The original Zone of Enders was made relatively famous for being the game that came with the demo for Metal Gear Solid 2. In fairness though, Kojima’s aerial mech fighter was so much more than that. While Western tastes dictate that any anime-styled mech game will invariably be a tough sell, those who gave the game a quick go after they made their way through the brief but spectacular return of Solid Snake will testify to a flawed but nonetheless extremely sleek experience.
Returning now, the positive aspects of the package, namely its distinct art direction, fast, fluid combat and relatively unique mechanics still hold true. Sadly, the issues that kept the original as a curio rather than a classic are now more prevalent than ever.
While the slick, often spectacular combat still looks fantastic thanks to some impressive animations andnice visual flourishes, the technical capabilities behind your ability to mix up ranged attacks, lightning fast dodges andaggressive melee strikes are mostly hidden behind an array of repetitive, largely uninspired enemies, a drab game world and a sense of progression that does little to inspire your creative spirit. Put simply, the original Zone of Enders is a bit of a slog.
It’s still worth a quick look though; the anime inspired story of your reluctant hero fighting bravely inside the steely exterior of a mighty Orbital Frame, Jehuty, is more than a little clichéd, and certainly not helped by some slightly dodgy voice acting and a collection of decidedly aged 3D cutscenes, but this is all a means to an end and above all else, the reason that its little played but vastly superior sequel exists. For the vast majority of players (myself included), the chance to play an up-scaled version of Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner is the real reason that this package is made justifiable, and for all intents and purposes, the only reason that it exists.
Criminally overlooked in the West upon release, The 2nd Runner took everything that was good about the original and applied it to a much stronger, more complete framework. The fundamental, fast paced combat, melodramatic storyline and anime-inspired aesthetic all remain, only now, everything is given a purpose, a chance to breath, and perhaps most importantly of all, a bit of a good ol’ fashioned spit and polish.
It’s here, in the much improved sequel that the HD up-scale, enhanced textures and improved frame-rate really become apparent and help to make what was already a very good videogame an even better one. Still riding into battle within the confines of the giant Jehuty, 2nd Runner makes the battle scarred world and melodramatic trappings of the genre infinitely more bearable thanks to its much improved visuals, voice acting, cut-scenes and storytelling. It’s still nonsense of course, only now, it’s beautifully packaged nonsense and subsequently, much easier to get on board with.
The biggest improvements though come in the form of the combat, surroundings and its all new sense of progression. The combat from a purely technical standpoint is actually largely unchanged, but the array of new enemies and vertical level design really open up the possibilities that went to waste for the most part on the original. This is fast-paced, kinetic stuff, but behind the whizz-bang of the onscreen pyrotechnics, the combat actually feels extremely cultured and meticulously balanced.
Of course, beyond the technical aspect of delivering more tactically interesting levels, the sheer jump in both visual fidelity and artistic expression is startling. Rather than the bleak, repetitive levels of the original, 2nd Runner does a much better job of creating a cohesive and genuinely interesting universe to explore. It may be an up-scaled PS2 game, but be happy in the knowledge that this is one of the best looking games to have graced the PS2 and thanks to its sleek, crisp visual design, still holds up surprisingly well today.
It’s not all sunshine and lollipops mind. Beyond the first game proving little more than a token gesture, the loading times are often unbearably long and the combat, while more varied and interesting for the sequel, can still become a tad repetitive after extended play. Still, despite these niggles, for those who missed out on 2ndRunner first time around (which will be nearly everyone), this is a game more than worthy of your time and attention and probably worth rediscovering for those brave few who picked it up upon release. The HD up-scale isn’t a dramatic improvement over the original, but if nothing else, stands as a great excuse to return to this largely underappreciated series.
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