This game is pretty widely known as "the one that came with the MGS2 demo."
In fact, ZOE and its sequel were recently remade in HD for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. They weren't sent out on their own there, either. The remake included a demo for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Well, let's find out why there's apparently no faith in ZOE to survive on its own.
To start with, this game is incredibly thin on story. To people familiar with Metal Gear Solid, this is incredibly weird. If you've ever played a game with a cutscene that's near an hour long, it's because Kojima made it okay to do it. I will admit that I went into this game with pretty lofty expectations as far as the storytelling goes. That's because I played a Zone of the Enders game with a story.
Read for 30 minutes, then play some game.
The Fist of Mars is a side story for GBA, and it has a lot of story. It's divided into episodes, and each one finds you doing a bunch of reading, playing the game, then doing more reading. I remember the game actually having a really great story. I'd probably mock it relentlessly now, but to a 12-year-old who was marginally interested in the melodrama of anime, it was good. Even if I would think it's garbage now, it's there at least. Besides the story-heavy Fist of Mars, ZOE has spawned two anime series. You'd think there'd be some serious story here, but no.
ZOE's story is that you're a kid named Leo, who just sort of stumbles upon a mech, Jehuty. He just gets in and uses it, and the military says "okay," because they're a totally reasonable organization. Leo's mission is to get Jehuty out of the colony that he lives on, so that Jehuty can be brought to Mars to complete its mission. So, for the rest of the game Leo argues with Jehuty's AI, ADA, about killing things and how it's wrong. That's preachy enough for a Kojima game, I suppose. This is done in the most uninteresting and unbearable way possible.
Remember the codec from Metal Gear Solid?
It's not fascinating, but it works for long sequences of dialog. This wasn't something that originated in 1998 for Metal Gear Solid, either. It was first used in 1987 in the original Metal Gear for MSX. This is what you'll see during Leo and ADA's conversations in ZOE:
You just stare out of Jehuty's cockpit, with subtitles on the bottom. You can look around. But, that's it. With the codec, you at least get to see who's talking.
Tee hee, cock.
The cockpit? Literally, Jehuty's cock. So, we have a game where a young boy is piloting a giant robot from its dick. Anyways, that's enough about the story...
The gameplay is awesome. The control scheme is perfect for the game. You'll spend most of the time in the air, which is a worrying phrase. For the most part games with complete freedom of movement have some awkwardness to the controls. Not ZOE. Everything is perfect and responsive. The triangle and X buttons control your altitude, with the circle and square buttons attacking. The attacks are relatively limited. You'll automatically switch from a blade to a laser, depending on the distance. There are side arms that you'll collect throughout the game, but most of them are absolutely useless. They fire too slow, and if you pause to actually use them you're likely to get hit.
While the play mechanics are right, the enemies and gameplay have a serious lack of variety. There are probably about 8 or 9 areas in the game, and you'll backtrack to them to complete different objectives. Enemies are rarely threatening as you're locked into one on one battle with them, even though they travel in squads. Multiple squads can come to attack you, and this is the only time you're truly vulnerable. For the most part, the other enemies sit back and politely wait. Some of them have powerful ranged weapons though, and they won't hesitate to use them.
The repetitive nature of the game would be a bigger problem, but it's about 5 hours long. There's not really many side quests to take on, either. Occasionally you'll get a prompt that a city is under attack, and you have to eliminate the enemy squads while being careful not to destroy buildings around you which contain civilians. There is no penalty or bonus for taking these missions or ignoring them. There's not really any out of the way power ups to obtain, either. Once you finish this game, you're basically done with it.
The art style of the game is very similar to what is seen in the designs of the Metal Gears in Metal Gear Solid. In addition to the similar art style, the game seems to run on the same engine as Metal Gear Solid 2 as well. Being an early PS2 game, the graphics are pretty impressive. They won't blow anyone away (and I doubt they did at the time, either), but the style is interesting enough that it's hard to be critical of some low resolution textures and other difficulties that early console cycle games face.
Back to those story segments real quick... the voice acting in this game is pretty awkward. Occasionally you can tell someone put some effort into getting into character, but for the most part it's unremarkable. The sound effects and music are excellent. While the music is excellent, it has the same problem of being repetitive that the levels have.
If I had bought Zone of the Enders for PlayStation 2 in 2001, I would've been very disappointed. Having paid $5 for it in 2014, I'm not really disappointed in the overall package. That being said, I'm not impressed either. When Zone of the Enders came out, I was nearly 11 years old and still a firm Nintendo fan who secretly longed for a Dreamcast and openly hated on Sony. Something about ZOE caught my eye, though. Maybe it was the odd title which suggested something ominous, or just the designs of the mechs. This game came out when every kid was going apeshit about giant robots. Toonami was airing all the Gundam it could, and let's face it; the best thing to come out of Japanese culture is giant robots and giant monsters.
Finally getting to play it 13 years later, I was very impressed with the gameplay. The story? Ludicrously silly. I can't really figure out why it was rated mature either. The only thing I can guess is that it's because it included the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo.
On one final note before I give the game a review score and seal the deal... I wouldn't recommend buying the Zone of the Enders HD collection. It hasn't dropped in price much (I see it still hanging in the neighborhood of $30), and you can easily get Zone of the Enders and Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner for under $30. In fact, you can probably get them both for $15. Sure, the HD collection will run at a higher resolution, but all of the HD collections I've seen haven't really done any work on the textures... giving you the exact same game, at a higher resolution. So, if you have a PS2 you can buy both games for $15 and pick up a component cable for $5 and enjoy something very similar. Granted, the PS2 will only output 480p for most games, but 480p will still look way better than using 480i over a composite cable. Besides the price difference, there won't be any slowdown or changes in the gameplay due to hardware or controller differences.
So, how do you sum up Zone of the Enders? It's an average game that does a few things extraordinarily well. Which means that I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner.