Armored Core For Answer
Developer: From Software
Release Date: 09/16/08
The Armored Core franchise is certainly a strange one; it’s probably the most popular franchise From Software develops, and it’s certainly the most prolific, with thirteen games across five different consoles, but it’s still considered something of a niche title here in the US. Despite the appeal of giant, customizable robots blowing things up that would probably appeal to lots of Western gamers, the fact is that the franchise is rather involved, complex, and difficult to approach for someone who isn’t interested in tuning their metallic death engines into top tier combat machines. Armored Core 4 was actually something of a dramatic change for the franchise insofar as mainstream accessibility was concerned; aside from adding the option of online play and updating the visuals significantly, the gameplay was simplified somewhat to make the end product a bit more accessible, if not to casual gamers, at least to mecha fans who wanted to jump into the franchise but were scared off by the eighty million things the player was expected to know. Armored Core For Answer, aside from being the obvious expansion game that fans knew was coming (because one always does), is also a further expansion into the new mechanics introduced into the franchise, as well as a whole lot of new robot on robot action for fans to jump into.
The question is, if you’ve never played anything from the franchise before, is Armored Core For Answer a good starting point, and if you have, is this worth picking up? Let’s take a look.
The storylines in Armored Core games tend to have two things in common:
1.) they’re generally pretty interesting and good at getting the player interested in the experience, and
2.) they don’t expect the player to have played ANY of the prior games, since they don’t really have an obvious contiguous continuity,
and Armored Core For Answer doesn’t really do much to change this trend. As it goes, a bunch of corporations (here called The League) decided to abandon Earth (because it’s polluted so badly with what are called “Kojima Particles”Â that it’s a disgusting hole) and move into the skies in flying cities known as Cradles. As it goes, the corporations want to squash any potential rebellions from those living on the ground, so they go back to the old standbys they’ve been using since the beginning of the franchise: Armored Cores. Lynx’s (as AC’s are called in this game, again continuing the animal theme) are more or less held responsible for all of the pollution on the Earth (because of a huge war, which was the basis of the backstory of Armored Core 4), and are more or less all formed up into a huge group known as Collared, which hands out mercenary missions for the Lynx’s to perform and regulates arena battles for them to engage in. As you begin your life as a Lynx, you choose one of four companies to ally with (which only really dictates your starting gear, and nothing else) and move along the story path, making a name for yourself in the process, though what that name will ultimately be is up to you.
The basic gist of the story is pretty much what fans of the franchise have come to expect: you, as a new mercenary, take on missions, make decisions on who to assist and who to attack, and generally dictate the fate of the world through your actions. Since you are, for the purposes of the game, nameless, faceless, and genderless, the communications you have with hiring companies, other Lynx pilots and your operator are often fairly non-descript and direct, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From Software has had a lot of practice at this sort of storytelling and it shows, as the story actually manages to come together fairly well and makes a decent amount of sense, no matter what story path you choose or what companies you help or harm throughout your play sessions. The story is also fairly well connected to Armored Core 4, if you’ve played that, which makes the experience more involved for long time fans of the franchise, as it makes your previous time spent with the earlier game feel like it MEANS something when you pick up the next game in the series.
The graphics in Armored Core For Answer are generally quite solid, though the visual quality comes mostly from the AC’s and the various enemies you’ll face down. The various friendly and enemy units in the game look exactly as they should: detailed, futuristic, and lively. Whether you’re taking on smaller, weaker foes, going toe-to-toe with other AC’s, or fighting giant hulking Arms Forts, the personality in most of these units is very interesting and they are all generally graphically impressive, even when they’re getting blown to bits. The environments, however, aren’t anything special, and most amount to deserted wastelands of some sort or another or large industrial complexes of some sort or another, with only a scant few really presenting any sort of significant variety to the experience. Again, the game is more about battling enemies than admiring the sights, but most of the levels look drab in comparison to the awesome amount of detail invested into the combat units, which is disappointing. The audio, on the other hand, more than makes up for the visuals, as it’s high-quality across the board. The music is, as always, futuristic techno beats mixed with the odd ambient track here and there, which fits the theme perfectly and sounds pretty good to boot. The voice acting is mostly spot-on, and the one or two performances that are less than stellar are small parts that are barely noticeable across the multiple hours of play the game provides. The sound effects, from the mechanical noises and dull thuds of the AC’s stomping across battlefields to the roar of explosives detonating to the laser and plasma weaponry all sound appropriate and powerful across the board. Taken as a whole, the audio makes the experience of Armored Core For Answer that much more powerful and exciting, and sells the experience better than you could imagine.
