Zone of the Enders HD Collection review – Kojima classics prove a mechs bag

Against all odds in a duo of games that boasts the innately enjoyable spectacle of mech combat, the most interesting element of playing Zone Of The Enders and its sequel today is the gap in quality between the two. Kojima Productions took a solid concept and fleshed it out from a repetitive tech demo to a visually engrossing action game with vigour and purpose in the space of two games. That’s a fascinating journey of iteration to burst-attack your way through.

Zone of the Enders HD Collection PS3 review

You’re a kid from the wrong side of town in ZOE 1 who stumbles into an Advanced Orbital Frame (so, mech then) named Jehuty while he’s dodging fire from BAHRAM forces (other, nastier mechs). Once you’re strapped in, Jehuty’s AI ADA runs you through the basics of combat, which offer ranged and melee attacks to fire off rapidly or hold for a more powerful burst attack – there’s also a mega-fun grab for when you’re really up close.

By the skin of its teeth, the game gives you a satisfactory array of approaches to any given fight: keep a distance and burst-fire foes to smithereens, or charge in and melee, but you soon find that with just three enemy types to contend with, none of whom require any particular tactic to beat, you hardly need to be General Patton while manning Jehuty.

Jehuty's early prototype, the Dong-tron 3000, is still evident in the final design.

At least there’s a half-decent story in place to at least give you an idea /why/ you’re flying from grid to grid and clearing out butternut squash-shaped baddies. In time-honoured Kojima tradition, there’s a very distinct separation of exposition and action, the latter plunging you into a first-person view and filling your ears with near-future sci-fi. But while your purpose is clear, Zone Of The Enders doesn’t sweat the details of how to achieve it as well as it should. Too often you’re reduced to revisiting locations and clearing out enemy Orbital Frames all over again because you weren’t really sure what you were supposed to do there the first time.

The repetition soon weighs heavy, and the HD update has done nothing to hide how unkind the years have been to the game’s harsh lines and vectors – although it remains a great piece of sound design. Usually we’d berate a game for being short, but you really feel like you’ve had your fill of Orbital Frames by the time the six-hour campaign concludes. Alone, it’d be a tough one to recommend to anyone coming in cold without a spur of nostalgia to drive them through the endless battles.

Of course, it isn’t alone. Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner elevates this package considerably. It’s prettier, more interesting, less repetitive and altogether worth playing as a newcomer or an existing fan. The visual style this time wears the series’ comic-book heritage on its sleeve, the screen filling with smoke plumes and laser fire that makes combat feel so much more dangerous and exciting. Facing ten enemy types instead of three helps, too.

Combat controls are largely the same, but now you’ve got four-hit combos to attempt, the final hit determining whether you throw your adversary sky-high, or pull them back to you for more stabbing. Boss battles are bigger, more pulse-affecting events now, too, ramping the difficulty level right up to – but not quite beyond – the limit.

Incidental details make a big difference to your experience, too, such as starting the game in a comedically lumbering mining mech that causes you to really appreciate how agile and downright swoopy Jehuty is, or being able to tell ADA when she interjects with a suggested action that you’ll “take care of it on my own” because you’re a gruff miner now, damn it. The wireframes and control scheme remain intact from the first game’s blueprint, and at times navigation can be just as confusing as it was in the original, but elsewhere it’s the confident response to an initially shaky introduction.

Oddly for an HD remake, however, it doesn’t run effortlessly. Multi-mech battles really hurt the framerate, and that’s a big deal for a game with such quick pacing. Most will be able to endure the stutter with enjoyment levels intact, though: it’s odd, rather than infuriating. Overall, an uneven, slightly flawed but nontheless enjoyable collection that offers a particular brand of gameplay and storytelling you’re hard pushed to find from a current release.

Our Score

Score: 7