Developer: From Software
Release Date: March 20, 2007
Starting on the original PlayStation, the Armored Core series has been one of the most popular mecha titles on video game consoles. Without the crutch of a license like Gundam, Armored Core has instead kept a steady fan base through quality gameplay based around configuring your giant mechanical robot. However, the complexity and difficult of the recent games has made them almost inaccessible to new players. Armored Core 4 attempts to simplify the gameplay to appeal to new gamers, while keeping the complexity and wide variety of available equipment that the Armored Core fans have come to expect. Unfortunately, by attempting to appeal to two different types of gamers, Armored Core 4 stretches itself too thin.
The very basic concept of Armored Core 4 isn't a big change from the other offerings in the series. As the pilot of an Armored Core, in this case a new-generation model called a NEXT; you take on mercenary missions in order to earn cash to further upgrade your killing machine with new weapons and parts. Armored Core 4 tries to throw the basic semblance of a story into the game, but what little plot there is makes no sense at all. Events seem to happen almost a random, and when the last boss finally rolls around, you'll have no idea at all why you're fighting him. All the storyline does is provide the loosest explanation for why you're blowing up things.
The mission design in Armored Core 4 is a huge disappointment. Clearly the game developers had a few excellent ideas, but nothing ever comes of them. Missions are simplistic and incredibly short, with the average mission being over in barely a few minutes for skilled players. For the most part, these short missions are made up of a simple goal: find a target and blow it up. Sometimes you have to go through a maze to find a target, but more often than not, it is somewhere right in front of you. A few blasts of your weapon later, and it is a smoking hole in the ground, and you go back to base a richer man or woman. Occasionally, the game attempts to throw a curveball at you, such as one mission where you have to fight in complete darkness, guided only by the occasional flare. While these missions are interesting in concept, they aren't really fun to play. They simply drag out an already-simple mission, and the added challenge rarely makes the mission more difficult. Admittedly, the Hard mode adds a bit more to these challenges, but with a solid weapon setup, you can easily tear through them with almost no trouble.
This is not to say that combat in Armored Core 4 doesn't have its fun moments. The biggest obstacle that prevents jumping in and playing Armored Core 4 is the game's unfortunate default control setup, which makes it nearly impossible to move and fire your weapons at the same time. However, a bit of experimentation with the customization should allow gamers to find exactly the right setup. It's a minor complaint, and one that is easily rectified, but one can't help but wonder why such a strange and poorly designed default setup was chosen. Once you get the hang of it, the thrill of speeding around at 300kph, firing off all of your weapons and watching the enemies explode around you is a feeling that is difficult to beat. However, for every few moments of adrenaline-soaked excitement, there are many more filled with tedious, mindless repetition.
Creating your own Core is a simplified process from the previous games in the series, in what appears to be an attempt to make it more accessible to new players. Unfortunately, it is still so muddled with technobabble that it doesn't work. While you can get by just fine by equipping a few items and some good weapons, customizing your Core to perfection is a matter of balancing countless different stats. Everything from the rate of fire to the suit's energy consumption to its weight can change how the Core controls. The problem is that there are countless different stats and attributes to be weighed, but the game explains almost none of them. Likewise, the manual is a simplistic affair that explains the basic functions but nothing about the inner workings. While it's fairly easy to realize that blue numbers are good while red numbers are bad, it doesn't make up for the fact that none of the actual effects of this information is provided in a clear way. For those Core fans who thrive on building the perfect machine, this isn't a problem, but it prevents more casual gamers from really digging their claws in and creating their own Cores.
The biggest change to the Armored Core universe is the introduction of the deadly Kojima Particles. Incredibly powerful, but incredibly toxic, Kojima Particles are being used in the manufacturing of new-generation weapons and Cores. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the new-generation Armored Cores known as NEXTs. Beyond being generally faster and more powerful than the classic Cores, NEXT also has a new line of defense — a force field called "Primal Armor," or PA. It repels all damage that hits the Core, heavily decreasing the damage the machine takes, but the PA also has its disadvantages. The Kojima Particles take a while to recharge, so sustained fire can bring down your shield rather quickly. Furthermore, certain weaponry, usually the energy-based laser rifles, can pierce through the PA, rendering the line of defense nearly useless. The last problem is with the extremely toxic effect of Kojima Particles. Using them in populated areas is a death sentence for any living and unprotected beings nearby, so certain missions will require you to fight without the aid of the PA.
