The year is 2001, three years after the release of Metal Gear Solid, the game that introduced gamers to movie/game hybrids, a convoluted plot straight out of a Tom Clancy book on drugs, and IA with peripheral vision and that COULD. HEAR. FOOTSTEPS. A Stealth Action experience that set a new standard for videogames, like many revolutionary titles that came out in the magical year that was ’98, and after silently crawling their way through the military compound of Shadow Moses Island, players craved more, and as soon as possible…and Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind it all, in 2001 answered to their prayers: a Metal Gear Solid 2 demo disk was included wih every copy of his brand new game, Zone of the Enders: basically Kojima’s take on Evangelion, but with less mentally damaged children and cooler mechas.
Eventually Metal Gear Solid 2 got released, violated the minds of players all over the world with its even MORE absurd plot and made, of course, even more money than the first one. So Kojima, wanting to leave the franchise open-ended, decided to go back to that semi-obscure mech franchise everybody seemed to care so much about, and decided to make a sequel to that too…after that, the world was never the same.
So, Anubis: Zone of the Enders (Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner, in the West)…why is it good? What is it that really seals the deal and makes it such a solid game? Is it the overall design and art direction that makes everything, from the D-Tier unmanned drones to the cutting-edge Orbital Frames, look like they’re the coolest of their kind? Is it the intuitive control scheme? Is it the sheer amount of content and replayability, extras included? Yes, yes, and yes, and the list could go on, so yeah, this is like finding a golden needle in a haystash full of needles, isn’t it? I say we start from the begining then, let’s analyse this a little more in-depth.
The first 30 minutes
The game starts on Callisto, one of Jupiter’s moons, where our protagonist, an ex Orbital Frame pilot called Dingo Egret, now works as a Metatron miner (Metatron being an extremely valuable energy resource that powers basically everything that’s not lawnmowers and kitchen blenders): during a storm our hero follows a trail of energy signatures into a cave with his mining mecha (a lumbering pile of scrap metal that moves at the blinding speed of 15 mph), and after getting off of it to find out the source of those signatures, he literally stumbles into the cockpit of…well…you see that sick robot in the preview picture? Yeah, THAT. The Jehuty, a top of the line Super Robot built with maximum combat efficency in mind.
The cave starts shaking up, Dingo panics and starts up Jehuty by mistake, blowing up the whole cave thanks to its sheer amount of power, and has his first encounter with the Bahram Forces, a rogue militia of martian settlers that claims to fight for Mars’ indipendency, that attacks him to “get back” the Orbital Frame. Dingo, being an ex-pilot, obviously fights back, bests one of their lieutenants, infiltrates their mothership, gets shot from their leader, revived and strapped into the cockpit of Jehuty (that now doubles as a life support system) by the same lieutenant he shot down a few minutes ago…from here on out, it’s a non-stop hype train of High Speed Robot Action.
The story premise is simple: “yo, this totally-not-evil-looking old general is actually a psycho that wants to destroy the solar system, go off him, since you’re the one strapped to the pilot seat of the best mecha in the universe…but wait, HIS mecha is actually stronger and his fortress has a wall of COMPRESSED SPACE to protect it, so you need the best weapon to ever appear in a videogame and a software update to kill him, go get them.”
This is one of the strong points, in my opinion, because being the objective is so vague there’s a lot of room for sequence variety, so one moment you’re trying to save a martian city from Spider Tanks, the other you’re downing A FLEET OF DREADNAUGHTS by shooting the super weapon mentioned earlier into their power core at POINT BLANK RANGE…but it all feels cohesive, thanks to a solid execution, and no sequence feels out of place.
Gameplay and Mechanics
The gameplay in itself is an off-shoot of the Character Action genre (think Devil May Cry), that slightly semplifies the attack mechanics (just one button block, one to grab, one to “dash” and one to attack, and the kind of attack, long or short ranged, changes depending on your distance from the enemy) but adds a new layer of depth by including Y-axis movement (you can fly and adjust your height), maintaining the challenge of his more “grounded” cousins. Enemy encounters work like in other similar titles: you get swarmed by various enemy types whose skills compensate each other’s, and your goal is to take them out in the most efficient way possible to move on with your objective, so again, nothing extraordinary…but the flow of the game, thanks to the intuitive control scheme, is as smooth as butter and it’s a joy to play (or to look at, if we’re talking skilled players).
Most of the boss battles are also incredibly satisfying, especially from the second half of the game onwards (with one exception, but it may be a spoiler), where the game finally lets a particularly annoying recurring boss go and starts throwing at you stuff like a moon-sized Mecha Death Star and your mentor piloting a particularly ninja-ish Orbital Frame.
Visuals and Sound
The HUD design, clean and sleek, with his tron-esque whites and blues, is straight out of Metal Gear Solid 2, being this game the culmination of Kojima’s “Tron Period”, the soundtrack is generally solid, has its peaks in boss themes and in a couple of sequences (the Dreadnaught Battle being the prime example), and sets the tone of the game perfectly, blending trance and classical for outstanding results, and last but not least the character and world design…well…it’s Yoji Shinkawa, do yourself a favor and look that name up if you’re not familiar with his works, because if you are, i think i said enough.
So, to finally end this totally unbiased (i swear, i’m being the most unbiased i can talking about my favourite game of all time) analysis/review/thing, why is the damn game good, 3rd Runner? Well, i gotta say that -at least for me- it’s the sequence variety working in conjunction with near-perfect mechanics that truly takes the cake (because art style alone doesn’t get you anywhere, sadly, even if i, first, adore Shinkawa’s style): the fact that aside from the presence of combat every sequence manages to feel unique, with objectives always shifting in order to put you and your Frame’s potential to full use, is for me what makes Anubis: Zone Of The Enders such a fun and satisfying experience…and an incredible example of how well a system like this could have been used for future, way more ambitious projects, if only Konami didn’t try to bury it after an HD Collection that didn’t live up to their selling expectations.
But i can bet that out there there’s already some indie guy, if not Kojima himself, planning the resurrection of High Speed Robot Action, because in this industry nothing ever really “dies”, it just gets a new coat of paint and goes back into the fray, ask Hideki Kamiya.
I hope you found this excuse of an analysis entertaining and somewhat insightful, and if you think something’s wrong with it, feel free to say it! Feedback is always well received. 3rd Runner out.
…did i mention there’s a secret Versus Mode with playable bosses and a Gradius minigame? Because those are cool too.