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Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner

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Released: 2003

Genre: Third Person Shooter

Format reviewed: PlayStation 2

Publisher: Konami

Developer: In-House

The Background
Konami had a sequel in the planning stages, following Zone Of The Enders’ successful release in early 2001. But that game’s sales were inflated by a packed-in demo to the much-anticipated Metal Gear Solid 2, which naturally meant a demo-less sequel would have to prove itself on its own terms.

The appointment of Shuyo Murata as director of ZOE 2 came under interesting circumstances. He was credited in the first game as working on cinematics, yet it was pitching a story for the sequel to producer Hideo Kojima that landed him a job. The story, reportedly, was about a pilot riding the game’s central mech, Jehuty, while surviving an addiction to Metatron, ZOE’s fictional power source.

While this story wouldn’t be used, Kojima liked the idea so much that he decided that Murata was the right creative leader. In an interview for the premium edition of ZOE 2, translated by zoneoftheenders.org, Kojima described him as an ideal game designer, “I thought [the idea] was really good. I guess that was when I thought he could [do] this sort of thing. He had the closest type of discipline, or background, to me, so I wanted to see if he could pull it off.”

Despite his popularity and reputation in the games industry, Kojima described ZOE 2 as being very much Murata’s project, and that he was taken aback by early builds of the game. A lot of time was spent on the game’s semi-anime, semi-realistic look as well, since a goal set for the development team was to make it appear as though it was running on different hardware to the PS2 – Kojima wanted gamers to ‘double-take’ at the game’s powerful visuals, which, to those who bought the underselling game, they did.

zoe_01The Game
ZOE 2 followed up a solid, early PS2 game that was softly received by critics due to its shallowness – it was a classic example of a 7/10 game. This sequel demonstrated a step up in ambition across the board, as everything from cut-scenes to gameplay structure to art direction was completely overhauled, almost as a reboot with only a few narrative ties to its predecessor. Technically, it stands as one of the most visually impressive games on the PS2, with the fidelity of lighting effects and gameplay speed we’d expect this generation. Along with gorgeous anime cut-scenes, the look of the game struck a middle-ground between 2D and 3D, which produced a unique style. The experimentation with these effects, 2D-style explosions on 3D battlefields being especially cool, makes it striking to look at even now.

Still, it was the imagination of the set-pieces that really brought ZOE 2 to life, as the game ditched the samey environments of the first game and went about crafting almost every kind of action sequence you could ask for: a furious battle above a train on a crash course, dismantling giant aircraft high above the clouds, as well as pulling a satellite apart and lobbing bits at enemies. Each level is a pure adrenaline rush, pushing the PS2 as far as it can go. One level takes place on an ever-shifting battlefield as Jehuty has to escort a battalion of slow-moving robots against an army of machines, meaning that the player has to strategically keep their colleagues in check while facing a jaw-dropping number of enemies. It jumps from one type of level to the next, carefully increasing the pace and tension as a great action game should.

This painstaking effort to vary the campaign was no doubt a reaction to the criticisms of ZOE. Each chapter offers an adrenaline rush, helped along by the sub weapons (read: special powers) you pick up later in the game, the Death Star laser-style Vector Cannon, and a homing missile volley that tears foes out of the sky. Although ZOE 2 is reasonably brief at around six hours, the game is designed to keep you moving at all times, rarely being able to catch your breath until your surroundings are clear – and the tools you have to accomplish that are so satisfying.

It’s a hyperactive and very replayable game, given the colourful Evangelion-infused world of the series. The story is just a vessel to take players to the far ends of the universe, showcase exceptionally cool boss fights and a challenging final battle with Anubis, the series’ primary antagonist. The final encounter, in fact, is so full of visual flourishes that it looks like it shouldn’t be able to run on the PS2, a brilliant close to a game full of marvellous moments like this. Oh, and if that’s not enough, there’s a 3D Gradius megamix to unlock after you tackle everything in the game.

zoe_03Why It’s A Future Classic
Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner showed gamers how much creative potential there is in modern 3D arcade shoot-’em-ups, providing great creative minds like Murata and Kojima are involved. Its sheer speed and graphical might is such a contrast to the slow-paced cover-shooter that is dominant today. Playing ZOE 2, an experience bolstered by imaginative set-pieces that its more rudimentary first instalment completely lacked, illustrates exactly how a sequel should be tackled by the best developers in the business.

ZOE 2 follows the template of how Kojima himself evolves his Metal Gear franchise – that each game should feel entirely different from the others. Konami empowers players with an arsenal of overblown sci-fi weaponry, as well as making the game live up to its moniker of ‘High Speed Robot Action’, one of Kojima’s quirky genre titles. There are few arcade experiences that feel this fast, yet it’s the gradual unlocking of extra toys that’ll have you diving into it again, as well as the promise of the best set-pieces in any PS2 game bearing Kojima’s hallowed name.

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