Thursday, October 31, 2013

Robot Retrospective: Super Robot Wars Operation Extend

So I finished up Super Robot Wars Operation Extend earlier in the month and now it's time for me to talk about it!You might say "But talking about a game three weeks after the last chapter was released (and several months after the first chapter was released) is pointless for a review!".You're absolutely correct.Which is why this is a retrospective.

When it was first announced I had mixed feelings about OE.On the positive side, it had a fairly massive cast list with a lot of old favorites and returning sophomores from Neo andZ2, using the One Year War as the main Gundam plot (not seen since 2004's SRW GC), and a very welcome addition in the form of the original Zoids anime; a series I had been wanting to see in SRW for years.On the less than positive side, this was another game using the engine from SRW GC and Neo, leading me to expect a LOT of reused resources and lazy animations.On the "Banpresto is doing some really good drugs" side, Sergeant Frog.De Arimasu.

When the first chapter hit, my fears about lazy animations mostly disappeared.See, Neo, as interesting a game as it was, had a good number of attacks not actually have an traditional SRW style animation.Instead the 3D map model would toss something or shoot something toward another 3D map model.Thankfully OE did away with this.While the attack animations aren't up to Z2 or OG2nd levels of beauty, they look good and seem to mainly be very concise and to the point.For example, rather than a Gundam firing off its beam rifle about a dozen times leading to the enemy dodging about half of them only to get turned to swiss cheese by the others, it only fires once or twice.This does lead to the amusing consequence of Lancelot Albion having an off hand rifle that it doesn't use for anything.

I think it's been juuust long enough that I miss the EW version.

The game utilizes the free moving, circle based system that the Wii's Super Robot Wars Neo used, rather than the traditional grid system.Think Phantom Brave, Makai Kingdom, or Valkyria Chronicles rather than Final Fantasy Tactics.I personally found the system to be interesting for a change of pace; though I wouldn't want the series to abandon its more traditional systems for it.Along with this are more tactical options with attacks, such as doing additional damage with burn attacks or the ability to knockback or shift a unit's position.

The Spirit system in Operation Extend is also borrowed from Neo.Rather than a fixed amount of SP your units begin with, a unit starts with about half of its normal SP and will gain it through attacking, defending, and at the start of each turn.Additionally spirit commands are tiered, with most having greater effects.For example, in most games the "Hot Blood" (Valor to those familiar with Atlus' OG translations) will double the damage dealt for the next attack.In OE as it levels it will increase damage by 50%, 100%, and 150% for varying SP costs.Overall the Neo system makes the turn to turn game quite a bit more tactically engaging than the usual system.

Operation Extend does a lot of things right.The player unit models look very good for a PSP game.Most of the enemies also look good, though it's obvious that more effort went into the player unit and major enemy models.The ability to replay stages so you can grind or try out other units is welcome, in concept (more on that later).As mentioned, the system is quite enjoyable, at least to me.Finally, the series selection is as wide and varied as it has ever been, ranging from 1979 all the way to 2010.Whether you're a Gundam fan, an 80s Takahashi Real Robot Fan, a 90s "But we don't make Transformers anymore" Super Robot fan, a fan of Go Nagai, or a robo-furry who wants to yiff a Murasame Liger, OE will have something you like to use.But not all the time (more on that later too).

Patlabor is another welcome addition to the franchise, even if I think its movies rival Star Trek: The Motion Picture as an insomnia cure.

Unfortunately for all its good, OE also has a lot of problems.The largest two of which are related to its status as a chapter-based game.First, OE is dauntingly long.If I had come into the game after it was finished, rather than playing each chapter as it was released, I'm not sure if I would have been able to finish it.I've yet to beat SRW Impact with it's 100+ stages, and OE has nearly double that game.

But the number of stages aren't just the problem.It's also their design.By about Chapter 5 it felt to me like each stage had devolved into "kill a bunch of waves of grunt enemies with a single boss".Sometimes killing the boss was all that was necessary and sometimes it would stop the waves of reinforcements.Either way each stage quickly became mind-numbingly dull.Occasionally there would be a break from the tedium only to have it start right back up again next stage.I understand that having a wide, varied stage design for 200 missions would be a lot of work, but at that point you have to ask yourself if you really need that many missions.

Another problem with the stage design was how the game chose to handle bosses.I agree that earlier games had a lot of bosses be complete pushovers: most telling was my ability to solo both Compact 3 and Z2 Destruction Chapter's final bosses with a single upgraded unit (Ialdabaoth and Chirico's Scopedog, respectively though admittedly the latter was a gimmick run where I had invested heavily into Chirico's skills), OE's method of making the bosses more challenging only lead me to feel more tedium at the game.Starting with the end of Chapter 3's Deathsaurer fight, bosses would heal once their HP had been dropped to certain amounts, sometimes multiple times.

