Zone of the Enders is set in the 22nd Century aboard the Jupiter Colony Antilia it centres on a shy kid called Leo Stenbuck who watches helplessly as his friends are killed when war breaks out on the station. Leo blames himself for not being able to save his buddies and legs it in a blind panic. During the lengthy and impressive opening cut-scene he stumbles upon a colossal Orbital Frame known as Jehuty. Kid meets giant-robot.
Jehuty is a capable humanoid-shaped fighting robot that has an artificial intelligence known as ADA. During the game Leo and ADA are thrown into a number of interesting situations where the 'soulless' machine learns to adapt to a more illogical mindset.
Standing between you and your mission is the ever-present wave after wave of smaller bad-guys to fry and the obligatory boss fights we've come to expect from a shooter in the past. But this game comes from Hideo the man behind the Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2 games; this means ZOE is something pretty special.
It also comes bundled with a single level from Metal Gear Solid 2, but I'll examine that in much more detail later on.
Let's get back to ZOE. You are given the awesome task of piloting the Jehuty Orbital Frame to a rendezvous with a group of allies for an important mission on mars. Jehuty is a capable combat machine and has a fast array of close up and long distance moves/weapons to play with. ZOE plays more like an interactive big-robot anime than a shooter.
Action is viewed from the 3rd Person with the aid of a roving camera which circles around your mecha competently changing angles when needed and generally being fluid and helpful. There are the odd times when the action gets so hot it loses itself in the frenetic blasting, but thankfully a quick release of the joypad and you're back on track as it smoothly moves behind Jehuty again.
Graphically ZOE is superb; it's bright and colourful with excellent special effects and some wonderfully anime touches to the textures and models. The level of detail on Jehuty and the enemy mecha is quite staggering and their animation is fluid and quite beautiful. Often combat resembles a deadly dance. Crackles of lighting run down the Orbital Frame changing from a neon blue/green to a low deep red when you suffer damage in combat. With the help of your health bar and this you can see instantly when you're in deep trouble and should run to seek a repair or a Metatron Ore (Full repair). There are no graphical glitches at all and no warping effects that I could see when I spent a full day playing this game. I was impressed at the depth of the levels and the lavish texturing, both on the models and on the actual architecture around you. Buildings stand quiet and tall, while small propellers whirl on-top of stalk-like towers. And yes it can all be shot and explodes quite dramatically.
Scratch that, it explodes big time. When you're fighting in the colony you must take extra care that your shots and blows don't damage or destroy surrounding buildings and structures. Miss with one of Jehuty's more powerful attacks and you can watch in horror as the building you were trying to keep from becoming rubble explodes into a pretty collection of light and flame.
The best word to describe ZOE would be eye-candy. Explosions and effects are pumped at you everywhere you go, from Jehuty's boosters and weapons to the enemy attacks and bosses. Land on the floor and your mech leaves some nice scars on the ground as it zooms around. You really do feel as though you're in a giant-war-bot.
ZOE features some of the biggest and nastiest bosses in a game of this type that I have seen in a long time. And they all have mega-damage attacks and transformations when you cause them some serious damage. Knock the second boss down to half his health and you're in for a much tougher fight. But Jehuty has a nice selection of things it can throw at the enemy.
From the standard blaster attack you can quickly dodge a direction and tap a button, next thing you know you've launched a burst-dodge attack which fires a number of small energy projectiles into the enemy. Stand still and quickly power up a burst attack, tap the fire button and Jehuty goes all Dragonball 'Z' and lobs a giant plasma ball at its foe. This causes some serious damage to weaker enemies and you can take them down in one shot sometimes.
Add to this mix a number of special weapons that can be unlocked from in-game terminals when you gain the correct pass-codes and suchlike. Get up close and personal and you can also use devastating hand-to-hand combat, including the ability to grab and throw an opponent into his mates if you're quick enough. Or the floor if you're feeling pretty sadistic.
The good news is that there's a comprehensive in-game tutorial to show you how to use the moves, allowing you to practise them in the safety of VR before you go out into the game proper. The level of immersion in ZOE is pretty high, all voice acting happens with you in first person able to look around with the right stick or in slick lavish cut-scenes using the in-game engine and CGI. ZOE is a feast for the eyes and the ears.
Sonics in the game are truly nice, the music is very appealing and the voice acting although a little stayed in places is still nicely done. Leo is suitably whiney and kid-like. ADA is female and a little cold to begin with which is perfect for the setting and the kind of feel that Hideo wanted I think. Explosions sound like they should and weapon effect sounds are meaty and chunky, Jehuty's boosters fire with a convincing roar. It all combines to make you 'feel' as though you're inside a huge war-machine. Yet it also has a grace about it.
Through the use of motion blurring and high-quality textures and PS2 graphic pushing power ZOE has become one of my firm favourites for a blaster to take your mind off the cares of the day. It's satisfying to hammer the enemy into bits and not see a drop of blood, then again I don't mind gore, I'm a responsible adult and unlikely to find an Orbital Frame to climb into anyways, let alone chop someone into bits with a laser or plasma blade. But it also has the bonus of a limited but highly fun versus mode when you complete the game. Completing the game a second time will unlock the last two frames and levels.
In ZOE Versus it's possible to play with the enemy mecha and any levels bar the two locked frames and levels, against your mate or the CPU setting the level of challenge through the level meter, this allows you to have much longer battles.
Gameplay wise ZOE delivers action in the nines, it's pretty much none stop throughout considering the only way to build your mech's power level is through combat, gain enough experience points and you rise in level, this gives you a better chance against the bosses as you progress further into the games storyline.
But at least there's a save function available from the colony-map. This is where you can choose which Zone to fly to next, it is also possible to return to Zones that you've previously completed to find hidden items, or because that's where a module you're looking for is located. The story line dictates these areas for you. If you're getting hammered in combat it's also possible to escape (A tutorial shows you how to do this) and access the Area (Go to Colony Map) Leave function. This allows you to lick your wounds and find a low-level area to repair using metatron.
From my deepest depths I can say that ZOE truly does rock in every sense of the word, it provides gameplay and wonderful graphics, the storyline is classic and shows that Hideo should be directing and writing films in Hollywood by now along with John Woo and so many others. I for one would love to see Hideo's take on the Matrix or something like that, or even a Metal Gear Solid film. If I were to critique one thing about ZOE is that it is too short, there should have been much more to the game and it should have been considerably longer, but don't let that put you off. It comes with the Metal Gear Solid 2 trial edition and that's a bonus and a half. With ZOE's versus mode allowing you to battle a pal, it's also got some good last ability.
One word: Excellent.
And I don't often say that about a game.
I have a feeling however I'll be saying something else about MGS2...