Armored Core 4 Review
Over the years, the Armored Core franchise has remained the staple of mech action titles across all consoles, largely because there really were no other games like it. Granted, their were other mech games, but they were far faster and more chaotic, as opposed to Armored Core's more sim-like approach. It's always been sort of weird calling Armored Core a simulation mech game, considering the fact that everything about AC is absolutely fictional. But gamers have always appreciated the enormous amount of depth behind the series. And that heavy feeling behind the control of every bot does make you feel like you're piloting something that weighs as much as a house. Over time, though, the series began to feel a little too slow. And with games like Zone of the Enders 2 showing us what fast-paced mech battles are all about, Armored Core's fan-base dwindled down to its hardcore roots. So here's Armored Core 4, promising that faster gameplay, while at the same time keeping the series' feel true to itself. But, unfortunately, it doesn't deliver...
First what the game does is take you through a tutorial. After you get past that, the core finally begins. The core structure of the game is a pretty simple mission-by-mission affair, where upon selecting a mission you're given a briefing of your objective. Once you complete your objective, you complete the mission and are able to move on. Missions are broken up by chapters; so, for instance, a chapter may have seven selectable missions to choose from, but five of which you must complete in order to move onto the next chapter. If you're the perfectionist type, you can go back to complete unfinished missions and rack in some additional money.
There are a total of 37 missions, which may seem like quite a bit, but once you start playing the game you realize that a lot of those missions are going to pass by very fast. In other words, a good chunk of Armored Core 4's missions are very short, some lasting as little as one minute. In fact, even the longer missions still feel short and repetitive. Worst of all, I couldn't help but feel confined and limited in nearly every stage I entered. I had initially thought that perhaps AC4 would offer a sense of freedom like ZOE2 did, but I was left disappointed. On top of that, the missions are pretty boring and straightforward in structure.
When you're not playing the core, you'll likely be spending a whole lot of time customizing your mech. In traditional Armored Core fashion, the game offers a magnitude of customization features that'll melt away the hours as you sit in front of your TV tweaking, changing, tuning, and personalizing your mech. You've got dozens upon dozens of choices in weaponry and body parts. You'll be able to carry a number of weapons at once, all of which mounted onto four different parts of your mech. The amount of weapons featured in the game is just insane, you'll keep on unlocking more and more as you progress through the story mode. You'll be able to fit your mech with battle enhancing hardware that'll improve it various battle specs.
Then you'll move onto changing body parts, like legs, arms, core/torso, and head. Different body parts, clearly, feature different advantages and disadvantages -- some will feature nothing but advantages, and you'll get those later on. The body parts will allow you to make your mech look as wild, as you'd like. Feel like being a quadruped? Go for it. Each part of your core (weapons included) has its respective weight; the heavier your weight, the slower your mech is. Weapons have to be selected carefully, because brute force weaponry can do more harm than good to your offense and defense. Then of course you can personalize the color of nearly every component that your mech has, which is yet another staple of the series. You're not limited to playing with the mech you start out with, as you'll be able to purchase new machines. And just like the rest of the game, the more you play, the more become available to you.
And it's that strategy of choosing your weaponry and assembly parts that makes AC4 such a crafty game. It really is a shame that the single-player is pretty bland and flat, otherwise AC4 would have been one terrific title. Thankfully the multiplayer is fairly decent, although still lacking. You can take your customized mech online and choose between various types of matches -- team, battle royal, or 1-on-1. You can also control the number of players in team or battle royal between four and eight (why not include six?). While the online is fun, the stages aren't that grand, so don't expect Unreal Tournament-like stuff here.
Worst of all, you can't choose a specific room you want to enter - there is no room list. You simply select the type of match you want to play, and the game automatically throws you into some random game - talk about half-assed. In a day and age where videogame forums/message boards are all about playing online with one another, From Software decides to completely overlook the most basic online mechanic. It is something that can be fixed with a downloadable patch, so whenever that happens, the score will be retracted and fixed to reflect any updates made.
Lastly, the game's controls don't feel clunky and overly heavy anymore, thanks to the inclusion of boost. The action is faster paced, but don't expect anything blistering. Once the game's tutorial teaches you the ins and outs of the controls, you should feel fairly comfortable with them. Likewise, the camera does a decent job of staying on your back during the more frantic portions of the game.
When you fire up Armored Core 4, the first thing you'll notice is the gritty visuals. You're going to spot the noise filter (think Silent Hill), and you may either hate it or love it. I think it'd have been wise of From Software to have an option to disable the noise for improved clarity. It's not that heavily used, which is good, and for the most part you may not notice it after a while - but there will be instances when you do. Regardless, overall AC4 sports some moderately detailed visuals, that aren't mind-blowing, but passable.
You're not going to notice any spectacular texture work with copious amounts of bump mapping, but you will get a super smooth picture that doesn't seem to have a single jag anywhere. The mechs are well detailed and the scenery has its moments too. Armored Core 4 tends to exhibit some pretty dramatic lighting when it tries to render an enormous explosion or a blistering sun in the background, and it actually does quite an admirable job. Additional eye-candy comes from your weapons, as they emit laser blasts or a horde of rockets exploding upon impact.
The environments can be destroyed, but their destruction never really looks good; buildings just collapse without so much as an explosion and, in fact, they barely even crumble -- it's very underwhelming. Sometimes the game can look a bit flat, and that's largely because the textures aren't extraordinary. You will also see some frame drops here and there, but the game runs well for the most part. Overall, Armored Core 4 is a bit of a mixed bag; there are certainly some bright spots, but there's also a lot of average stuff that don't really harness the power of either next-gen platform.
As far as audio goes, there isn't anything terribly special here. In the background of each stage you'll hear music playing faintly, and during gameplay you'll hear various chatter from enemies or your mission guide. Sound effects don't break any bounds and are also quite average. Explosions, hits, gunshots...it all sounds so bland. The clarity of everything is fine, but the caliber just isn't what it's supposed to be.
The most disappointing thing about Armored Core 4 is that there's so much obvious potential that's in a game that is just barely average. From Software had a perfect opportunity to re-create the franchise, to give it a new breath, but instead they added a few minute features and left the rest alone. Armored Core 4 fails to re-establish itself as something new, and I can only recommend it to its fan-base. The mission structure is broken, and the missions can be very short. The online, while fun, is incomplete. And the visuals leave something to be desired. The game's seemingly infinite depth and single-player rewards certainly make it worthwhile for the 'Core fan, but the casual gamer should really look elsewhere.
3/30/2007 Arnold Katayev