I’ll admit that a team-based competitive shooter isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions a game based on Mobile Suit Gundam. And yet, Bandai Namco has managed to make that connection with Gundam Evolution. In adapting the iconic mecha franchise to the tenets of the “hero shooter,” the company opened a new path for the Gundam brand. Judging by about 12 hours spent with game’s closed Network Playtest, it may be a path well worth taking.
Back when Bandai Namco started promoting Gundam Evolution with clips from early beta tests, many fans joked about it looking like a Gundam-themed take on Overwatch. It turns out that that’s, in many ways, true. There is no understating the creative debt that Gundam Evolution‘s development team owes to Blizzard’s multiplayer shooter. The good news is that it has taken it on for good reason. Gundam Evolution sports a strong set of fundamentals. Even in the confines of a limited gameplay test, it comes across as a much smoother, more polished, broadly appealing experience than many other Gundam-branded titles. Much as I enjoyed titles like Gundam Versus and Gundam Battle Operation, their idiosyncrasies can turn players looking for a more conventional experience away. Gundam Evolution is downright familiar, which in turn makes it easier to pick up.
Gundam Evolution is a free-to-play title that pits two teams of six players against each other in round-based matches. Each player chooses from a lineup of playable Mobile Suits (MS) drawn from across the Mobile Suit Gundam multiverse. Twelve are included at launch, with two more unlockable via gameplay or microtransactions. Each mobile suit is effectively a distinct character, with a unique weapon and set of abilities. Unlike more human-scale hero shooters, every MS in the game can use its thrusters to boost along, hover for a short period, or “quickstep” in any direction. This makes the combat more vertical. It also poses a particular challenge to melee-specialist MS like the Exia and Barbatos. Skilled players in those mecha, though, can really clean up.
Though the in-game information doesn’t assign each MS to a class per se, each MS description specifies a preferred playstyle and role in a team. For example, the GM Sniper II is slow, clumsy, and crumples like paper under fire, but it can pick off even the toughest enemies at an unmatched range and revive a downed teammate from a safe distance. Meanwhile, the RX-78-2 Gundam is a medium-range tank, able to advance under fire by walking behind its shield and stun enemies with its thrown Hyper Hammer weapon. My personal favorite, the Sazabi, is the giant around which entire team strategies form. It’s bigger than every other MS in Gundam Evolution and has the slowest default speed. However, it has a massive pool of health and can shield itself against incoming fire. At close range, it can melt targets with its beam scattergun and throw a beam hatchet to stun an enemy. It does have a good trick, though, in that it gets a free boost to a nearby ally… or its thrown hatchet. Thus the normally lumbering Sazabi can “super jump” by boosting towards its airborne hatchet, covering huge distances and moving with a speed that belies its bulk.
With each MS having a unique playstyle and characteristics, the key to success in Gundam Evolution is choosing characters with complementary abilities and working together as a team to accomplish objectives. Even the hardy Sazabi won’t last long alone, especially not against a zippy Exia or the stunning mace of the Barbatos. Almost every unit has some ability that can function to support the team. The GM and Pale Rider can throw down healing devices, while the flight-capable Methuss can heal directly via repair cables, or secure an area with a deployable turret. The Dom Trooper can deny whole areas with its land mines and rocket launcher, and strengthen allies with its armor gun.
Finding the right team composition for the situation is critical to accomplishing objectives. In the Network Playtest, these objectives came in three flavors: Point Capture, Domination, and Destruction. Point Capture challenges the Attacker team to capture two points before time is up. Domination gives both teams one of three points to fight over, swapping between them at fixed intervals. Destruction is a plant the bomb-style mode. The Attackers try to plant a “megacharge” on one of two points, while the Defenders attempt to stop them. Matches were often pitched and could swing either way, especially in these early days when everyone is still learning their favorite MS and finding new tricks with their abilities and team compositions.
Encouraging mastery is the game’s meta-structure of progression. Gundam Evolution is a free-to-play game and supports itself through microtransactions. The playtest included a special 20-level battle pass, which awarded cosmetic unlocks and loot box tickets as players rose in the tiers. The loot box system is broadly similar to that found in games like Overwatch and Apex Legends. Various cosmetic and customization items can be unlocked by opening loot boxes, with varying drop rates based on rarity. The cosmetics range from fairly mundane things like profile icons and sprays to Mobile Suit skins. The MS skins can be fairly mundane, like adding a blue stripe to the accents, or wild, like a glowing neon-green take on the Gundam Exia. It’s also possible to unlock some items manually, by earning an in-game “blue” currency called “Capital”. Some capital given to playtest participants was used to unlock the Exia and Marasai for immediate use. A green “premium” currency was also earned by getting duplicate items from loot boxes, which could be used to unlock certain skins.
That said, the limits of the playtest were still evident in my brief time with Gundam Evolution. Despite using the recommended region for my geographical location, I experienced several drop-outs in the middle of the match. At this time, the game also imposes a rather harsh “quitter penalty.” It locked me out of joining a new match for multiple minutes. I also received error messages on several occasions telling me my account was suspended, only to be let back in if I restarted the game.
Another potential issue is readability. Where original titles like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 deliberately construct their characters to be easily identifiable, Gundam Evolution is bound by the actual designs of the MS units it uses. And some of those units look pretty similar. Despite being a Gundam fan, I can tell you I died more than once to mistaking a Pale Rider for a GM Sniper or thinking an RX-78-2 was a GM. Perhaps a better or more unique selection of skins will help players mark out who they’re fighting on sight.
All in all, with the right support and polish, Gundam Evolution feels like it has what it takes to grow a long-term presence in the canon of competitive shooters. I for one, look forward to squeezing in a few more matches after launch.
Gundam Evolution debuts on PC, PS4, PS5, and Xbox Series X and S in 2022. The network playtest ran from April 8, 2022 through April 12, 2022 for selected participants.