Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner is one of my favorite mech games. It has downright horrible localization with the voice acting to match, but the combat is fast. A new remaster for the Playstation 4 adds a VR mode that finally gives me the definite mech-nerd experience.
Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner released on the Playstation 2 in 2003, at a time when the series was mostly famous for having a demo of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in the package for Zone of the Enders. Kojima’s strange mech drama was always a niche affair, but The Second Runner reached new players thanks to an involved story featuring multiple locations and combat with tons of sub-weapons to choose from. The game became a cult title for mech enthusiasts, enjoying a remaster on the PS3. Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner — Mars, the Playstation 4 remaster, keeps the game alive in the next console generation and adds an entirely new VR experience.
In Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner, players take the role of Dingo Egret, a miner with the best name ever. He’s also a retired ace pilot of a giant mech called an orbital frame. After Dingo finds a highly valuable frame hidden on one of Mars’ moons, he’s forced to pilot it and face off against space terrorists. High tech hilarity ensues.
Giant mechs fall on a spectrum ranging from Battletech’s tanky and slow battlemechs to the amazingly agile mobile suits from later Gundam series. Zone of the Enders’ orbital frames are firmly in the latter camp—they engage in fast melee duels and can literally warp across space and time. The emphasis on agile combat and dramatic, anime-esque poses creates a unique pace where each new enemy pattern is part puzzle, part fashion statement. The joy of Zone of the Enders has always been taking out enemies in as stylish a fashion as possible. Mars cleans up the graphics and the sound with sharper edges and surround sound that adds an extra punch to each explosion. However, it’s not the fresh coat of paint that’s most impressive; it’s the chance to see the game from a new perspective.
Mars’ VR support allows players to experience the action from the cockpit of the game’s mech, Jehuty. It swaps out the dramatic poses and awesome choreography for something more intimate. Jehuty’s cockpit has always functioned as a safe space in the series: In Zone of the Enders, the cockpit is the one place where young protagonist Leo Stenbuck is absolutely safe. In The Second Runner, pilot Dingo Egret’s life-support draws energy from Jehuty. Fans finally have a chance to sit in that safe space, and the result is empowering. Zipping around in Jehuty is exciting, and seeing the action close up really helps sell how powerful the mech is.
Adjusting to this new perspective can take a while. Mars offers a new “Very Easy” difficulty mode to allow players more leeway in first person mode, but there’s not a lot done to revamp the core experience. As a result, the frantic hack and slash action that worked so well in third person can seem strange in first person. It often feels like your attacks are flailing around wildly, and changing targets can be abrupt. It’s never enough to become a deal breaker, but it does take some of the allure out of controlling a giant mech.
Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner — Mars is a great excuse for fans to leap back into the game, but it’s also a chance for new players to see why so many people gravitated towards the series as well. The fast, explosion-filled combat mixes well with the corny dialog, and getting to play from the cockpit is a real treat. Plus, unlike walking in Skyrim VR, it didn’t make me puke.