Of all Hideo Kojima's cybernated love children, his Zone of the Enders series is somewhat of the Lilliputian, redheaded stepchild of the litter. By in large a mecha anime-inspired platform for both Kojima's periodically fluctuating gameplay design whims and tapas-sized serving plates for various Metal Gear demonstrations (the first installment came packaged with a playable preview of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and this HD assemblage includes a demo of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance), Zone of the Enders games are representative examples of style over substance. Zone of the Enders HD Collection does well to modernize and embellish the well-established flair factor, but still, much like the PlayStation 2-era originals, leaves a fair amount of perennial significance to be desired.
Zone of the Enders, released in 2001, was a muddled mixture of critical pros and cons; fundamentally an exercise in displaying the graphical power of the PS2 and a slightly mishandled attempt to fabricate a copycat Neon Genesis Evangelion video game without having to officially label it as such—or go through the head honchos at Gainax. The game was a genuine pleasure to look at, and quite fun to play for all of about two or three hours at maximum, but soon the repetitiveness of its erratic robotic combat and exploration, as well as its dull-as-dishwater storyline, caused the whole experience to essentially feel like a rushed-out demo itself rather than an entirely finalized product. Kojima and his production team took note of these rough-around-the-edges issues when they went on to create the sequel, 2003's drastically improved Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner. Carefully modified, fluid controls, further enhanced visuals, an excellent musical score, non-cookie-cutter characters, and a narrative that actually carried some emotional weight along with it, The 2nd Runner is one of the sleeker, more focused titles Kojima has ever made, definitely worth mentioning alongside any aggregation of memorable PS2 third-person action games, and the standalone reason to acquire this HD edition.
Thankfully curtailed to a mission-based NPC cameo in The 2nd Runner is the whiny, anti-socialite protagonist and chosen Jehuty jockey Leo Stenbuck (a two-bit clone of Evangelion's Shinji Ikari) from Zone of the Enders, appreciatively replaced by a much stronger-willed, stable hero in experienced Orbital Frame (a.k.a. mobile suit, L.F.O., or any other anime colloquialism thereof) pilot Dingo Egret. Zone of the Enders, to this day, is a relatively depressing digression with its many themes revolving around the morality of murder and losing innocence—both of which are also prominent in, you guessed it, Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The 2nd Runner smartly dodges this platitudinous narrative pitfall, instead offering an invitingly complex good-versus-evil allegory, rife with potent messages involving commitment to duty, comradeship, and the limitations of retribution. Konami's Zone of the Enders HD reformatting, much like Metal Gear Solid HD Collection from last year, beautifies the graphics of the PS2 prototypes and reinforces the framerate for less troublesome glitches and slowdowns during areas of the game when the screen is teeming with movement—though load times are still far too lengthy. Where the most kinetics occur is obviously during battle, and that's where both games are able to benefit considerably from the high-definition upgrade. Whether on offense or defense, using ranged tactics or brawling in close quarters, maneuvering the Orbital Frame is still a blast, even though it comes off as mildly dated in certain last-act sections. Regardless, if you enjoyed these games when they initially came out, Zone of the Enders HD Collection is well worth the capital. Otherwise, for the uninitiated and curious, the singular ecstasy of being able to experience The 2nd Runner is the only excuse you need to part with your well-earned money.
However, one glaring misfortune remains with the PlayStation 3 version of this HD Collection (yes, even more detrimental than the fact that you're playing as Raiden), and that is the game-collapsing defect found within the already generally subpar Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance demo. Oftentimes engaging the Gekko enemy will cause an unavoidable freezing, prompting an improper reset of the system. Konami has noted that they are aware of this and is working to resolve the malfunction, most likely via patch. For now, though, the PS3 demo can only be enjoyed in downsized doses. Coincidentally, much like Zone of the Enders HD Collection itself, it's a classic case of hesitant better-than-nothing acceptance.