To celebrate (re: capitalize on) the 30th anniversary of Gundam, Bandai released a Playstation 3 game titled, "Gundam Senki: Record UC 0081." Constructed much like an anime OVA, Gundam Senki features a new gundam and offers a sweeping, archetypal gundam narrative in the "gray" period between Mobile Suit Gundam and Zeta Gundam.
The story begins one year after the One Year War ended, as various forces conspire to break the fragile peace. Vast swaths of the Earth are uninhabitable; entire colonies drift in orbit, abandoned. Humankind has returned from the brink of extinction—yet, still, there are those who continue to fight and die. The Gundam franchise has seen hundreds of games, but in my opinion none of them offer the same impressive scope or level of detail as Gundam Senki. Featuring a deeply involved, original single-player storyline, fast-paced arcade-style combat, intuitive controls and an immensely satisfying customization system culminate in what is quite possible the single greatest Gundam game of all time.
Oh, and did I mention--the online multiplayer is astonishing.
On the surface, Gundam Senki offers some fairly nice mobile suit combat in some well-designed environments through a well-executed single player campaign. Dig a little deeper, and you'll soon find a world of customization, item-farming, mobile suit evolution, and painfully addictive online cooperative play (there's also pvp gameplay, but I didn't find it quite as engrossing). The controls are tight and responsive, and the basic gameplay mechanics are all-but flawless.
Senki manages to occupy some nice middle-ground between the hectic, high-speed gameplay of Zone of the Enders and the slower, more methodical combat of Mechwarrior. Early mobile suits are slow, lumbering beasts. They're not very fast, and kind of clumsy—but they can pack a punch. Exactly the kind As you move on, you can upgrade your suits however you like. You can be a slow moving tank with enough firepower to take out a fortress—or you can customize your twenty-meter death machine for speed. The difference between the two is like night and day. Slower mobile suits have a lot of armor, but faster mobile suits can zip around the maps (and the maps are quite big) in under a minute. They can boost from enemy to enemy faster than you can blink, and if you've gone to the trouble to upgrade their weapons, they can take out enemy mobile suits just as quickly--but they also tend to be very expensive.
The game is divided into two modes: scenario mode and free mission. Scenario mode lets you play through the single player campaigns of either the Federation or Zeon forces. The single-player campaigns are pretty fun, and the presentation can be stunning at times, but they're a bit on the short side. The real cream of the game comes in the free missions. Free missions can either be played offline, with AI teammates, or online—cooperatively on every mission in the game, or deathmatch—and team deathmatch—in a host of different maps with players from all over the world. Most of the fun will be had online, with access to the hard and hell difficulty modes that are unavailable offline and the sheer fun of working together with other players to farm new items, and tackle missions too difficult for a lone player.
Controlling your mobile suit is pretty straightforward. Various buttons issue commands, fire weapons, and activate your thrusters. The left analog stick moves the mobile suit, and the right analog stick controls the camera. All of the controls can be changed by the player, which is a very nice option to have—but as they stand, the default controls are damn-near perfect. There are different camera angles to try out, but, sadly, there is no first-person or cockpit view. The controls feel natural and are very responsive. There are also a number of minor gameplay features that make the game flow quite well, such as automatically boosting toward your target when using melee attacks.
Mobile suits also handle differently in different terrain. Some suits work best on land, others in the water, and others in low-gravity areas like the lunar surface. The shift can be quite dramatic—one moment you can be dashing over palm trees like a metal god, and the next moment you can find yourself underwater, barely able to move, as fish swarm above your head. Easy prey for the swarm of aquatic mobile suits converging on your location.
I have only one problem with Gundam Senki: the load times. Even with the optional hard drive installation, missions take a long time to load—and things get even worse online. The multiplayer lobby takes far too long to load, and you have to choose your room very, very quickly, otherwise it'll probably be full by the time you try to get it. It can be frustrating and tedious, but you'll suffer through it without complaint simply because of how much fun you have when that loading screen finally goes away. Hopefully, the loading times—or at least the multiplayer lobby loading times—will be sped up with a future update, but for now, there's nothing we can do. Loading times alone mar an otherwise perfect experience.