The gameplay of the Armored Core franchise is really where the games begin to shine… as well as where the franchise tends to lose players. The thing is, it’s not the actual gameplay itself that scares people off, especially not now, as it’s surprisingly simple to work with. You’re offered a couple of default control schemes to choose from as you see fit, as well as the ability to customize those control schemes to work as you see fit, allowing you to cobble together a control style that’s right for you, which isn’t too daunting. Aside from the obvious ability to look around, move around, strafe, and so on, movement in your AC isn’t limited to slow ground combat, thanks to your boosters. You can fly around, zip along the ground, use the boosters for a quick boost forward/backward/sideways to avoid fire, and enable Overboost (high speed boosting that drains your energy in a hurry) when needed to close or increase the distance between you and a target as quickly as possible. In earlier Armored Core entries, boosting drained your energy meter (a meter at the top of the screen that indicated your AC’s energy output from its generator) significantly, leaving you only able to do it for a few seconds, but in the most recent entries, boosting drains little energy at all, allowing you, with a proper AC build and enough piloting skill, to potentially fly and boost around forever. You’re also given several different weapons and mounting locations for them, between your arms, back, and shoulders, which you can switch between and use at the press of a button. Each weapon has different effects and uses, so you might use a heavy gatling gun and a laser blade with back mounted missile launchers and shoulder mounted retaliation missiles, or missile arms, a back mounted rocket launcher and grenade launcher, and shoulder flares for confusing enemy missiles, or whatever, and all of these weapons are simple to enable and use. You’re also offered up a few other novelties, depending on your AC layout, like “Assault Armor”Â, IE the ability to use a proximity explosion to damage/destroy surrounding forces, and “Primal Armor”Â, IE energy shielding that can protect you from attacks. Some missions also have you piloting your AC while it’s attached to a Vanguard Overboost unit, which is essentially a giant jet engine attached to the back of the unit that propels it forward at super fast speeds, usually towards a giant monstrosity of some sort or another, making for epic confrontations that are a first for the series.
The game isn’t all boosting and shooting however, as you’ll spend more than a fair amount of time back at your garage, customizing your AC and taking missions and such. This amounts to little more than menu navigation, of course, but what you do in these menus is what ensures success or failure in your commissioned missions. Aside from being able to take on missions and Arena Battles (one on one fights against other, CPU controlled AC’s) from the garage, you can also shop for new parts for your AC and customize it in many, many different ways. As you complete missions, new parts can potentially be unlocked, either in the shop or as bonuses for completing a mission, each for different sections of the AC (weapons, heads, cores, generators, Firing Control Systems, and so on), and each with different effects. The effects these components will have on your AC are all spelled out fairly neatly on-screen, in basic and advanced formats, to give you full numerical representations of exactly what the piece you’re equipping will do to your craft. For example: a heavy set of legs will most likely improve your overall armor points, shell resistance, and weight capacity, but might reduce your Primal Armor score, energy resistance, and movement speed, or a light head might improve your camera response, aiming capability, and Primal Armor score, but might reduce your overall armor points and defensive abilities, or what have you. Each piece you can equip will, in some form or fashion, have an impact on your AC’s performance, and you will have to take this into account as you design it: do you want a fast, light AC that can run rings around foes, or a heavy AC with tons of weapons and armor to decimate foes with pure might? These choices will determine the best loadouts for you, from mission to mission, which will mean spending time adjusting your craft beyond sticking things onto it and calling it a day, but thankfully you can save several designs as needed.
