Review: Zone of the Enders HD Collection

zoehdzoe1cc02.jpg

By Paul Hunter

Kojima Productions, the acclaimed studio behind the Metal Gear Solid franchise, has opened their vault for the re-release of two classic PlayStation 2 titles in their Zone of the Enders HD Collection. The compilation pack features completely remastered versions of the original Zone of the Enders (2001), plus the far superior Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner (2003), and even throws in a demo of the upcoming Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance for good measure.

With over ten years since we first stepped into the cockpit of Jehuty, do the original games combined with a shiny coat of HD warrant a second interplanetary trip through these mecha adventures?

Back in the early years of the PlayStation 2 era, famed producer Hideo Kojima wanted to venture outside the realm of Metal Gear Solid and helm a new franchise; the result was Zone of the Enders.  Set more than a 100 years in the future, the games take place on distant colonies on Jupiter and Mars at a time when humans have recently discovered Metatron, a high-energy ore that warring factions are seeking to control.  BAHRAM, a particularly ruthless military organization led by Col. Ridley (Nohman) Hardiman, are the most aggressive coveters of Metatron resources and stop at nothing -- including civilian casualties -- to further their own corrupt agenda.

zoehdzoe1cc04.jpg

In the original Zone of the Enders game, players assume the role of 13-year-old Leo Stenbuck as the forces of BAHRAM invade his space colony Antilia, which orbits one of Jupiter's moons.  By happenstance, Leo stumbles upon a powerful "Orbital Frame" mecha named Jehuty which he uses to ward off his attackers. With the help of Jehuty's A.I. named ADA, the young boy sets out to rescue civilians from his colony, and defeat the BAHRAM forces that are threatening his people.

If you're familiar with Kojima's work on the Metal Gear Solid series, then it won't come as a surprise to hear that Zone of the Enders story sequences are more often than not, loquacious, convoluted and stuffed with unnecessary exposition. For a high-action, aerial combat mech game, these long-winded dialogues interrupt the action much longer than they should, and the stiff voice-acting and grainy animations certainly show their age.

zoehdzoe2cc08.jpg

Where Zone of the Enders shines is in its blisteringly intense, aerial combat gameplay.  Jehuty has a range of offensive abilities including using long-range laser blasters, destructive energy bursts requiring a momentary charge, and a short-range energy sword for melee-style battles.  Attacks can also be combined with a dash move, giving combat a constant high-speed feel.  On the defense, Jehuty can latch on to enemies at close range and give them a nice toss, resulting in damage if aimed toward a hard surface, and can also project an energy shield capable of nullifying everything short of an enemy burst attack. The abilities of Jehuty are fast, varied and surprisingly deep, but unfortunately a great deal of this richness is lost in the simplicity of combat.  Enemies, including most bosses, have paper thin attack patterns and combat rarely needs to surpass a "button mashing" strategy to succeed.

Objectives in Zone of the Enders are repetitive and monotonous, basically boiling down to traveling from location-to-location on the world map and either destroying all enemies in a particular zone, or obtaining an item to progress.  There's a lot of back-and-forth as you are forced to visit areas over again and combined with the clear lack of development of your mech, the action feels like a repetitive slog.

zoehdzoe1cc03.jpg

Zone of the Enders is so thin, clocking in a mere four hours to completion, that it's better thought of as a proof-of-concept versus a full-fledged mech game.  It gets you familiar with the core mechanics of Jehuty through VR training and live combat, introduces you to the essential characters and plotlines, and that's about it.

The real meat of this package comes in the fully-realized sequel, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner.  In short, it's fantastic.

In every conceivable way, The 2nd Runner is better than its predecessor.  The graphics and animations are much improved, enemies are more varied and have better attack patterns, Jehuty moves with more fluidity and has a wider range of attack maneuvers, the locations are more varied, brighter and feature more detail, and the story, while still a bit contrived, is at least more coherent and even fills in some of the gaps from the first outing.

zoe2004.jpg

Taking place two years after the events of the original game, an ice miner named Dingo Egret inadvertently stumbles upon Jehuty just as the BAHRAM forces are attempting to retrieve the concealed mech (sound familiar?).  Dingo boards the massive Orbital Frame, but is knocked unconscious by Anubis, a counterpart Orbital Frame controlled by Col. Nohman.  Dingo soon wakes up to find himself inside Jehuty, which has been hooked into his body as a life-support, rendering him unable to exit the mech.  Understandably frustrated, Dingo sets out to confront Col. Nohman and make him pay.

The sheer amount of improvements in The 2nd Runner are impressive, and where the real value of the HD Collection is derived. Enemy battles require much more strategy this time around, and boss battles are more varied and a great deal more challenging.  Your Jehuty mech has improved abilities as well, such as new grappling mechanics that allow you to use enemies as melee weapons or protective shields, and you can also pick-up objects in the battlefield and perform a powerful swing attack with them, or hurl them at your opponents.

While The 2nd Runner is a completely linear affair, eschewing the world-map model found in Zone of the Enders, the lack of exploration in no way takes away from the enjoyment, and if anything, this series is better suited to straight level progression. The 2nd Runner constantly feels like it's being driven forward, with more satisfying narrative and a real sense that your mech is getting more powerful along the way.

zoe2005.jpg

Unfortunately, the frame rate of this HD remake suffers noticeably, so whereas the PlayStation 2 version held stable at 60 frames-per-second, the remastered edition feels considerably slower.  Even with a reduced frame rate, the action is still faster than most action games out there, so likely only purists will care.

It's worth noting that the version of The 2nd Runner included is the PAL special edition, which has never been released before in North America and includes extra missions, more VR training, extra difficulty settings and graphical improvements such as better anti-aliasing.  There's also an all-new 7-minute opening cinematic created by the acclaimed Sunrise animation house, which ties together the story between the two Zone of the Enders games, as well as higher resolution versions of the original opening animations for both games.  Both games also include full PlayStation Trophy and Xbox Achievements support, a nice added touch.

To sweeten the pot, the HD Collection includes a demo of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the upcoming spin-off title starring Raiden and set for release on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 on February 19, 2013.  With the original Zone of the Enders game featuring a demo of Metal Gear Solid 2, the subtle, pleasant feeling of déjà vu is a nice addition.

zoehdzoe2cc02.jpg

It's no surprise that Konami showed off the remastered HD version of The 2nd Runner during the majority of their presentations leading up to the launch of the HD Collection -- it's by far the better game of the two included.  It's best to view this compilation as an HD version of The 2nd Runner with the original Zone of the Enders and a Metal Gear demo thrown in for good measure.  The 2nd Runner, as a stand-alone remastered title, is worth the cost of admission for this value-priced collection, so as a whole it's easy to recommend.  It may be nearly ten years since we've last entered Jehuty, but like the return an old friend, it's great to finally be reacquainted.

Zone of the Enders HD Collection is out now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation.  The game was developed by Kojima Production and published by Konami.

Zone of the Enders HD Collection is rated M for Mature by the ESRB.

 
[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]