August 04, 2007
When it comes to Mech games, few franchises are as recognizable as the Armored Core series. With solid controls, fast-paced action, and a slew of different customization options that allow you to build your walking weapon of mass destruction from the ground up, the franchise has attracted countless fans of the genre since its debut in October,1997. While developer From Software's been in the gaming industry for over 20 years, and has had mediocre success with other titles such as the recent Tenchu Z and Chromehounds, Armored Core is the series that launched them from obscurity into a recognizable name in game development. After a 5 year hiatus following the Playstation 2's Armored Core 3, the franchise has made a return on next-gen consoles. Unfortunately, much of Armored Core 4's content hasn't evolved at all from it's last-gen predecessors.
Throughout the single player campaign, you play as a member of the Ravens. The Ravens are a group of rebels attempting to take down the evil Pax Economica organization, whom have essentially enslaved the civilian populace following the Nation Dismantlement War. During the Nation Dismantlement War, the governments of the world were suffering from global terrorism and civil unrest, which provided an opportunity for the world's six largest corporations to overrun the each country's governments using advanced Armored Core technology to produce armies of mechs. Within a month, every government had been completely destroyed. Following the war, the six corporations combined to create the Pax Economica, which provided the civilian population food and housing in return for their loyalty and obedience. Your job is to take down the Pax Economica with the help of the Ravens.
If it all seems hard to follow, that's because it is. The story has a very Japanese anime style to it, and it's hard to fully understand what's going on throughout the entire single player campaign. I found myself having no clue why I was embarking on a certain mission half the time, although the objectives were clear. Your character is also a silent protagonist, so you really can't identify with him or her on any level. With over 70 missions, the campaign runs on for quite awhile, but while that number may seem impressive at first, it's really not what it seems. The same maps are used over and over throughout missions, with slightly different objectives and occasionally they'll change the mission from day to night. The missions also for the most part can be finished in under two minutes each. While the main draw for the series has always been to go back to missions and aim for a higher ranking than your previous one, I would've preferred to see fewer missions with more depth to them than a large number of short, boring missions with simple objectives.
The multiplayer portion of Armored Core 4 is adequate, albeit disappointing. After the phenomenal multiplayer offering Chromehounds brought to the table, I was excited at the prospect that From Software would apply the same system to Armored Core 4. In Chromehounds, players would join one of three factions when starting their online career, and the battles would take place in one of many countries on a global scale. Each country would be contested, and once a faction had won enough battles in that country, they would claim it. Once one faction became dominant (which could take weeks at a time), the whole thing would reset and start all over. Unfortunately, Armored Core 4 offers nothing of that nature, and the multiplayer is essentially a standard deathmatch affair. Disappointing, to say the least.
As fans of the series would expect, all of the customization options from the previous games have returned. You can purchase and equip your mech with a wide variety of different items, and add layers of paint and decals to set it apart from the rest of the crowd. Every piece of your mech is customizable, from the legs, arms, torso, head, and weaponry, to the more intricate items such as jump jets, radar, shields, and energy generators. The latter is where the game gets too complex for its own good, as there's really no thorough explanation of what the various pieces of equipment do, and the interface for purchasing items and modifying your mech is both confusing and overwhelming. The only way to really learn what everything does is by trial and error, or by looking for a guide online. Even after finishing the whole campaign twice, I still didn't know precisely what everything did. While the vast customization options are nice, the developers should have either explained them better, or cut some of the unnecessary ones to make the system a bit less complicated.
The gameplay is fast and frenetic, with a very arcade-y feel to it. The speed of the combat is dependent entirely on what modifications you've added to your mech. If you've chosen a light, agile mech, you'll spend most of your time flying around the battlefield reigning missiles and machine gun fire down upon your foes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can build a heavy, plodding mech with cannons strapped to each shoulder, and a rocket launcher and a laser cannon in each hand. Or if you prefer to get up close and personal with the enemy, you can craft a mech that specializes in close combat, equipped with a sword and a shotgun to bring the fight straight to your opponent. Of course, those are just a few examples of the combinations you can choose, and you can mix and match whatever weapons and equipment you'd like to suit your tastes. This is one aspect of Armored Core that shines. You set the pace, and you decide how you want to play the game.
Visually, Armored Core 4 is a bit behind the times. The mechs themselves look great, and the particle effects and explosions are particularly impressive. While they're not as good as they could have been, the mechs look realistic with a high level of detail in each piece of equipment. They move realistically (although I can't say I've ever personally seen a mech), and the animations are fluid whether you're piloting a fast mech or a slow moving tank. The landscapes, however, are an entirely different story. Every map is dull and lifeless, and the trees and other amenities are 2D and clash with the rest of the textures on the screen. The mechs look out of place on such a bland backdrop, and some extra work could have been put in to make the environments a little more detailed and believable. Aside from the backgrounds though, everything else looks okay, although nothing is really a technological breakthrough.
