About three weeks back, Bandai-Namco released its first big-name, free-to-play title, Mobile Suit Gundam Battle Operation on the PlayStation 3. Set during the original Gundam series, this multiplayer third-person shooter reenacts some of the biggest battles in the One Year War, with six people siding with the Earth Federation and six with Zeon.
But is this first step into the world of free-to-play gaming a worthwhile one or is Gundam Battle Operation just another example of "you get what you pay for".
Good -- Unique Take on Capture-the-Points Gameplay
The game itself is set up like your standard capture-the-point versus mode -- you go out, capture points, and then defend them. What makes Gundam Battle Operation unique is how you do it. To capture a point you actually have to leave your mobile suit, making you vulnerable to bullets and explosions -- as well as giant robot feet. If you kill an enemy player while he's outside his suit, you can take it over yourself, allowing you access to all its weapons. If you're smart, you can even sneak behind enemy lines and lay a bomb on the enemy home base -- pretty much guaranteeing you the number one spot on the scoreboard.
Good -- A Real Weight to Your Giant Robot
The mobile suits in Gundam Battle Operation handle far more like enormous lumbering tanks than giant humans -- and this is a good thing. Every suit feels heavy and moves realistically for an object of its size. This makes weight -- and therefore speed and manoeuvrability -- an important consideration when choosing your mobile suit. Are you willing to ditch your armour to speed back and forth across the battle field, or would you rather be able to shrug off enemy bullets like annoying flies? The choice is up to you and your play style.
Mixed -- Play Time Equals Strength
While being able to choose your mobile suit is a great tactical option, when starting up the game for the first time there is zero choice or customisation. You have one suit for each side with no weapons nor augmentations. In battle you will undoubtedly be facing opponents with far better suits and gear -- so much so that you could fire at them non-stop for a full minute with the starting machine gun and still not kill them. Of course, they can just take you out with a few rockets or a sword thrust.
Upon your team winning (or losing) a battle, you gain experience points which are then put randomly into research for new weapons, armour, and mobile suits -- and there are tons of these items to unlock. Unfortunately though, because of the sheer number of possible upgrades, it will take a long time before any single one has been researched enough to use in battle. Still this wouldn't really be an issue if you were allowed to play as much as you want to grind out the experience points. However, when Bandai-Namco said Gundam Battle Operation was free-to-play, what they meant was...
Bad -- Free-to-Play (...for 30 minutes a day)
Each battle in Gundam Battle Operation takes 10 minutes and costs one "energy point." You gain one energy point every two hours and can save up to a maximum of three. This means you can play at most 30 minutes in one sitting -- i.e. 30 minutes a day if you have work or school -- unless you are willing to buy more energy off of the PSN. In a game where it is impossible to be competitive unless you've grinded exp hour upon hour, it pretty much becomes "pay money or prepare to wait weeks for the fun to start."
Bad -- Only Two Maps
Another annoying bit is that, at this point in time, there are only two playable maps -- an open desert and a rocky canyon. While both are very different in layout, there are only so many times you can play the two maps before getting a bit tired of them. More maps are promised to be in the works, but at the moment, the lack of maps makes for very little variety in how each battle plays out.
As a free-to-play title, Mobile Suit Gundam Battle Operation isn't half bad. It looks good and plays well to boot. There is a ton of customisation and the whole mechanic of leaving your suit adds an entirely new level to gameplay. However, only being able to play it in short bursts without paying really puts a damper on the game -- as does being more than a little useless in battle until you spend a sizable amount of time playing. In the end, Gundam Battle Operation is worth a download, but only those who fall in love with its gameplay (and have money to burn) are likely to give it a permanent spot on their hard drives.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Battle Operation was released on June 28, 2012, for PS3, on the Japanese PlayStation Network.