Developer: From Software
Release Date: September 16, 2008
Armored Core for Answer is the 12th entry in the decade-old Armored Core franchise. This strikes me as a bit baffling, as the previous entry, Armored Core 4, was the 11th entry. Strange counting methods aside, this is the second outing for Armored Core on next-gen consoles and developer From Software's third attempt at a mech game on the Xbox 360 (one of them being Chromehounds). Armored Core is a series I left behind after Armored Core 2 in the early days of the PlayStation 2, and I didn't come back until Armored Core 4 on the Xbox 360. AC4 was a tremendous disappointment in almost every imaginable way, but From seems to have listened to the community to learn about the exact issues with Armored Core 4. As a result, Armored Core for Answer is a much improved effort. It's nowhere near perfect, but the improvement is vast and brings the series back from the gutter.
When you first boot up ACfA, you're treated to a beautiful, stunning CGI cut scene depicting a colossal mech, an Arms Fort, launching a "Next" (the mechs you pilot in the game) and the subsequent destruction. The sequence was so beautiful that it really brought up my hopes for the title's graphics, but hopes and dreams are fragile that way. While the in-game graphics are a noticeable improvement over the bland, barren environments in Armored Core 4 the game still doesn't really look like anything special. The "Next" mechs look good, but the environments remain barren and uninteresting. While this makes sense in the context of the game, the environments aren't anything special to look at. You can deform them a little bit, as rocket fire does seem to leave a dent in the sand (complete with an atrocious-looking explosion, which is sad if you remember how good the explosions looked in Chromehounds), but these dents vanish as you approach them and reappear as you move away. On the flip side, the environments are absolutely massive. There are a fair number of very small maps, but there are also a lot of maps that feel like they could easily be over a dozen square miles in size. The graphical highlight of the game is the Arms Fort, which is a gigantic mech that can range from over 1,000 feet tall to over a mile long. Several game missions require you to destroy these beasts, and approaching one of these things is visually striking and by far the most memorable visual aspect of the title.
ACfA sounds pretty good. The music tracks try to be sweeping and epic in their sound, and succeed for the most part, although none of them are very memorable, with the exception of the stunning main theme. The voice acting is passable but nothing special, and the various explosions, gunfire and laser fire all sound fine.
Of course, that's not what Armored Core is about. It's always been about building your mech and taking it into combat, and ACfA does not disappoint. The amount of things you can do to your "Next" is absolutely stunning. Between the hundreds of parts, stability, painting, patterning, and decals, you'll be very hard-pressed to find anyone using the same mech once you've fully customized your work. The levels of customization are probably going to be far too much for most people to deal with, even with the interface improvements. Each part affects several of your statistics, and you need to carefully pick and choose to find the balance you want. If you want a big cannon on your shoulder, you'll have to be prepared to move slower due to the added weight, and you'll also have to add weight to the other side with stabilizers to get your mech's center of gravity back in the middle. Energy cannons don't really have a set amount of ammo, so if you plan on only using these, you'll need an enormous generator, or you won't be able to boost and fire without long periods of waiting for your generator to recharge. As you progress through the game you're given chips that allow you to fine-tune your mech in many ways. You can make your mech track targets a little better, be a little less likely to get knocked off balance when it gets hit by a missile, etc. For fans of building, this is going to be your dream. I was spending 15 minutes between every mission outfitting my mech with upgrades and weapons that I wanted for the next mission.
Other than the tremendous mech building, the main offering of ACfA is the single-player story mode. There are 42 missions that can be played and 30 arena matches to test your one-on-one abilities. However, the story mode doesn't allow you to play every single mission your first time through the game. ACfA is split into several chapters that only allow you to complete about 60 percent of the missions before you're forced to move onto the next chapter. The story picks up somewhere after Armored Core 4 finished, but it's largely an incoherent mess. Between chapters, the game spells out some of the major wheelings and dealings in political affairs for you, but the story still remains extremely difficult to follow. There's something going on about an extremely polluted Earth and half of the population living on platforms floating seven miles in the sky, with the corporations based on the ground and in the air fighting with one another. To really get it, I had to go to various forums and read up on the plot analysis. Further compounding story matters is the branching story line; there are several endings to the game, depending on the choices you make, and things can play out very differently.
In ACfA, you are a mercenary. From the menu, you select one of three offered missions, receive your briefing from the corporation, and go for it. Unlike the vast majority of the missions in Armored Core 4, most of the missions in ACfA are a lot of fun to play. The worst of the bunch are the escort missions, where you simply need to fly ahead of whatever you're protecting and destroy all of the enemies. Other missions have you strapped to a rocket flying through enemy lines, ditching the rocket once you reach the back, and destroying the backbone of the military force you're facing. The sense of speed when strapped to the rocket is fantastic, and the gunplay on these missions is quite intense. By far the highlight of the missions is your mech versus the Arms Forts. As mentioned, approaching and subsequently destroying these behemoths is stunning. These fights serve as the boss battles the game, and in the game universe, a single mech taking out one of these beasts is an enormous accomplishment, and it certainly feels like one. Escaping from the innards of these things to simply stand there and watch half a mile of metal tear itself apart is awesome. Otherwise, you're faced with missions ranging from simply destroying everything to fighting a Next mech or two. On some missions, you can bring an ally with you who will take a cut of your reward. The better the ally, the higher the cut it'll demand.
New to this edition of Armored Core is co-op play, which only works over Xbox Live. It adds a new element to always have a friend fighting with you, and it definitely adds to the game's strategy, but it's very difficult to find a random user with whom to play online. Otherwise, your standard Xbox Live multiplayer options don't really standing out, other than an occasionally resetting league ranking for ranked matches. This doesn't mean much, as it seems that virtually nobody touches the ranked matches with a 10-foot pole. There weren't many participants in non-ranked player matches, either; the largest game I could find online had three other players in it. There's just no community for this title.
All in all, Armored Core for Answer fixes a lot of the problems that existed in Armored Core 4. Significantly more fun missions, graphical improvements, a fantastic sense of scale, and an enormous amount of customization really help the title. However, the impossible-to-understand story detracts value from the single-player experience, so the only reason for you to return is to build your mech, which is something that's going to overwhelm most players. While Armored Core fans will find a lot to enjoy here, the rest of us are going to see a clunky-controlling, average mech game with mind-boggling levels of customization.
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