December 19, 2006 9:13 AM | Ollie Barder
['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the epic Armored Core series]
What with Armored Core 4's release a scant few days away, it seems only sensible to write a retrospective on possibly one of the most successful mecha gaming franchises ever created.
You'd think that a dedicated gaming intellectual property that affords immense creative freedom on the part of the player would be championed outside of Japan as well as within. While the latter is certainly true, the former is sadly not the case.
Admittedly, From Software's Armored Core games have often received rather disappointing localisations and non-existent marketing but some balk at the series' ongoing complexity, both in terms of the controls and intricate customisation.
The truth is that these games have a very traditional learning curve in effect and not just as a series but for each and every game. In the current climate of zero effort rewards maximum enjoyment, Armored Core is decidedly antagonistic in its approach on making the player learn the game. In many ways, the Armored Core series is the spiritual successor to games like Assault Suits Valken.
Armored Core 4 does look to change this slightly but more of that later. Anyway, here's more history on Armored Core than you shake a reinforced ceramic composite stick at (oh, and each of the gameplay screenshots double as links to in-game footage for this edition of the column).
More after the jump...
Armored Core (PlayStation)
The Earth is but a radioactive and blasted landscape, devoid of life since the Great Destruction fifty years ago. What is now left of humanity lives under the surface, in huge cities run by corrupt corporations. As such, there is the need for a discerning type of mercenary; one who can undertake missions of a particularly ruthless nature. These mercenaries are known as Ravens and their ride of choice is the Armored Core (also called an AC), a huge customisable mechanical avatar that's sole purpose is to lay waste to whatever is stupid enough to stand in its way.
Armored Core was a game like no other at the time; it was a fast and responsive third-person shoot-em-up where the player piloted a massively customisable mecha. Each of the parts that made up these mechanical behemoths cost money, as did their maintenance and the re-supplying of ammunition, so the mercenary aspect of the game (as in getting paid) gave purpose to the gameplay. After all, nothing forces you more to be accurate and frugal with your machine gun shots when you know every single bullet is costing you money.
It was also a big game, with over forty missions and branching storylines. All of which where told in the somewhat voyeuristic fashion of e-mail from your disreputable employers. The game had a unique, eerie and dystopian feel. It also had one of the most memorable gaming villains, that of the decidedly uber AC Nineball and its enigmatic pilot, Hustler One.
The controls were also particularly comprehensive, with almost every button on the pad used in gameplay. Due to the limitations of the original PlayStation pad, no analogue sticks were able to assuage the difficulty of tracking a target a la an FPS. Instead, the shoulder buttons acted as the means to look up and down. This was one of the main faults the game had but was easily avoided with judicious usage of the re-mapping of buttons via the options. That being said, yours truly had no problem with the shoulder buttons for vertical tracking but it did take a while to get used to (though the point here is that you are supposed to be controlling a complex mechanical war machine).
Armored Core's mecha design was also very interesting in that the player could create their own mecha. As such, a special type of mecha designer was needed. Originally, Armored Core lacked any famous mecha design assistance but Shoji Kawamori, creator of Macross and mecha designer extraordinaire, heard of the project and offered his services.
Talking of Kawamori's creative input, building an AC was no slapdash affair, creating an unbeatable AC was a work of heightened craftmanship. The main three areas of design focus were as follows; keeping the energy consumption on the generator as low as possible (whilst utilising a fast AC frame and powerful weapons), having the weight of your AC within the limits of your AC frame and making sure that your armour points are matched by defence points (in that having loads of AP means nothing if the armour's defence is weak).
This was given a Western release and was one of the series most successful iterations; it also garnered a sizeable multiplayer community with various tournaments held both in Japan and abroad.
Armored Core Project Phantasma (PlayStation)
Set not long after the events in the original, the Wednesday Organisation are in the process of building a new type of AC killing weapon, called Phantasma. However, it seems that wider ramifications are still afoot. The few missions Project Phantasma offered were quite a bit more challenging this time around but this was mostly due to the fact that parts and money from the previous game could be utilised, so the difficulty had to be raised as a consequence.
The main addition in Project Phantasma was that of an arena mode. Replacing the redundant "Ranking" league table from the original game, the player now had to earn their No. 1 Raven status by physically downing their mercenary compatriots. Unlike the missions, AC damage and ammo didn't need to be paid for and you basically earned pure cash for each victory.
