Saturday, April 11, 2009

Armored Core 4 (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS3
Developers: From Software
Genre: Action, Vehicular Combat
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date
: March 20th, 2007

It's pretty easy to love giant robots in just about any entertainment medium they may pop up in. It's pretty much assured that when you see giant robots you're also going to be privy to massive explosions, bitchin' combat, usually some laser weaponry and the type of wars too cool for real life. Oh, and quite often an anti-war message within it. You know, to help teach the kiddies that war is bad while the rest of us actively root for the giant robots to wipe an opposing military base off the map.

And yet, despite having all these very necessary elements, something about Armored Core 4 simply doesn't gel.

Part of it is the story. Or I should say the lack thereof. There really isn't much of a narrative here. Just some cut scenes interspersed between chapters narrated by some guy we never really see, telling of the war your character fights in; a war between companies of the world. The details are sparse at best and little is explained, even of the previous games. There are references to events in the series past, but they come without rhyme, reason or explanation, leaving you with a jigsaw puzzle missing half of it's pieces. The game doesn't even have a real ending; upon completing the final mission your coordinator will thank you. Roll credits. You don't even find out how things really shook out in the aftermath of the war. Some games thrive off of story, making it an integral part of the experience. Armored Core 4 forgoes this; but unlike other games that do the same, it doesn't quite have the outstanding quality in the other facets of the game to make up for it.

The graphics aren't horribly impressive, especially for a game that came out in 2007. Environments are varied, from snow covered regions to cities to battles in the oceans, but a lot of effects seen in most next gen titles are surprisingly absent with the exception of the occasional level with varied lighting. The result is a visual experience that is decent overall, but barely passable even for the period it was published in.

Sound fares better on the whole. The usual mech sound effects are in place, with thuds accompanying every step, the creak and groan of metal, explosions, crackles and booster thrusts. The music itself ranges from decent to good, but you aren't going to hear any memorable themes throughout the game. The standouts are generally the menu music pieces of all things. Everything passes muster, but isn't what you'd call spectacular.

The gameplay is more of a mixed bag than anything else in the overall package. Several of the games contemporary's contemporaries use a tactical roleplaying style of gameplay; in stark contrast, Armored Core 4 uses a far more straightforward action approach to mecha combat. Your nameless mercenary main character chooses a mission within the chapter you're on, you get a debriefing and are plunged right into the action.

The action itself, along with the missions, are actually rather solid. Missions aren't a horribly varied affair, but they're not exactly straightforward either. As you'd expect, you usually have to blow something up; but target objectives will range from every enemy on the battlefield to one unit to the destruction of key structures. You'll find yourself doing anything from taking on fortresses and stripping their defenses, taking on crack pilots who pose a danger to your forces, sinking battleships, collapsing entire bases, blowing up huge structures in an impressive explosion, stopping the advancement of enemy forces all the way to actually defending things like structures or vehicles. Sometimes there are even some twists you'll need to worry about, such as the battlefield being contaminated and damaging your mech more and more the further down you go, necessitating speed and smarts to win. It rarely feels like you're doing the same thing in each successive mission, even if you actually are.

In between mission you are given the ability to customize your mech with new parts and armaments. The system presented is very similar in a lot of ways to the way it's handled in the Square-Enix tactical roleplaying mech series, Front Mission. You choose a core body, arms, legs, head, boosters, weapons for the different arms and shoulders; as I said, much like Front Mission. However, unlike the aforementioned franchise there's sadly far less to do here. Even after you've beaten the six chapter campaign You'll realize just how few parts the game actually offers you as opposed to the usual sprawling choices of weapons and parts offered to you in contemporaries; hampering the sort of thing that you usually find yourself happily whittling away hours into.

Actually using the general upgrade sections also tends to be a pain in the ass. There's no real "shop" to speak of like you expect in these type of games; instead it's integrated directly into your garage. This can frustrating, especially considering the manner to buy things in this game is far from obvious. You'll find yourself able to get the hang of it, but there will be bouts of frustration on the way to that point considering this aspects limitations.

On the plus side, this game does retain the simulator aspects of it's contemporaries. After you've loaded up your mech as you wish, you can pop in the simulator and choose from data packs which give you several different opponents to take one on one. If you lose, there's no penalty, but if you win you'll be paid a specified sum of money and sometimes even parts of the mech you've beaten. Considering the action oriented nature of this game, this also feels far less tedious than it's contemporaries; whereas in a tactical roleplaying mech game any one battle can stretch onwards for a half hour or more Armored Core's simulation matches should take no more than five or six minutes to complete at the maximum, keeping it from getting boring.

Once you've thrust yourself into the action, actual mission or battle simulation, things tend to get cooking rather quickly. This is where a good control scheme is necessary to help elevate the product overall. Thankfully, Armored Core 4 offers decent controls, though there are some issues. Three of the face buttons are used for firing different weapons loaded onto your mech; one for the left arm, one for the right and one for the shoulders. The other face button is for something called an overboost, which is something you'll learn rather quickly is not something you want to use much. The bumpers are for switching your arm weapons; you're also able to load the mech with weapons attached to the back at the cost of weight such as a long range laser sniper rifle or a missile launcher. The triggers are for boosting, something you'll e doing a lot of; the lest being your standard boost and the right being a quick boost used primarily for dodging.

Once you get the hang of it, the controls work rather well. However, there are issues that crop up as the game goes on. The Overboost button is all too easy to nail when you're actually looking to fire your primary weapon, which is a mistake that can cost you a lot of one of your energy bars; in particular the one in charge of your laser shielding. Then there are the auto options. By default, the game automatically switches your sighting to what it deems the best possible target or the best possible weapon. This can have a tendency to completely piss you off if not turned off in control options; it's no fun to try and fire off a missile volley only to find yourself thrusting forward and stupidly slashing at the air with your laser blade, all while gunfire and missiles rock you to your core. The same goes for when you're in close, perhaps wanting to use your laser blade, only to find the game decided it was a good time to switch to whatever you had mounted to your back; cue standing there looking stupid as you fire off some missiles when you wanted to slice the enemy mech in half. This would be infuriating if you couldn't turn it off, but even still you may not even realize you can until halfway through the game if you're the type who doesn't tend to screw with the controls unless the defaults are god awful.

The Score: 6 out of 10

This game is, in the end, a rather mediocre one despite it's potential. Once you get the hang of things you're bound to have some fun, but the game is far from without flaws, soem crippling. If you don't mind that or a lack of real story, the game is a good enough time on the whole. Armored Core 4 is a solid rental for certain, but I'm not sure it's worth more than that.

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