Thursday, February 19, 2009

Armored Core: for Answer

"Who doesn't love giant fighting robots?", I thought as I picked Armored Core: for Answer off the used rack at my local Game Stop. The young, nerdy woman working the counter made a remark to the same effect, even. So, I figured that Armored Core would be like pizza and sex: if it's good, it's great; if it's bad, it's still okay.

And I was right. It's bad, but still okay.

My giant fighting robot franchise of choice is the FASA BattleTech universe, with the MechWarrior games being my preferred digital incarnation. I even played in a NetMech clan back in the day. I've always preferred the BattleTech approach over the Japanese gundam approach simply because it seems more practical: you build a walking robot like a tank, and you only build one in the first place for improved mobility over a tracked vehicle.

Armored Core seems to be the polar opposite. Instead of slow, lumbering bipedal robots with explicitly mounted arm weaponry, Armored Core goes with fast, flying robots with mechanical hands grasping discrete weaponry. Also, your craft has rocket engines.

In fact, if you're ever not running your "booster", you're doing it wrong. The booster allows two primary maneuvers: flight, and sliding. Flight is fairly self-explanatory, with thrust controlled by the oh-so-finicky L2 shoulder button. Sliding, on the other hand, is bizarre. Basically, while on the ground, holding down L2 causes you to slide at 300km/h in the direction held on the left stick.

This means that your primary means of ground transportation is ice skating. Which means that the game feels more to me like hockey than it does giant fighting robots. Well, actually, "giant fighting robots" is a pretty good description of hockey, come to think of it.

After mastering the skating/flying dynamic and giving up any hope that it would be like MechWarrior, I did start to get into the game. The missions are totally unvaried, being almost entirely variations on "kill everything that makes your radar turn red" with a couple defense and escort missions thrown in. Of course, the defense and escort missions are most easily played by aggressively pursuing and killing everything that makes your radar turn red.

But, that's okay. The purpose of a giant fighting robot is to cause destruction. And you get to cause untoward amounts of destruction, unfettered by any strategic or tactical thought. Look for red, and shoot it. Nice and brainless.

The brains come in during the exhaustive robot customization process. Literally every part of your robot can be swapped out, from legs to head. There are a couple dozen different weapons for each hardpoint. There are a dozens of boosters, computers, generators, cores. There are at least a dozen stats to optimize for the robot itself, plus another half dozen for the weapons. You can choose from several different fundamental platforms: bipedal, quadrupedal, or treaded. You can paint your robot. You can add camouflage or a pattern. You can add decals. You can name it.

I should mention, however, that after I found a robot design that worked, I stuck with it. I did occasionally change it up for specific missions where I needed a radically different loadout, but one design carried me beautifully through 80% of the levels. I'm not sure if this is a playstyle thing, and other people will have different preferred loadouts; or, if the machine-gun arms and grenade launchers really are the min/maxed platonic ideal that I suspect them to be.

The in-game detail given to the robot is excellent. The robot textures are high resolution. Missile ports flip open, and shoulder-mounted weaponry flips down into ready position as you activate it. Projectile weapons have moving parts, and cycle when you fire them. Truly otaku fodder.

Unfortunately, all of the detail and care in the game went into the robots, and none of it went into the environment. Cities are populated with copy after copy of the same building. It does destroy nicely, crumbling to dust as your robot heaps cannon fire on it. But literally every building in the game is the identical model.

Most of the missions take place in featureless desert. Some of them take place in featureless valleys. A couple take place at sea, which is even more featureless--although the splash effects as you skate around on the water are pretty nice. There are a few missions that take place in large structures, tunnels, or around unique structures. But, the level geometry is built out of as few polygons as possible. In contrast to the high-fidelity robots, the environment looks like absolute shit.

This sort of thing was acceptable back in 1995 when they released MechWarrior 2. I happily overlooked the featureless environments, since I knew they had to save their triangles for the mechs. But, Armored Core: for Answer was released last year. There's no excuse that can justify having only one goddamn model for every building in the entire game.

The difficulty level is supremely inconsistent. The regular missions are all cakewalks, with even my hamfisted and unenthusiastic playthrough netting me A's and S's on all but a couple of missions. This is mostly because you pit your top-of-the-line NEXT-class robot against their piddly outdated models. And then, out of nowhere, your mission will include battle with another NEXT-class armored core. I had to replay most of these battles several times before I achieved victory--the regular missions certainly aren't training for them.

I'm sure that the story would be meaningful if I'd played any of the other games. But, I haven't, so I just found it boring and meaningless. You play as a mercenary, so you actually advance the goals of several different organizations throughout the game. This doesn't lead to a lot of loyalty to anybody, and I found that I couldn't care less who was winning or what was going on. I just selected missions so that I could go cause some destruction.

While this shouldn't really count against it, Armored Core: for Answer also has one of the stupidest titles I've ever encountered. What the fuck does "for Answer" mean? I didn't find anybody named Answer in the game (although I could have missed it). So, it's probably not a proper noun. So, did they really mean "for an Answer"? Or, "for the Answer"? We need an article, please. But, it's exactly what you'd expect from a developer that calls itself From Software. When I first saw that on the screen, I thought to myself, "Of course it's from software; it's on a blu-ray disk. Why are you telling me this?"

So, name gripes aside, I would say that Armored Core: for Answer would appeal most to the sort of person who collects gundam models. The robot customization is really first-rate, letting you create all manner of unique beasts--some of which are useless in combat, but at least look awesome. And the gameplay is adequate enough that there's some point to building that super-cool robot. But, the boring, low-detail environments, complete lack of a coherent story, and inconsistent difficulty bring the whole experience down to mediocrity. If you're not into the robots themselves, there's nothing to keep you here.

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