One of the more interesting aspects about Project Phantasma was the use of famous seiyuu Sho Hayami as the voice of the game's twisted villain, Stinger. Interesting in that Hayami also voiced the similarly skilled mecha pilot Max Jenius from Macross, another Kawamori related work. Project Phantasma also started the ball rolling with the wonderful aspect of unbalanced parts, mostly due to the inclusion of new and vastly overpowered weapons. Some liked this state of affairs, many didn't.
Armored Core Master of Arena (PlayStation)
The final entry into the PlayStation Armored Core series and the game's title really wasn't kidding; Master of Arena was almost entirely based around AC arena encounters. As such there were two discs for the game, the first being set around a very small mission mode and an easy arena and the second being host to a massive selection of over 150 AC opponents.
The missions were again harder and more involved than Project Phantasma and they were interlinked with many of the arena encounters, in that you had to defeat a set number of arena AC's before more missions would be become available. The narrative was also based around the re-appearance of Nineball and the fact that there were still unseen forces pulling the strings of our future society.
The amazing aspect to Master of Arena wasn't so much the massive and involving arenas but actually a customisable AI setup called "Ranker Mk". This allowed the player to create their own ultimate AC opponent, making this iteration of the series nigh on definitive due to the almost infinite gameplay longevity on offer. This is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the original PlayStation incarnations and perhaps even the best Armored Core game of all time. It is unfortunate to say that this type of gaming quality wouldn't be seen in the Armored Core series for the next few years.
Armored Core 2 (PlayStation 2)
Set a hundred years after the events of Master of Arena, the world of Armored Core is a very different place. The central hub for Raven's, called the Raven's Nest, was disbanded and the Raven's themselves were outlawed. Humanity began anew but it wasn't until humanity colonised Mars that the Raven's and their ACs were needed once again. Set on Mars, Armored Core 2 dealt solely with the same petty corporate squabbling of the previous games but also with a new and enigmatic alien menace. One that hinted towards the true origins of the technology behind the creation of ACs and the reasons behind the Great Destruction that occurred 150 years ago.
Of all the entries into the Armored Core franchise, Armored Core 2 probably had the strongest narrative. It is unfortunate to say however that it was also the weakest in terms of gameplay. Armored Core 2 was very rushed for release, because it was intended to be a launch title for the then new PlayStation 2. It missed the launch by a few months though but upon its final release it was still in a ropey state. The framerate, draw distance and general game speed were very much lacking. To top it all off the parts list was shockingly unbalanced, which made the once strong and revered versus aspect of the series a veritable laughing stock.
There were improvements made though, such as the addition of your AC overheating as well as a new high-speed "over boost" function (not to mention a few extra hard points for even more ordnance and raw firepower). Yet despite these additions the slow and clumsy controls, the nausea inducing framerate and weapons that lacked any skill in their usage made the game a rather disappointing endeavour. It is also unfortunate to say that for many in the West Armored Core 2 was their first, though misrepresentative, taste in what the series had to offer.
Armored Core 2 Another Age (PlayStation 2)
Following Armored Core 2 by a few years, the action had now returned to Earth. Finally, a habitable and green world but still filled with corrupt corporations and other shadowy forces of power. Despite the previous and somewhat disastrous entry, Another Age did actually rectify quite a few of the problems that made Armored Core 2 so disappointing. The framerate and weapon balancing was noticeably improved, the game engine also received a new lick of paint and many of the new environments were particularly impressive.
That being said, Another Age was still very much a follow-on from Armored Core 2. Whilst there were improvements in the previous iteration's gameplay pitfalls, they weren't entirely fixed. Seeing this obvious state of affairs, the developers decided to drastically change the structure of the game. By drastic we mean doubling the mission count, to over 100, and removing the primary source of narrative; the Raven's e-mail account.
Due to the massive size of the game, the lack of e-mail made the narrative all the more subtle and surprisingly engaging. The missions themselves were also tactically more complex and diverse than previously seen. However, the real point of interest (for many fans at least) was the reappearance of Stinger's Vixen, Phantasma and Nineball. Another Age was also the prototype for a new mode of versus combat; co-operative missions and online matches (via a peer-to-peer USB modem service, which wasn't too hot in all honesty). In any case, with Another Age the darkest chapter in Armored Core's history came to a close. It was time for the halcyon days of the series to shine forth once again.
