The PlayStation Vita has its first Gundam game here in the West, and unfortunately, it's not that great. A spin-off from Japan's super popular Gundam VS series, Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme VS-Force is essentially a watered-down edition of the arcade action property with a focus on single player content.
Directly comparing this portable entry to past Gundam VS titles immediately places it in a bad light. The playable mobile suit roster has been cut down, there's no online multiplayer whatsoever, and the portable's small screen makes sighting multiple moving targets during gameplay that much more difficult. If you've imported any of the previous games and you're expecting an experience of a similar quality here, then you're going to be disappointed.
That said, there's no doubt that enthusiastic Gundam fans will at least get something out of this – as long as you're able to appropriately temper your expectations. The suits generally look great in motion, and the in-battle music is lifted straight from the property's various anime projects. Blasting into the fray while Gundam Unicorn's superb soundtrack plays in the background is a real highlight.
Meanwhile, the franchise's trademark combat system makes the jump from home console to handheld reasonably well, even if, as mentioned, the smaller display can complicate matters. Success hinges on your ability to read the battlefield; you need to keep a constant eye on your aiming ring and threat indicators to stay on top of your opposition. At its base level, it's a simple, automated system that tells you when to attack and when to dodge, but it sometimes asks too much of the Vita's screen, bombarding it with big colourful icons that obscure chunks of your view.
Still, engaging in suit-on-suit warfare is enjoyable once you've wrapped your head around the game's core mechanics. Stages tend to be vast and open, allowing you to boost around at speed, patiently picking your shots and dashing away from incoming fire. Most of your time will be spent trying to nail your enemies at range, with melee attacks acting as a quick and easy way to punish foes that get too close. Again, combat is pretty simple when you break it down, but it's worth pointing out that each suit has its own assortment of weaponry alongside specific special moves, which gives way to a lot of variety.
You can test your mettle in three different modes: Extreme Force, Extend, and Force Battle. The first is a full solo campaign that covers a fair amount of Gundam history, while the second and third are your standard versus modes - the former pits you against the computer, and the latter against other players via ad hoc multiplayer. Needless to say, there's not a huge amount of content to chew through, but then the game clearly pins all of its hopes on Extreme Force mode.
Conjuring a crazy overarching plot about artificial intelligence and the memories of mankind, Extreme Force mode tasks you with running through historic Gundam battles in order to understand humanity's plight. Or something. Those familiar with the shows will immediately realise that the somewhat forced narrative – complete with annoyingly squeaky hologram girls – is little more than an excuse to tie together numerous Gundam universes, although to be fair, the story does put a slightly original spin on proceedings.
The campaign itself is quite lengthy, spanning a bunch of storylines that are broken up into specific missions - many of which step away from the series' typical two-on-two team battles. The gimmick here is that, more often than not, you're free to assemble your own mobile suit squad, complete with generic units and even warships. It's a nice concept, but it regularly results in chaotic gameplay that's too far removed from the tactical, tried and tested Gundam VS formula.
Maps may be spacious, but the majority of the action will almost always take place within a few set locations – especially during missions where you're tasked with capturing bases – and the combat system just isn't built to handle two teams of multiple suits all going berserk in one place. To make matters worse, some missions throw giant mobile armours and opposing warships into the mix, and the only way to effectively fight them is to stand at a safe distance and chip at their huge health bars with ranged attacks. Depending on the mission, the game can go from being overwhelmingly chaotic to being tediously boring in a matter of seconds.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme VS-Force is at its best when it sticks to the series' trademark two-on-two battles. Smaller encounters give the tense combat system room to breathe, but all too often, the game's campaign shoots itself in the foot with overly chaotic group skirmishes and boring boss fights. If you're a Gundam nut then you'll probably be able to stomach some of the title's flaws, but don't expect a true Gundam VS experience.