To those looking for a downside to this game, you'll find it in the AI. The artificial intelligence outright stinks. Enemies don't react very quickly, and have a hard time evading fire. The difficulty in Senki stems from fighting large quantities of (often tougher-than-you-are) enemies. Most missions involve fighting wave after wave of enemy mobile suits, with the occasional aerial fighter or tank tossed in to mix things up. Some missions have more complex objectives—defending targets, capturing specific points, etc. but most are simply cleared by killing everything in sight. Online, I found I was mostly be playing co-op games, simply because it's much more fun to be playing with other people than against them.
The game has been out for a while now, and the online community is still quite strong--and if you're looking for an English-speaking crowd to play with, just swing by the GameFAQs message board to find some new friends.
Most post-apocalyptic games suffer from the same problem when it comes to presentation—a bland, severe palate. Gundam Senki manages to break that cliché (and is, in fact, the only game I know of that does so) with a number of bright, colorful settings. Yes, there are the typical rural areas, scattered with wreckage from the war: mobile suit skeletons half-buried in the sand, crashed warships and discarded tanks. But there's more. There are stunning tropical islands, dense green jungles, utopian cities, austere mountains. There's also an abundance of wildlife that really give these areas character—seagulls gliding through the sky, and schools of fish darting through the water. Most levels are so bright and full of life, which is a nice contrast to the end-game missions on the moon, whose surface is suitably barren and monotone.
The environments are just stunning. Each map has several different missions, and each mission has different lighting and weather effects. Sometimes it's a clear dusk, other times a dark, rainy evening. Sometimes it's the middle of the night. Each mission is unique, and the sheer variety is pretty stunning. And the mission areas are BIG. Lots and lots of space, filled with all kinds of cool stuff. Areas are chock-full of trees, buildings, wreckage, animals, and more. It's a bit disheartening that, in a Gundam game, we don't get to see many of the more elaborate settings in space. The interior of an O'Neil type colony, for example, would have been a jaw-dropping sight. The only non-terrestrial terrains are the areas on the moon, and thankfully the lunar landscape is more beautiful than you can imagine—even if it is a tad on the 'deathly pale' side. The mobile suits that duel in these areas are similarly beautiful, with some really nice, well-detailed models, absolutely top-tier animation and some really snazzy lighting effects that almost make them look cel-shaded.
To my mind, the most impressive aspect of Gundam Senki's game engine would be the weapon effects. The lighting effects for beam weapons and solid shells are all pretty impressive—weapons fire can be seen from across the entire map—as can enemy mobile suits, if your eye is sharp enough. Beam weapons tear through the sky, and have a really intense animation—almost like they're boiling over. The first time a beam flies past your head will be very intimidating, and it'll be just as intimidating every other time.
With fast-paced combat, tight controls, epic storyline, online play, nerve-wracking boss battles—no doubt about it, Gundam Senki is one undeniably badass game. Being able to arm a Zaku with a Gundam's beam rifle, beam saber and shield was a personal dream-come-true moment for me. As a Gundam fan, this game has a lot of those. Ever since I first saw Gundam Wing on cartoon network, years and years ago, and then found my way into the Universal Century, I've been waiting for a game to do the universe justice. I've played every single Gundam title I could get my hands on—buying what I could in stores, and importing what I couldn't. Some were good, some were great—and many were bad. None were perfect, and Gundam Senki is not an exception. When it comes right down to it, Gundam Senki looks better than any other Gundam game, and it plays better than any other Gundam game. It is as close to perfect as we've yet seen. If you consider yourself at-all a Gundam fan, this is one game that you must, regardless of any circumstance, play at the earliest opportunity.