While the Primal Armor is cool in concept, it proves to either be too powerful or utterly useless, with little to no in-between. Against regular enemies, the PA is so strong that it is often more efficient to fly through the levels and go right for your objective, rather than fighting the enemies in your way, since the damage you take is minimal. However, in the multiplayer mode, Primal Armor is almost worthless. While it can nullify a few of the weaker weapons, the actual useful weapons will tear through the PA as if it weren't there, or knock your Core around so much that this benefit is almost useless. Computer-controlled enemies using the PA are worthless foes. I was able to tear through all of the enemy NEXT with either an Altair laser rifle or a grenade launcher so fast that no battle lasted longer than 25 seconds. Considering that these NEXT are supposed to be the toughest enemies in the game, their rather pathetic showing in actual combat is a huge disappointment.
In fact, the entire game's difficulty is a letdown. The previous Armored Core titles had been accused of being too difficult; the games assumed that anyone who picked it up had been following the series since the PS1 days, and they were completely unforgiving toward new players. Armored Core 4 tries to fix that but goes too far in the opposite direction. Excepting one or two missions, the difficulty is extremely low, as I was easily achieving solid A and S ranks the first time I played missions, and I wasn't really trying. For the most part, I didn't even need to fool around with the customization that should be the Armored Core staple, simply using the same machine for every mission.
One long-awaited addition for fans of the series is the ability to take your self-created Core online to battle other gamers. Unfortunately, this online play is lackluster at best. The available stages are limited in size and shape, providing none of the terrain and detail of the single-player stages. Instead, they are mostly featureless flat plains, dull as dish water and limited in number. The actual online play is fairly smooth and lag-free. At the moment, the gameplay feels a little skewed toward specific fighting styles, especially with the simplistic and small arenas. However, every time you boot up the game, a "registration" file is updated, so presumably after some time, there will be adjustments to the gameplay. For such a long-waited addition to the franchise, though, Armored Core 4's online play is rather lacking in substance.
Bloom is the bright flaring of light that is becoming more and more common in next-gen titles. While some games can use bloom effectively, Armored Core 4 isn't one of them. Bloom is everywhere in this game, turning what should be a simple daylight mission into an annoying exercise. While the effects don't often block your view of the mecha, they make it incredibly difficult to see the built-in radar, forcing you to adjust the camera until the transparent radar is behind something a bit more substantial so you can see the tiny dots showing your targets. Beyond the bloom, Armored Core 4 is a bit of a mixed bag of graphics. The actual Cores themselves are nice looking, especially considering the level of customization. However, the stages you play are incredibly bland. Generally divided into "generic city," "empty desert wasteland," "ice-covered land," or "indoor corridor maze," there is little to set these stages apart. They are boring and lifeless, and unfortunately, they don't even look that good, with unimpressive textures being the word of the day. The explosion effects, however, are quite nice, and there are a few moments of brilliance, just not enough to make up for the otherwise-lackluster graphics.
On the other hand, the sound work in Armored Core 4 is quite impressive. Although there are only a few of them, the voice actors are fairly solid, bringing a surprising amount of life into characters that have no backstory or personality. The machines themselves sound quite good, although the weapon effects sounded just a bit muted to me. Perhaps the most memorable part of the game is its musical score, full of bombastic choirs and intense fast-paced music that fits the gameplay quite well. There is a bit of repetition in songs, but not as much as one would expect, and there is no tune that grows dull or tiring.
Armored Core 4 is a good place for a newcomer to the series to start. It's simple and frankly quite fun, but it's just a bit too short for a $60 game, and it can easily be finished in a day. While online play and the Hard mode add a significant amount of replay value, more casual gamers will have a harder time enjoying those features, while more hardcore fans may be disappointed at the changes. Armored Core 4 is by no means a bad game, but it is unimpressive. It's fun to fly around, blasting enemy robots with swarms of missiles and giant beams of energy, but once you're finished, there is no real sense of accomplishment. In attempting to simplify the Armored Core franchise, From Software may have accidentally taken out its heart.
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