If you played Alpha Gaiden, this will seem familiar.However, Alpha Gaiden used it more sparingly than this.The only times it really stuck out in my mind were Guin's Psycho Gundam Mk-II, Thrudgelmir, and both of the final bossesOE uses it for almost every single boss in the latter half of the game.Most telling is when you fight many of these bosses again in the game's simulator mode, they are much more enjoyable to take down.If that wasn't bad enough, a lot of them have some kind of unavoidable trap that your units fall into.The most frustrating were some late game original enemies that would push all of your units backward.In the end, the bosses seemed not to be more challenging, just more frustrating.

Chirico gets three Scopedogs.Shou gets an aura battler that wasn't in his series.Karl Schubatlz gets to be in two units. And yet Eiji doesn't get Layzner Mk-II. :(

Unit availability varies from series to series.I'm not too bothered by it overall, but I can see where some might be.Some series have quite a few more units than others, mostly those with "story".Zoids has 11 (counting DLC) while Ryu Knight only has Zephyr, Steru, and Magidora.Going in I wasn't expecting more than the main trio from SEED Destiny, Setsuna from 00, Heero from Wing, or the title unit from Gurren Lagann.Most annoying are Chirico and Shou having 3 units (and a total of 12 Votoms units overall though most use the same model), but Eiji is stuck with Enhanced Layzner the entire game, when a perfectly good model from GC exists.Having Puru useable while Puru 2 sits n the sidelines also seems like a misstep.Having usable versions of Mister Bushido and Zechs Merquise (in those guises rather than their more heroic unmasked identities) was a nice surprise though.

The next thing that needs mentioning is the game's level system.Units that attack a higher leveled enemy have a penalty to accuracy, damage, defense, and the ability to dodge.If this disparity is high enough enemies can very well instantly kill your units, who have no chance of hitting them in return.Couple this with the game constantly having certain units automatically deployed and are mission critical, and you have the recipe for more frustration.The ability to grind helps alleviate this, but it really does encourage you to keep everyone matched up, rather than using who you want.Most infuriating is this system only applies to you, and not the AI.

Also of note is OE's dual currency system for upgrades.Rather than simply using credits to upgrade your units, you need to use both credits and "EC".EC is significantly harder to gain in large numbers, as it is only granted from completing missions, certain battle encounters, and completing the game's achievements.By the midpoint of the game I was sitting on several million credits, but had almost no EC, making the currency useless.I'm sure EC had some sort of point, but overall it does nothing but cause me to have less fun with the game.

The last sour note I have regarding OE is the story.This might not be totally fair, given I'm not remotely fluent in Japanese, but it just seemed...underwhelming.The cross series interactions were few and far between.The original enemies seemed to be space fleas from nowhere that did bad things (and yet the game didn't include the Vajra from Macross Frontier).You seemed to fight several bosses for the sole reason of "we had the model from Neo/GC hanging around".With a game as big as OE, I'd have liked to see more interactions and woven together plots.

(Though having Lelouch and Suzaku end up on opposite sides of the Helic/Guylos conflict from Zoids, only to reconcile once Prozen proved he was too much of a tool for even Suzaku to blindly follow was a good touch.)

Please show up again in a better game Van!

I didn't touch on the DLC issue much.Some people will have a problem with it.For the most part I don't.It was fairly priced at 100 to 200 yen a piece, and all of the added DLC did take significant work, with only the Nu Gundam/Sazabi combo being a reuse from GC.The last few packs of nothing but simulator missions seemed to be the most cash grabby (not counting the Double XP/Credit/EC/Item drop cheat items).Having Sirbine and the Geass R2 units were nice benefits, but the game is no worse without them.

There is one exception though.The Zoids Zero units.See, one of the DLC packs added Naomi and Leena's Gun Sniper's from Zoids New Century/ZERO (aka the one with Bit Cloud that was on Toonami).Now, like with the other DLC, having these two cost money is fine to me.They took effort to get working.My problem is they didn't follow it up with Liger Zero, let alone the rest of the Blitz Team.In other words, they added a series without its main character.The franchise has never done it before (discounting bonus unit appearances, such as Sirbine, S Gundam, or Gundam F90), and it just seems...wrong to me.I know it's a silly, small point to be annoyed by, but it just bugs me.

In the end I'm not sorry I played OE.I don't think it's the worst SRW Game.Admittedly I haven't figured out what I think the worst SRW game is, but I don't think OE is it.However it is very, very far from the top.I hope if Banpresto chooses to revisit the idea of a downloadable game, they scale it back a little bit and go for quality over quantity as far as the stage design goes.If that requires them to scale back the number of series in the game, so be it.
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