Beyond that, however, there are also several other things the more customization-minded player can sink their teeth into. You can totally redesign the color scheme of your AC across its body parts and weaponry, and whether you simply want to customize one uniform color scheme or you want to completely recolor each and every piece on the unit you’ll have the options you want at your fingertips. Decals can also be attached all over the AC, for those who like to totally customize the appearance of their units from the ground up. You can also choose the balance of the AC by way of attaching stabilizers to the body, which can make the unit heavier in different directions, meaning different bonuses/hindrances to movement, depending on your play style. As you play, you’ll also earn memory chips which can be added to various parts of your AC’s internal memory, which can improve targeting lock on, energy output, and so on, as you deem fit, allowing you to properly tune your AC further to meet your personal specifications. These things aren’t necessary to plow your way through the story of the game, but for anything beyond that, they will certainly be something you will want and need to consider.
You see, Armored Core For Answer isn’t just about plowing through the story mode, and while you can certainly do that, as there are forty two missions to cut through across three different storylines, that isn’t the only thing to do with the game. Online play makes up a big part of the experience, in two ways: Partnerships and Competitive play. Partnerships are exactly what they sound like: you can team up with an AC pilot online to take on many (though not all) of the missions in the game, which trades off mission difficulty for mission payout (IE two AC’s are better than one, but your ally takes half the payout), while Competitive battle can be done over Xbox Live, System Link, or through Split Screen, and basically amounts to single or team deathmatches of various sorts for up to eight players at a time. As is the standard, online play offers up the standard Ranked and Player matches, as well as the option to jump into any available battle, specify parameters, or create your own battleground, and allows you to modify all sorts of parameters (ammunition count, battleground, time limit, respawn possibility, and so on) as you see fit. Beyond that, you can also go through missions over again through Free Play, as well as take on the same missions in Hard difficulty to test your piloting abilities, and between these options and the fact that there are multiple endings and rewards for achieving high rankings on missions (IE the less ammo you burn through and the less armor points you lose, the higher the ranking of the mission), you’ll have plenty to do if you’re into the game.
The problem being, of course, that no matter how much joy you can derive from building AC’s and blowing stuff up, you may not be able to deal with the complexity and difficulty of the experience long enough to get your money’s worth from the product.
There are, if boiled down to their most basic essence, three notable problems with any Armored Core game, and specifically with Armored Core For Answer. The first is that the game, while certainly challenging, is oftentimes unbalanced in its difficulty, to the detriment of the experience. Fighting against lower powered foes (IE those not in AC’s) is generally pretty easy from the beginning of the game to the end, and even an unskilled pilot can generally plot through weaker foes with little to no issue, given enough ammunition and armor points. Fighting against Arms Forts is certainly a challenge for new and old fans alike, because of their size and capabilities, but these battles have a certain amount of justifiable difficulty to them that make losing said battles understandable and winning said battles satisfying. Facing down other AC’s, however, is often either a gigantic pain in the ass or a cakewalk, depending on weapon loadout and AI exploitation. Now, it should be noted that if you are facing down an opposing AC alone, in an open area, especially higher ranked AC’s late in the game, it’s entirely possible to be ripped apart by your opposition unmercifully, which is half of the balancing issue. Having to redesign your AC depending on the mission and opposition will be fun for those who like the genre and the concept, but everyone else is going to get tired of this after the third time they’ve had to do this thing. Now, the OTHER problem with balancing is that, in closed environments or when working with powerful allies, missions facing down other AC’s can be exceptionally easy (for instance, in the final mission of Ending 1, if one lets their ally, Wynne D Fanchon, ride out in her AC alone to do battle and distracts one of the opposing AC’s, then runs back into the entry tunnel, Wynne will use her AC, Reiterpallasche, to completely end the opposition single-handedly, while the AC battling you will spend its time bumping into the walls trying to get to you), largely because of stupid opponent AI and powerful allies. While exploiting stupid AI behavior can occasionally be useful to a player, when
1.) this is occasionally the ONLY way some players will be able to beat the game in the first place, and
2.) this is a tactic I personally exploited against Nine Ball in the original Armored Core, a game that came out eleven years ago,
it’s time to make some balance improvements in your AI. In fairness, this isn’t a problem in MOST cases, but when it does pop up, it’s noticeable.