Armored Core 3 (PlayStation 2)
Armored Core 3 was very much the turning point for the Armored Core series. In many ways, it was what Armored Core 2 should have been; fast and action packed with an entirely new and very impressive game engine. The good old days of Armored Core were back. In terms of narrative though, things are a little woolly. Armored Core 3 was clearly set after the events of Another Age, but dates and locales aren't specified.
What we do know is that corporations are still the superficial governing force of the human race, with sinister dealings happening behind the scenes and we've gone back to living underground. Raven's are still needed to do the messy and explosive jobs that most people wouldn't dare to. In terms of gameplay additions and fixes, they were legion. In addition to the "overboost" cores, seen in Armored Core 2, there were now "exceed orbit" cores. These allowed the player to detach a drone or drones from its back and have it track and fire at will upon enemy targets. Weapons could also be dropped mid-mission and wingmen employed for that extra bit of firepower. Not to mention the new aspect of dual wielding guns, to give AC encounters that much needed John Woo edge.
The massive change however was that of increasing the number of versus players from two to four (via iLink). Couple this with the very shiny new game engine and silky smooth framerate, resulted in a very accomplished versus setup that only helped to emphasize the judicious part balancing that had been mostly absent in Armored Core 2 and Another Age. The somewhat shaky USB modem versus was still present but that paled in comparison to the joys of a four way mecha smash-em-up. Armored Core 3 was a great game but it only turned out to be a forecast of greater things yet to come.
Armored Core 3 Silent Line (PlayStation 2)
Upon our return to the surface instead of being all peaceful and civilised, history repeats itself and we bring our petty nonsense with us. It turns out that our underground complex wasn't the only one of its kind. There are others with darker and more advanced technological monstrosities lurking in the places that had been long forgotten.
Silent Line is probably the finest entry into the Armored Core canon since Master of Arena. Unsurprisingly, the evidence behind this reasoning are due to both games sharing similar attributes. In addition to all the features in Armored Core 3, Silent Line added a whole new cockpit view setup, over 400 parts (double that of the previous offering) and the ability to destroy another player's weapons mid-sortie. The amazing new feature though was that of how the game's AI was handled.
For those that haven't been paying attention, Master of Arena used an AI creation tool called Ranker Mk. This was based around changing preset values rather than teaching your AC in an organic fashion. Silent Line changed this by utilising an organic AI modification setup. In that, you would design an AC and then pilot it yourself in various arena encounters. In doing so, the AI would watch and learn from how you would play.
As such playing your AI avatar was uncanny and it was clear to see that this technology had been implemented throughout the game too, with enemies exhibiting differing and organic combat styles. Again, this kind of game feature coupled with the now immense parts list meant that Silent Line possessed unparalleled gameplay longevity. Many have argued, however, that this immense parts list wasn't exactly as balanced as it could have been. Even so, Silent Line was a paean of gameplay and in many ways remains definitive Armored Core.
Armored Core Nexus (PlayStation 2)
After Silent Line, the franchise seemed spent. Where else could it go now? Everything that could be done with game had been already and bar some more parts balancing, the series had nothing new to offer.
To make matters more difficult they had to use the same parts list and game engine from Armored Core 3 and Silent Line. After much head scratching, Nexus was born. Nexus was a lateral shift in gameplay from Silent Line; instead of adding just more features, fundamental aspects of the gameplay were re-visited and changed.
They tackled the parts list by allowing the player to fine tune many of their stats but the main and fundamental gameplay change in Nexus was the way that heat affected gameplay. Previously, heat was something parts and impacts from weapons fire generated. It also only affected your armour points (or AP), in that get too hot and your armor melted away. In Nexus however boosters generated heat, this meant that in order to move efficiently you had to keep boosting to a minimum or more likely equip cooler boosters. Couple this with the fact that the radiator now removed energy from your generator during this cooling procedure meant that the player had to keep an eye on their generator bar whilst in the thick of combat.
On the surface, this may sound terrifying but it worked in a very logical fashion. Add the new and intuitive dual analogue control setup into the mix and Nexus is probably the first Armored Core game that mere mortals could comprehend. In terms of plot in Nexus, it was a direct continuation from Silent Line but the interesting thing was that Nexus was a two-disc game. One disc was entitled Evolution and contained all the new missions, essentially being the new game so to speak. The other disc though, called Revolution, was of particular interest.
The Revolution disc revisited missions from the PlayStation games and had a vast library of unlockable content (the massive amount of Kawamori's artwork being particularly welcome in this respect). Each of the missions also offered the chance to play the opposite objectives, essentially giving the player an opportunity to take on the role of a competing Raven. The main fault of Nexus though was the complete and utter absence of a broadband capable online versus mode. With the inclusive new control setup and logical management of heat, not to mention a very balanced parts list, it was very much a missed opportunity.
