|Title||:||Armored Core 3|
|Platforms||:||Sony PlayStation 2|
|Review by||:||Jeremy Pallant|
As long as there's been a Sony PlayStation, there's been an Armored Core. The first one was published six years ago, in 1997. It is, in my opinion, the finest series of games to have been published on any console. The basic structure of the series has remained consistent. You play a Raven, the mercenary pilot of a massive mechanoid known as an Armored Core, in a post apocalyptic world where mankind has abandoned the surface to live underground.
There are several modes of play. First, there is the story-driven game itself: mission based, fairly traditional, with specific objectives and limited branching through to one of two possible endings. Complete the mission, and you get paid. Then there is the Arena mode. All the games, except for Armored Core 2: Another Age, have had this. Here you battle one-on-one against other Ravens and their ACs, winning prize money and parts until you are the champion. Finally, there is multi-player, either via split screen or system link, to allow players to pit their skills against each other. The last three Japanese versions of AC included support for a USB modem so that players can call each other directly to fight.
So far, however, there is no sign of domestic online play, and the modem support never made it out of Japan, unless it was via importers such as National Console Support.
The series hasn't stagnated over the years. It has slowly evolved, becoming better with each incarnation as subtle changes have been made, the graphics improved, and new parts and new features added. One major exception to the series was Armored Core 2: Another Age. The sequel to Armored Core 2, it was a strictly missions-only game, lacking the Arena mode but featuring over 100 missions. It was the least accessible of all the games, appealing primarily to the hard-core fans.
For the first three incarnations on the PSX, or PSOne if you prefer, the series had more of a cult following than popular acclaim. However, with the advent of the PlayStation 2, that seems to be changing. Armored Core 2 was one of the release titles in the United States, for my money at least representing the first killer app on that console. The action moved, at this point, to Mars, returning to Earth for both Another Age, and the subject of this review, Armored Core 3.
Now, up until this point, the series doesn't really sound particularly special, I admit. However, what really sets it apart is the construction system. You get to build your AC from the ground up, customizing it to your particular style of combat, to a single mission, or to the gladiatorial combat of the Arena. You start with the Core itself, the armored structure to which everything else is attached. The ACs are humanoid in design, and the Core corresponds to the torso. There are several designs available, from light and mobile, to heavy and tough, and of varying cost.
Design is where the money you received from missions and Arena combat comes into use. I'm not going to list all the parts, as that would take too long. However suffice it to say, to your core you add the arms, legs, head, generator, radiator, weapons and other parts that suit your particular style and the depth of your purse. The number of permutations and combinations are effectively limitless, that's not an exaggeration, and an extreme degree of customization is possible. Want a massively armed and armored dreadnought? If you have the cash, it's yours. Prefer a light, fast, aerial technique? You can do that too, and all variations between.
The customization isn't the end of it. It's in your interest to retain as much of the fee for your missions as possible, so keeping expenses down is critical. In Arena combat, all damage and ammunition expenditure is paid for, unlike during the missions, where you bear that burden yourself. Keeping damage to a minimum is a priority, and monetary concerns will also affect your weapons. In my opinion, mission combat is best conducted by machine guns, but the ammunition costs can skyrocket. Energy weapon ammunition doesn't cost anything, though you don't generally have the sheer volume of ammunition, nor the rate of fire, and it can drain your generator until you can fire no more, and your maneuverability options are severely curtailed until you regenerate.
There are missions where energy weapons make your task much harder. They aren't frequent, but they are nearly always present. Typically these are pursuit missions, where a high, consistent boost is necessary, which drains the energy available for weapons fire. There's nothing more frustrating than catching up to your target and not having the means to shoot it. Shell weapons are the answer in such cases. The problem is, you won't know that until you've attempted the mission.
I've long wanted the pre-mission preparation to be extended. You don't get a whole lot of intelligence with which to prepare. My all-purpose configuration – four legs, twin shoulder-mounted chain guns, and a machine gun — can be very expensive to operate outside the arena. The ammunition costs more than major repairs to the AC.
Here's a hint. Complete Arena mode first. Get to the end of that and you will have enough money to build any AC you want, as long as the parts are available. Not all are; some are awarded during the story mode, or discovered when on a mission. Another option is to use a pilot from a previous game. The save game from the original Armored Core could be used in either of its two sequels on the PSOne. While this wasn't possible with Armored Core 2, the save game from that incarnation could be used in Armored Core 2: Another Age. Regrettably, Armored Core 3 doesn't have that capability.
However I did follow my advice and attempted to complete Arena mode before tackling the missions, only to discover that I couldn't. You can only go so far before having to use the skills learned in single combat on a mission. This is actually a good idea, and forces long-term fans like me to switch between the two modes fairly regularly. It keeps the pace going.
It seems, however, that From Software has figured out how I used to get to the top of the Arena ladder fairly quickly and painlessly. Right from the beginning I learned to use the limitations of the games' artificial intelligence against it. Of the several arenas available, there was always a one, where I could gain the high ground and use missiles or ultra long-range weapons' fire to pick off the enemy. Normally, you aim your weapons by a lock-on feature, but this only works when you are within range. However by observing the fall of the shot, you can adjust for elevation and windage. Thus, with the AI-controlled AC confused by a high wall, or attempting to jump over an obstacle, it's possible to lay in hit after hit, in comparative safety.
