Like the gameplay of SD Gundam Capsule Fighter Online, the title of the game itself may need some translation. "Online" and "Fighter" you can probably make sense of, and even if your knowledge of Japanese cartoons ends on Saturday mornings in the '80s and '90s, "Gundam" is probably familiar -- this is a game where you drive robots around shooting at each other online. But "Capsule" might throw you a bit, and "SD" was a new one to me. "SD" means "super deformed," and Gundam Capsules are like those little plastic balls you can get from 25-cent-machines in the supermarket. They're toy versions of Gundam mechs, basically.
In other words, SD Gundam Capsule Fighter Online is essentially a game about toy robots fighting. It was first released in South Korea in 2007, and it's slowly made its way around the world here to North America, where it's in closed beta and is set for a full free-to-play release in "early December" by OGPlanet.
As you might imagine, it's cute, and the mechanic of collecting and customizing these little robot machines that you can send into battle will likely appeal to quite a few players. Unfortunately, after playing a few matches of the third-person shooter at OGPlanet headquarters recently, I determined that it'll be tough to recommend the title to anyone but the most die-hard of Gundam fans.
SDGO's (as it's called online) gameplay isn't really bad; it's just sloppy. Each Gundam you collect comes with a special and two or three weapons, all available on cooldown, and the specs of the various Gundams are all centered around a rock/paper/scissors system. That's not metaphorical -- they really are labeled as Rock, Paper or Scissors hand gestures, with Rock serving as melee strength, Paper meant for long range combat, and Scissors being best at midrange.
Action is quick and chaotic but kind of floaty. It's not always clear exactly when you're doing damage and how much you're doing. The co-op mission I played a few times set me and two other players against a series of three large Psycho Gundams with smaller enemy robots zooming around us, and while I was told that taking out too many of the little robots would summon up more of the big ones, that wasn't apparent in the game itself, so my best bet was to just choose a target close to me and take it down as best I could.
While the actual Gundam gameplay wasn't all that intriguing, collecting the little robots to play with might be. There are over 350 Gundam units to find and buy in the game at launch, and each one of those can be customized with plenty of colors and various labels. The easiest way to get the robots will, of course, be to go through the game's store, but players can also use in-game points to buy "capsules" with a random robot inside (and a fun little opening animation, mirroring the nostalgia of buying the real thing as a kid), win robots by completing matches or missions, or use the game's extensive crafting system to make new robots of their own.
The crafting system lets you use "trash" Gundams, along with a "key" model, to convert four of your old robots into a brand-new one in a higher rank (the robots are categorized in ranks from D up to A). This is a little wasteful, as you need to collect a whole lot of robots to make just one good one, but it's also smart because it allows the game to reward you with new robots often.
Each robot can also be upgraded in a number of different attributes like speed, health, and so on, and you can even put "skill parts" on Gundams to give them extra passive skills in battle. Gundams are organized into "Battleships," which also have their own abilities granted to Gundams used from that ship, like a HP recovery ability or an extra percentage of damage. And finally, each player gets to choose an "Operator," an anime-style human who will not only commentate on your match ("Oh no! You're down!") in a specific voice but also provide some stats of his own.
As you can see, the customization system is quite deep, and while I only got to see one little collection of robots assembled for the demo, it's likely the game will tap right into a "gotta catch 'em all" mentality (which is also likely one reason for the game's success around the world already).
It's just too bad that actually using your collected robots in battle is such a mess. Combat is passable; along with the 11 or so co-op maps and missions coming with the game, there will also be 10 maps with various modes from team deathmatch to a game of tag and even a variant called "boss mode," in which players fight to control a more powerful Gundam. But even while the PvP battle I tried was fun enough, the match exited back to the main menu without even a clear indication of the score -- there is a finishing screen, but it's very unclear (other than from your winnings) just who won the player-vs.-player combat.
Similarly, there are also a few translation bugs and errors still in the game, though presumably OGPlanet will work those out during the beta.
There are moments in SDGO that are a lot of fun. Each Gundam has a special attack that's usually melee-based (though I missed it the first few times, not knowing that I needed to be extra close to hit it), and when that attack lands, the game goes into a special animation, during which the rest of the world fades away and you and the enemy robot get a little cutscene of the attack being carried out. I also had a lot of fun customizing my little Gundam; I painted it purple but put some skulls on it too, just so people knew it would be dangerous. And for a game that's free, that kind of fun might be enough.
But it's disappointing that the combat doesn't seem to show much depth or precision. SDGO is due to leave closed beta in December, when Gundam fans can see for themselves whether the title's core gameplay will keep them interested enough to build up a Gundam Capsule collection for themselves.