Nexus has divided fans though; the older players don't rate the new heat mechanic, as it was too restrictive, and the lack of online versus frustrated many. Whereas newer players finally felt, they could play the game on their own terms. These points didn't go unheard however and the subsequent game mostly addressed these polarised issues.
Armored Core Ninebreaker (PlayStation 2)
Armored Core is regarded by many in the West as a difficult and foreboding game. In many ways, it is exactly that. Out of its mecha pop-cultural context, it remains misunderstood and the motivation to pilot such mecha seems non-existent and even irrelevant. Ninebreaker tackled this head-on; the entire game was one massive training simulator, with 150 disparate training programs that would make anyone an AC piloting veteran. It also heralded the re-appearance of an upgraded Nineball.
It's worth clarifying that Nineball is the embodiment of raw AC power; though not entirely evil his pilot's motives aren't always clear. There is a reason for this though; Nineball is an avatar for the overriding shadow organisation that controls the Armored Core world. This is hinted at in more ways than one, Nineball's final form in the original Armored Core games was called Nineball Seraph. Seraphs are one of the seven choirs of angels; in short, Nineball is there to protect the "god" of the Armored Core world. In Armored Core 2 the term Ninebreaker also came about, awarded to those who had apparently defeated Nineball himself (this being you the player from the previous games). As such this game, the ninth game in the series, was named Ninebreaker; emphasising the need for the legendary level of skill that the game required.
Ninebreaker also toned down the heat mechanic, making it less brutal whilst balancing the parts list even further. It was the ultimate iteration for versus combat but it still lacked such online functionality, though a rather lacklustre web based ranking system was introduced based on points acquired in the various training programs.
In many ways, Ninebreaker is the superior game to Nexus but it requires a greater input from the player. You really are being trained to the fullest of your ability in each program but it still lacks the purpose of narrative driven missions. It also criminally lacked online versus via broadband, though it had a surreal online ranking system, unforgivable considering the training bent of the game. Cue the first portable entry into the Armored Core canon.
Armored Core Formula Front (PlayStation Portable / PlayStation 2)
Formula Front was a first for the series, in more ways than one. The focus of Formula Front was no longer direct player controlled combat. The PlayStation Portable lacked enough buttons for a traditional Armored Core game to function properly; as such player control was removed. Instead, your AC had a customisable AI setup, very much akin to Master of Arena in fact. In short, you wound up your AC toys, put them in an arena and watched as they blew each other up.
The emphasis was one on one on one match-ups where your team rises up the ranks of the Formula Front world. The F-1 allegory is no coincidence either, in the world of Armored Core; Formula Front is entertainment for the masses. This "Formula World" mentality also went online and players could remotely challenge other teams, via Nouten.com (the online service that facilitated Ninebreaker's lacklustre ranking option).
The second big difference was the fact that Formula Front was the first truly handheld Armored Core. It also was the first game to boast connectability between the PlayStation Portable and the PlayStation2 versions of the game.
Formula Front also had four versions; the original PlayStation Portable launch title, the PlayStation 2 port, the International release (with added player control, though it had a few issues) and the trimmed down Western release of International that lacked a lot of the extra arena opponents. Due to the spectator sport focus of Formula Front, From Software regard it as more of a sidestory than anything part of the main timeline (though it is set during the era of Nexus et al, simply due to the parts available).
Armored Core Last Raven (PlayStation 2)
The corporations that run our society have had enough; they have decided to wipe out this "Raven" menace once and for all. Re-grouping and renaming themselves the "Alliance", they are set to re-forge human society through a massive war. The Ravens see this coming though and form their own coalition, calling it "Vertex". The Ravens have no intention of going out without a fight.
As you can see Last Raven is set around an all out war between these two massive forces of power, but in an interesting twist the events of the game only occur within a 24 hour timeframe. If Jack Bauer were a mecha pilot, this would be his game. Making matters more complex still is the addition of cumulative part destruction and damage, in that you can destroy AC limbs outright and they won't be repaired (forcing you to re-purchase busted parts). There is also a dynamic mission structure and the addition of human ground troops to cause mischief during missions.