The audio is a mixed bag, although nothing in particular is outstanding. The weapons and explosions sound great, but little else beyond that is worth commenting on. The music track is your typical mix of rock and techno that you'd find in a bad anime, and you won't even notice it playing in the background most of the time. The voice acting is bad, even for a Japanese port which are notorious for their bad dubbing. The woman who gives you your mission objectives and plays the largest role of any character in the game is particularly bad, with a dull and lifeless voice that will encourage you to skip through the mission briefings half the time. It seems that not much effort was put into the audio portion of the game, and it shows.
If you're looking for a quick boost to your gamerscore, Armored Core 4 will provide you with roughly 700 points in one run through the single player campaign, making it an ideal rental. Every achievement in the game is obtained through the single player campaign, with no achievements distributed to the online portion at all. After the initial 700 points, the remaining 300 are obtained by beating certain missions on higher difficulties and achieving an S ranking on every mission. Achieving the lucrative S ranking is no small task either, especially with 70 different missions. To achieve an S ranking, you need to perform flawlessly and sustain little damage to your mech throughout the mission. While it's not too tough on most of the missions, it can be a pain on some of them, and you'll need to specially design a mech for a couple of the more challenging ones. With that said, obtaining the full 1000 points is no easy task.
Overall, Armored Core 4 is a mediocre game with some fun elements, but hampered by outdated game mechanics and an overly complicated customization system. While the actual gameplay is entertaining, the missions are just too short and simple, and the story is boring and hard to follow. It also seems like the developers spent too much time making the mechs look good, and not enough time on every other aspect of the visual portion of the game. The mechs may look pretty, but when pressed against dull backdrops, the mechs themselves lose much of their visual appeal. The multiplayer portion is also a huge letdown, and it's mind boggling that From Software could make Chromehounds' multiplayer so fantastic, and then turn around and put no effort at all into the online portion of the title that put them on the map. Perhaps if these mistakes are corrected in the inevitable sequel, the franchise could be brought back to life, but as it stands Armored Core 4 has shown little improvement in the jump from last generation consoles to the next generation.
The weapons and explosions sound great, but everything else is fairly average. The musical score is dull and boring, and the voice acting ranges from merely acceptable to horrendous. The woman who gives you your mission objectives and plays the most prominent role in the game is the worst by far, which makes concentrating on the information she's giving you tough.
The mechs and particle effects are outstanding, however that's where the visual appeal stops. The backgrounds are dull and lifeless, and the textures used on most of the trees and other items are 2D and look like they belong on a Playstation 2. More work could have been done on the environments, and it would have helped the game tremendously, as the low quality of the level textures detract from the quality of the modeling on the mechs.
The combat is fast paced and fun, however that can hurt the game as it becomes hard to keep track of individual enemies at times. The targeting system can also be frustrating, because it will often automatically switch your target at the worst possible times. Once you work past those few flaws though, you have a solid mech game that can be entertaining once you've figured out how customizing your mech will affect its performance.
There's just not enough here to keep you playing for long. The campaign is dull and boring, and the multiplayer is disappointing and not worth your time. Aside from the short and boring campaign missions, there's not really much else to the game at all.
While roughly 700 points are easily obtainable by playing through the single player campaign just once, the other 300 will take some time and frustration. There are no multiplayer achievements whatsoever, so every achievement will have to be unlocked by playing the campaign missions multiple times. Obtaining the full 1000 points is tough, as the last few achievements require you to get the highest ranking possible in every mission in the game, which is no easy task.
If you're a fan of Japanese mech games, you may be able to squeeze a little bit of fun out of Armored Core 4. But if you aren't a particularly big fan of the genre, don't expect to have much fun with this game. With a boring and hard to follow story and incredibly short missions that play out on levels you've already played several times, the single player portion of Armored Core 4 is mediocre at best. The multiplayer aspect is forgettable, as made evident by the fact that From Software neglected to include any achievements for playing online at all. There's also a steep learning curve, due to an overly complicated customization system for building your mechs and no in-game help to aid you in figuring out what does what, leaving you to experiment with each piece of equipment to figure out what does what. If you're looking for a good mech shooter, I'd suggest the infinitely superior Lost Planet or Chromehounds, unless you really want to add another lackluster mech game with little depth in terms of gameplay and content to your library.