The second significant problem is the fact that the Armored Core franchise is the Madden of giant robot combat, in that we pretty much get a new game once a year whether we’re ready for it or not, with some nominal changes and a bunch of the same content we’ve come to expect, so it’s hard to point to someone who’s played Armored Core 4 and isn’t a diehard fan and say “all of these changes totally make the game worth getting”Â. While it’s fair to say that Armored Core For Answer is a significant improvement over, say, Armored Core and the two expansions based off of that game, it’s harder to say it’s a huge improvement over Armored Core Nexus and the two expansions following THAT game, and almost impossible to sell to someone who’s played Armored Core 4 and is looking for something more involved. It’s not that the game is BAD so much as that the game isn’t even moderately original that hurts it here, as even with the giant Arms Fort battles, unless you’re a huge fan, have never played the games at all, or haven’t played the games in years, you know what’s coming.
The biggest problem, though, is that the franchise as a collective whole isn’t really accessible to many people after a certain point in the game, simply because you are going to have to spend time tuning your AC and learning what works and what doesn’t in order to make significant progress, which will turn some people off. As a casual experience, a player can have a lot of fun with the game to a point; there’s a large tutorial at the beginning of the game and the first several missions are balanced enough that a less-skilled player can jump into them and figure out what’s going on without much trouble. But eventually, that player will hit a wall (probably around the time they’re expected to take on White Glint, a little more than halfway through the game), and even if they can manage that, there’s no guarantee they can get through what comes after. From there, they will have to go through the game at least two more times (to unlock all of the missions in Free Play and earn all three endings), earn S ranks in the various missions, blow through the Arena, play through the Hard missions, and so on in order to get everything from the game they expected to, and frankly, many of those people won’t be able to make it through ONCE simply because, even though the franchise has been simplified significantly, it’s still not simple enough for anyone who doesn’t want to learn stats and battle tactics and weapon effects and so on to manage their way through.
And that’s kind of a shame, because even with all of that said, Armored Core For Answer is a hell of a lot of fun, if you can get into it, and it’s well worth the price tag. Those who can get into the game will find an experience brimming with personality and style, featuring exciting, challenging combat, tons of depth and substance, and a significant amount of replay value waiting to reward their patience. For those who lack the patience or the desire to learn the mechanics of the game, however, the unbalanced AI in AC battles and not insignificant learning curve will turn them off, and those who are worn on the franchise will most likely not find there to be nearly enough changes in this installment to bring them back for another go at it. If you’re patient, willing to learn the mechanics of the game, or a big fan looking for another installment in the series, however, Armored Core For Answer is most certainly for you, and the one time sixty dollar fee will be more than justified after you’ve spent twenty or so hours with the game and realize that you’re still not finished with it yet.
Final Score: GOOD.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Armored Core For Answer is like some sort of anime version of the Madden franchise; a new one comes out nearly every year, it requires interested players to learn how the stats and mechanics work, and it’s incredibly in-depth every time, even if it’s lacking in originality. Featuring a world full of personality and style, some outstanding audio, easy to learn and customize controls, and a ton of replay value both online and off, it’s hard to understand why such a game is relegated so niche status at first glance. Closer examination reveals some cracks in the armor, however; the game’s AI is unbalanced in some respects, particularly when facing off against other Armored Core units; the franchise isn’t known for making huge modifications from game to game, leaving the game stale to those who have experienced it before; and the whole experience requires hours spent learning what AC stats mean and how things work in combat, even with all of the various changes that have been made to the game over the years. It’s not so much that Armored Core For Answer isn’t accessible as it is that it’s not for everyone, and while some may be put off by its difficulty, learning curve, and lack of originality, many will love it for what it is: a fun, complex, challenging action game featuring mechs blowing each other up. If you’re into that, Armored Core For Answer should be on your “to purchase”Â list.