The rise of HD compilations has, in a way, led to a brisk trade in self-delusion. Done right (no-one mention Silent Hill) and they're essentially the benefit of hindsight in physical form. Sadly, they often highlight the aging aspects that can't be perked up. Playing Metal Gear Solid 2 again was nice, but dealing with those fixed camera angles? Nightmare.
The brilliant thing about Hideo Kojima's other project of the time, however, is just how modern it seems today. Ostensibly mech fare, but stripped of the creaking heaps of girders we're used to from the genre, the Zone of the Enders games are essentially hugely competent, speed-oriented action titles.
The action genre owes a lot to 2001, it seems. Devil May Cry, generally seen as a watershed moment, might have gotten the limelight, but Zone of the Enders preceded it by seven months and pulls off many of the same tricks. Centring around the exploits of Leo Stenbuck, a boy with unreasonably strong morals and prodigious mech control skills to match, the series' first game sets you a simple task - take control of the Orbital Frame Jehuty, a mech so futuristic it's considered futuristic in the future, and save your space station home from a full-scale military invasion.
Every level presents you with squads of enemy Frames and leaves you to blow them up in a number of blue-hued ways. There are close and long-range attacks, modulations on both when dashing or hovering without moving, and a variety of unlockable subweapons which allow for separate tactical approaches. The real innovation here is in the speed. It's fast. Really fast. If you're good enough, you can have a stage crammed with tinny bastards completely clear in minutes. If you're not, you'll be cosmic dust just as quickly.
If you invest in the idea and learn how to approach each enemy type, it's fantastic. If you don't, you may get tired of the samey environments and seemingly endless meditations on the nature of murder from the hero and his Spock-like A.I. pal, ADA. It's a lesson clearly learned by director Shuyo Murata when he took control of the second game in the package. Like all great sequels, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner takes what made its predecessor great and builds on it. In this case, that means more speed, more enemy types and an approach to storytelling that makes Kojima's game, which, we must remember, is about ten-story tall robots cutting each other up, look positively stately.
With a more stylised anime sheen (which looks beautiful after its HD touch-up), The 2nd Runner attempts to punch your senses out from the moment you start playing. Hurtling across ice moons, space fortresses, the scorched surface of Mars and any number of unseasonably large laboratories, it's a more immediately arresting game - and this is matched in its combat. Enemies are no longer separated into patrolling squads, meaning battles get frenetic and unwieldy if not dealt with properly, while the addition of swarm-like mini-enemies (and the incredibly cool equipment to deal with them) adds an awe-inspiring sense of scale absent from the first game.
It's also the game's biggest problem. The most spectacular moments are often the most crippled by slowdown, which reduces the game's glorious speed to a horrible chug. It does have the effect of making most of the boss battles - usually one-on-one fights - feel incredible, though.
From a fleet of battleships to a man called Lloyd who turns the game into a sort of blind rhythm-action test, each boss offers a new ability when you've finished - leading eventually to a final move so brilliant you wonder what the other power fantasy games have been up to for the last decade. You'll thank the designers for the ability to play all these battles individually again after you've finished, believe us. Both games have their last-gen problems - each is a little too short, with the lack of ability to invert the Y axis or adjust camera sensitivity pretty irksome - but our overall feeling is one of surprise.
We come into this HD Collection expecting a nostalgia trip, not a jolt of innovation (although the inclusion of a Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance demo, a neat tip of the hat towards the original game's pack-in of a Metal Gear Solid 2 taster, works for the former), but innovation is absolutely what this offers. Hindsight be damned, these games are still fantastic.
Surprisingly modern and scarily frenetic
- Amazing high-speed action
- Hugely replayable
- The 2nd Runner looks beautiful
- Some serious performance problems
- No bonus features