of that game consisted of wandering around open arenas, taking on waves of only three types of enemy units. This was where ZOE2 improved on its predecessor most significantly, providing new and drastically different experiences from level to level. You might have to defend a civilian colony on one mission, and then, on the next, you would be chasing down a high-speed train under pressure of time. Another memorable mission involved slowly navigating through a minefield with only voiced instructions as a guide. There was even a Dynasty Warriors-inspired massive battle stage. Of course, the entire game was set pieces, and, amid the variety, the moments of conventional combat shone more brightly than ever before.

Easily the best level, however, had Jehuty staring down an armada of what were essentially Star Destroyers. As the player swerved around and between them, meanwhile shooting down small fry while dodging heavy fire, the game felt like a stage in Rogue Leader, only with a more versatile and maneuverable craft. It was at this point that the brilliant three-dimensional controls really brought the mecha fantasy to life as something beyond more linear jets or starfighters, as Jehuty swooped around and set down at the rear of each battleship, where the player would charge up and unleash its most devastating energy cannon. All this was set to a stirring instrumental version of the game's main J-pop theme, calling to mind those inspirational anime moments where the hero, having resolved to finish things, would just be in the zone and undaunted.

ZOE2 was an exciting example of what Hideo Kojima's team could do apart from Metal Gear, and without Kojima himself in the director's chair. While the result still felt, for better or worse, very Kojima, it was also an incomparably exhilarating experience that operated on a whole dimension beyond almost anything else on the market. Kojima-isms aside, the main complaint remained that, like the first game, it was just too short at about five hours, including cut scenes. And, with gameplay so exciting and a narrative so gripping, it was hard not to play it straight through in one sitting. But I'll be damned if that wasn't an amazing few hours. Recall the jeep chase at the end of Metal Gear Solid, and imagine a game that was a series of such thrilling moments. That's what Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner was.

Revisiting the Original
(or "You Cannot Defeat Anubis")

The first Zone of the Enders introduced some intriguing concepts, but it was ultimately a shallow experience that fell short of greatness. For newcomers to the series, I'd generally recommend skipping straight to the sequel. Given just how superb (and short) The 2nd Runner is, however, it's inevitable that a player, having completed it, will crave more of the same and, consequently, grow curious about the original. As I said, it was sadly a somewhat empty product, but there were nevertheless good things to recommend it, such as the boss battles.

I remember reading an interview with Hideo Kojima, where he insisted that games were not art, and, pressed further, he elaborated with a concept for a bad game that might be deemed art:
Maybe let's say there's a game out there where there's a boss that you cannot defeat. It's made that way. Normally, when you beat the boss in a game, there's a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, but if you can't beat the boss at all, if what you're left with is a sense of loss, then maybe that could be defined as art.
Space Invaders! you might snort, but I also smiled as I read that, because he had already kind of made that game. The first ZOE was infamous for, among other things, its inclusion of an unwinnable "final boss" fight.

At the end of the game, Jehuty would encounter its evil twin, Anubis, for the first time. Although the two frames were supposed to be evenly matched, Anubis had tapped into some sort of hyper mode that Jehuty was still lacking. As a result, the player would be utterly outmatched and forced to just play defensively until an escape route opened up, at which point Leo and Jehuty would have to flee while being taunted by Anubis's pilot. Roll credits.

This unprecedented anti-climax must have left a lot of players dumbstruck and in disbelief. Indeed, instead of a more basic "frequently asked questions" page, Konami's English-language Zone of the Enders website had a representative by the user name of "KCEJ HOMEPAGE" actually responding to fan questions on the official bulletin board, and one of the most recurring questions asked whether it was possible to actually win against Anubis. Again and again, KCEJ HOMEPAGE would respond to the broken English questions with simply "You cannot defeat Anubis." Eventually, after about the fortieth time, the response read, "This has been answered so many times. You cannot defeat Anubis." No, it still wouldn't be the last time he'd answer the question.

Ironically, when Jehuty finally did face off against Anubis in The 2nd Runner, the result was probably the most disappointing sequence in the game, as the player was denied access to any of the more exciting elements of combat, and instead forced to use the same move over and over again on cue. By contrast, ZOE's real final battle, a one-on-one shootout and slugfest against a different mech with most of Jehuty's abilities, was, in my opinion, the best fight in either game.

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