Last Raven is an immense undertaking though, not only down to the sheer amount of gaming content but more because it's really quite difficult. Upon release, most Western players complained that the singleplayer game was in fact too hard (something that was reflected in several reviews, to the point that many just gave up). However, if you brave the truly daunting learning curve in Last Raven then you will be met with a game that is remarkably well crafted. To the point that after besting each enemy Raven in combat gives a real sense of gameplay accomplishment.
Interestingly, Last Raven's difficulty also stems a lot from the AI's competence. They are very nimble and react quite organically to player tactics. Something that was culled from Formula Front, or more accurately from the user created AI that was used in the various Formula World tournaments. This being rather shrewd on the part of From Software.
Last Raven was aptly named due to it being the final entry on the PlayStation 2. Like Nexus and Ninebreaker before it, Last Raven still lacked online multiplayer, though many fans managed to circumvent this with the use of Xlink Kai and other tunneling software. Generally though, the response to Last Raven was mostly positive (well, for those who had stuck with the game). It also managed to bring the narrative arc quite nicely to a close, after all you end up as quite literally the last Raven alive.
Armored Core Mobile (Various)
Since the inception of From Capsule, From Software's dedicated mobile gaming arm, several Armored Core mobile phone games have been released. At present there fourArmored Core mobile games.
The first release was that of Armored Core Mobile Mission, which was a singleplayer effort with a top down view. This was very quickly followed by Armored Core Mobile Online, which was an online multiplayer effort using the same top down view and game engine from Mobile Mission. Armored Core Mobile 2 was the first of the mobile games to utilise the rear view third person camera from the original games. Finally, Armored Core Mobile 3 is the most advanced of all of them and is a sidestory that fills the gap between Nexus and Last Raven.
Unlike the previous entries into the series, I haven't played these versions quite as much but they are comparable to the original PlayStation games (though they use parts from the PlayStation 2 offerings).
Armored Core 4 (PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360)
The latest iteration of Armored Core, which is more akin to the nineteenth game in the series rather than the fourth, looks to be a major departure from the frugal approach of the previous games. Many of the more restrictive aspects of AC movement and customisation have been re-worked into something more fluid and ultimately more inclusive. However, despite the improved graphical veneer, Armored Core 4 is more like the older games than many may think.
One of the most unbalanced aspects of the first Armored Core was an unlockable set of cheats that allowed the player to become "Human Plus". In the original Armored Core games and in Armored Core 2, the player had to get massively into debt and each time they did this they were operated upon and given a special Human Plus power (such as automatic radar, double generator refresh and the ability to fire back cannons whilst moving). This was changed in Armored Core 3 by having the player earn each attribute and having it mapped to an option part called OP-INTENSIFY. When equipped it disallowed the use of any other options parts, adding a smattering of balance to the mix. Since Armored Core Nexus, this "feature" was removed, though many enemy ACs still often exhibit these abilities.
The whole aspect of human plus that irritated players was that it was an unlockable rather than something innate in the game itself. Armored Core 4 pretty much gives the player human plus-esque abilities from the off. If this wasn't enough the game speed and maneuvreability of the player's AC has been massively increased.
There are now Quick Boost verniers situated across your AC, allowing you similar functionality to the various extension boosters from the previous (except innate to the mecha itself), plus the AC's themsleves actually move at a faster clip anyway now. Almost double that of the original games. Armored Core 4 could shape up to be one of the most impressive and inclusive entries in the series yet.
Returning from the Internecine
If the above is anything to go by, Armored Core is a pretty sizeable gaming endeavor. I've gladly poured a lot of time into almost all these games (bar the mobile phone iterations and Armored Core 4, obviously), to the point I played the PlayStation original so much I attained 101% completion (which I am pretty sure was the game's way of saying "enough!"). It also goes without saying that there are some areas I have been unable to cover in this edition of the column, though I hope the gameplay videos I've linked to should assuage some of that.
The series also shows no signs of slowing down either, come next year Armored Core will be treated to its first animated series in the form of Armored Core Fort Tower Song, which plans to link up with much of Armored Core 4's narrative. An anime tie-in is very much overdue for the series and with any luck we may see some of the Armored Core novels and original backstory in an animated form at some point.
It's worth understanding that Armored Core has survived close to a decade across multiple gaming platforms and generations of hardware. It's really quite remarkable, doubly so for a unique gaming intellectual property that has no ties to massive licensing (if anything it has created licensing deals). With any luck Armored Core 4 will continue that tradition unto mechanical pastures anew.
[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]
Categories: Column: Roboto-Chan