Alternatively I would load up with missiles and a sniper rifle on a light, fast, aerial AC, and boost from tower to tower, able to hit enemy ACs when they couldn't hit me, courtesy of the indirect fire capability of fire-and-forget weaponry. Not any more. The arena I used to use for this purpose no longer exists, meaning I've had to learn new techniques — which is no bad thing, as the game has thus become more complex.
Arena combat has gotten particularly ferocious in the latest version of the series. Excluding my favorite maps has forced me to get familiar with others. As a result, I've had fights that lasted literally only a few seconds, after which I was almost breathless at the sheer headlong intensity. In addition there is a new mode, only available after the mission mode has been defeated. Now, there is team combat, in which you now choose a partner, and challenge an opposing pair of ACs. To win, you must defeat the lead AC, which can make for some very interesting combat.
In the previous games, there was another option that could swing the tide of combat in your favor. Throughout the Armored Core series, many of your opponents, both in Arena mode and during missions, can do things you cannot. They can stay airborne longer, and can fire certain shoulder weapons while moving. Doesn't seem fair, does it? The same applies to Armored Core 3.
The secret used to be the Plus Pilot. I liked to think of this as being a cyborg Raven. The way it went was to go seriously in debt. Fifty thousand in the red, and a video would kick in showing some kind of operation being performed. Each time this happened, a new ability would be gained. Faster energy regeneration, meaning longer flight time was possible. The ability to fire certain shoulder weapons while airborne, like chainguns for example. Experienced players would do this several times until all the enhanced skills have been gained It became my habit to play each game, including Arena Mode, at least twice, once as a normal pilot and once as a Plus Pilot.
It's a terribly powerful feature. With the right AC, and a lot of practice, it was possible to stay airborne indefinitely, granting the pilot a tremendous advantage in Arena combat. Unfortunately, in Armored Core 3, the Plus Pilot has been replaced by an AC part that you don't get the opportunity to acquire until you've completed the story mode. Even then, the various abilities aren't possible until you've achieved certain goals. It's a positive change, though irritating. The game is made more balanced in the process in that utilizing this device compromises your ability to use others. Known as Optional Parts, they expand the capabilities of your AC — for example, making it more resistant to energy and shellfire, improving stability, and a host of other subtle add-ons, the number of which varies according to the Core you have equipped.
As I mentioned previously, the graphics quality has improved over the life of the series. Inevitably there was a major improvement between Armored Core: Project Phantasm and Armored Core 2, as this marked the switch from the PSOne to the PlayStation 2. Armored Core 3 is the best looking game of the lot, which is particularly evident during playback. After an Arena combat, you have the option of replaying the fight. This is something I almost always do. It's satisfying to view a combat from the opponents' perspective, plus it can give you perspectives in how to improve your performance.
Slowly, interaction with the environment has been improved. Even very early on it was possible to destroy parked cars by running into them. This interaction has now been expanded to include breaking glass when fighting in the cities. An errant shot can result in showers of glass, a rather nice addition. One hopes that eventually it will be possible to bring down entire buildings. Within the missions themselves, more deliberate interaction is possible, with power strips, windows, crates, and your opponents being satisfyingly blow-to-bitsable. The explosions are the best yet.
For me, one of the highlights of the series has always been the opening movie. These are always fun to watch, and are moderately faithful to the game. You can certainly build the ACs depicted, though you will often find that they are overweight, a feature of the Plus Pilot mode/part. The latest intro is my favorite, and captures the sheer ferocity of AC combat in this latest game. It is somewhat long; though not long enough to be boring, detailed, and quite engrossing.
The slowest evolving aspect of the games has been the controls. They're aren't particularly straightforward, don't make full use of the analog joysticks, and only a true AC cultist would say they're happy with them. I am. Happy with them, that is. I leave the readers to draw their own conclusions regarding that statement. After six incarnations they've become second nature to me, and though the left analog stick can be used to control the AC's movement, I prefer the D-pad. Using the L2 and R2 buttons to look up and down also sounds awkward, and probably is, but for me, it's now instinctive. Still, I'd like to see the right analog stick utilized for this feature. It would certainly open up the game to more players.
The only aspect of the series I've had no experience with is multi-player. Utilizing the link cable, and optionally an iLink hub, several players can get together for what FPS players would call either Deathmatch, or Team Deathmatch. Interestingly, with AC3, if you have three or more PS2s and screens, one of them can be used to monitor the fighting. You will, of course, need a comparable number of copies of the game.
My biggest gripe, and the reason I scored the game as low as I did, is the lack of an online mode. Arena combat is a no-brainer, and holds out the interesting possibility of online leagues. I'd love to see Capture the Flag, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, which would all be made the more interesting by the limited ammunition, no pickups and sheer toughness of these constructions. I'd also like to see an online cooperative mode for missions.
In conclusion, I can highly recommend any of the Armored Core games available for the PS2, but of them all, Armored Core 3 is the best. Besides, Armored Core 3: Silent Line is due out in August, and your AC3 saved game can be carried over to it. So get playing!
This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.
Original publication: Gamebits, 22-Jun-03