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X360, PS3 (Reviewed)
Release: March 20, 2012
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
This is starting to look like an interesting year for fans of mech games. Hawken and Mechwarrior Online are both taking a very different approach to the genre with their shift to an MMO format and, with the way MMOs have developed in recent years that could be a very good thing; given the team-based nature of mech games, it makes perfect sense. Armored Core V made a similar choice, but it’s one that I’m a much bigger fan of.
You begin as a new recruit to the City Police. You’re a talent that Father, the omnipresent Orwellian voice of the government, is interested in having around. There’s a resistance brewing and you’re able to strike it down fairly easily at first though it’s not long before you join the resistance yourself. Things become increasingly more nonsensical from there.
If i can say one thing for the story, it’s definitely engaging. I didn’t always know what was going on in my ongoing fight against Father, his city police, and the Corporation (an enigmatic group that twists the already convoluted narrative in the best possible way), but it was definitely exciting. In the campaigns short series of 9 missions, there are moments of tension due to not only my penchant for taking heavy damage, but also the constant radio chatter between the members of the resistance.
There’s a surprising depth in the character development as well. One character in particular caught my attention and the way everything wraps up in the final moments, while still absurd, is quite well done.
Yes, it’s a short story. There’s a constant increase in difficulty - helpfully noted with a number - that artificially extends your play time, though. You won’t be able to simply plough through the story content.
Available alongside the story missions is a long series of optional scenarios dubbed ‘Order missions’ that range from simply destroying all of the enemies in the area, to taking on an ai-controlled mech 1-on-1. Each mission raises your team level, higher team levels unlock new parts of customization, and new parts allow you to not die in the next mission. It’s similar to the classic RPG grind, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it.
While there are only 9 story missions, Order missions feel damn near endless. There’s no shortage of tasks to complete, especially when you factor in the subquests that are available within each mission. Bonuses are awarded for completing the primary objective within a certain length of time or without losing too much health, finding hidden customization parts scattered around maps, or destroying a specified number of enemies.
For the most part, they’re basic, surface level objectives; nothing new or fresh. Completing a mission as quickly as possible for a higher rank isn’t a novel idea either. When that list of basic, optional objectives extends into the 10’s and teens, though, that speedrun becomes significantly more difficult.
You’re given a rank after completing a mission with S being the holy grail. If you’re gunning for an S-rank on all the missions, as you should be, then good luck. The story missions in particular are nothing short of brutal, especially when perfection’s your goal. Thankfully this is alleviated when playing with a friend. Taking on that level boss with 100,000 points of armor isn’t so daunting when you combine a well built close-range mech with an equally well built long-range partner or, if you prefer, a pair of similar construction. The tactical options are where I found Armored Core V’s battles to be the most rewarding.
On larger, spaced out maps where you’ve deployed a full team of four units and one omniscient operator, communication is key. Keeping watch from above, the operator is constantly pinging the battlefield for threats and tagging them. I’ve seen a good operator derail an ambush just as frequently as I’ve seen a bad one cause an entire team to be slaughtered. Especially the team vs. Team conquest matches, the Operator is indispensible.
All the planning, mech building, and operator help in the world won’t save you if you just suck at the game. It’s flat-out unforgiving under the best of conditions. This is 100% due to the fact that you’re piloting a massive death machine. The controls carry every ounce of weight that you’d expect and it takes some getting used to. Movement is expedited by boosters that have, essentially, skating around the maps which, while more fluid, still manages to feel weighty.
The beauty of a game where you can tweak damn near everything about your vehicle is that, if you don’t like how heavy it is, you can just make it lighter. If unmatched mobility is what you’re looking for, there are parts to accommodate that. Just know that you’ll likely be a glass canon; not a bad thing if you’ve got the skills to handle it. I played against a person who carried nothing by a pistol and a laser sword with the lightest available armor. He was more of a challenge than I’d anticipated.
The team aspect of Armored Core V is one of the best implementations of an online “clan” system I’ve seen. From the moment you load up the game, you’re asked to either create a team, or join an existing one. After that, every action you take feeds into your team’s progress. There are no individual player levels, only the team’s level. Individuals do not unlock equipment based on their performance, the team does. If you’re on a good team, this is a wonderful thing. If you’re on a bad team, well, there’s no excuse… Join a different one.
As your team levels, you’ll undoubtedly want to engage in the aforementioned conquest missions, PVP scenarios where the real prize is a piece of territory that pushes your team up the leaderboard. Possessed territory can (and should) be customized with turrets and defenses to ensure that you keep that territory. As battles are fought on your property, you earn more points and your Territory Rating is boosted. This cycle repeats itself until, eventually, you find yourselves perched atop the leaderboard. It begins simply enough, with naught but the AI defending. Once you’ve made enough of a footprint though, you’ll begin running into resistance.
The Armored Core player-base is fierce. This isn’t the ‘scream profanities and racial slurs over the headset’ crowd, but rather, adults who take their shit extremely seriously. If your team decides to take the leap into Conquest rounds, you better be prepared to defend your territories because you’ll soon have a target on your back.
Mech games have always been part of a niche market. I’m inclined to say that anyone playing Armored Core V today, probably played Armored Core 1 back in the PS1 days. It’s not a market that has grown or diminished in recent years. As much as that saddens me, it’s definitely not a genre for everyone. This is due in large part to the lack of explanation given. Armored Core V does very little to explain its mechanics to the player. Most of what you learn is taught through trial and error or by communicating with others. Mech games have not and will not grow as a market because so often they stubbornly refuse to adapt.
In many ways, Armored Core V is as unyielding as ever, but the steps taken in the multiplayer arena are capable of overcoming that inaccessibility. The learning curve is steep, but rewarding.