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Armored Core 4

Score: 75%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Sega
Developer: FromSoftware
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 8 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Simulation/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Although the Armored Core series has managed to hold a core audience for nearly 10 years, the series has never been really good at appealing to a wider, mainstream audience. Armored Core 4 makes several attempts to grab this audience while still catering to its core. The result is a game that is good, but not great.

Armored Core 4 is more of an artistic achievement than a technical one. The entire game has an overexposed, grainy look that sells the idea of a world that has seen nothing but years of war. Most of the cities you come across are desolate and either falling into decay, flooded or completely in ruins. This ruin is balanced out by the very clean, sterile, angular look of the few remaining cities under corporate control.

The pre-designed mechs look cool, even when you start mixing and matching parts. You can also give you mechs a personal touch with custom paint schemes, including camouflage patterns and an odd ďstripedĒ look. You can also add both pre-set and custom emblems to your mech.

Technically, AC4 doesnít match the 360ís visual showpieces, though it clocks in a decent performance. Most levels feature some sort of deformable elements, usually crumbling buildings, though thereís the rare ice floe or rock formation that you can hit. Missile attacks will sometimes leave large craters in the ground, though oddly enough these disappear once you get close them. The framerate is usually steady, though it fluctuates when the screen is crowded.

The soundtrack does one of the best things a game soundtrack can do Ė it is only noticeable when you want to hear it. This really helps the gameplay since it is one less thing going though your head, allowing you to focus all of your concentration on your mission goal.


Gameplay:

Armored Core 4 is split into 37 missions, all tied together by an overarching narrative. The gist of the story is that the world is controlled by mega corporations. You are a mercenary who is hired by a coalition of colonies and smaller companies to attack the big corporations. The truth of the matter is that things become so convoluted that by the time the third chapter rolls around, youíre really just playing the game to blow up as many things as possible in a mech you created. This shouldnít deter many players, though missions feel completely random and you never feel like you are a part of anything.

There isnít much in the way of mission variety, though From Software has done a good job at making missions feel like more than they really are. One mission might have you storming a base in order to destroy illegal weapons while another has you defending a base from attack. Although straightforward, the missions do require forethought and strategy if you want to get anywhere. This includes choosing the right weapons for the job and making sure you are aware of your surroundings. A few missions will even throw foul weather like rain and sandstorms at you or have you fighting at nighttime with only a few random flares (and muzzle fire) to guide you.

Missions take place in combat zones that, while bigger than past games, are still limiting. However, mission goals are rarely more complicated than intercepting or destroying a certain target, so there isnít much need for large, complicated levels. At the same time, some missions really work the area limits to the point that you canít help but go out of bounds or feel restricted. To compensate for the zone size, many areas feature a vertical component as well as a horizontal one. In some missions you can boost onto building tops and fight while in others, you are boosting over bridges and other structures. Some missions even have your mech dropping in from the air.

As fun as some missions are, every one of them is incredibly short. Longer missions may take you 8 Ė 10 minutes while some can be completed in a minute or two. Completing missions isnít very rewarding either as you are greeted with an unceremonious ďReturn to BaseĒ message and a load screen.

Outside the Story mode, you can also compete in a series of Arena battles. By completing chapters, you unlock Data Packs where you battle against other mechs. Defeating enemy mechs unlocks new schematics, FRS points and new emblems.

Armored Core 4 features online battles, something longtime fans have wanted for a while. Online matches are fun, if only because you get to check out (and trade) other designs and see just how good your mech really is. Unfortunately, the number of gameplay types is limited to single and team Deathmatch situations and an eight player Battle Royal.


Difficulty:

Armored Core 4 is more approachable than previous games, though at the same time, it can be quite challenging. How challenging depends mostly on how quickly you learn to create and tweak your mechs. Earlier missions are easy to blast through with just about any setup, though later ones require more specialization. Most missions need to be played multiple times; the first few to get an idea of which mech you need and the final few to build a strategy. The gameís core audience may not bat an eye at multiple replays though the trial-and-error gameplay can grow tedious.

Still, even the best laid plans and tweaked out mechs canít overcome what amounts to a dozen or so poorly planned missions. Although nearly every mission feels difficult the first time you try it out, once you know what you are doing they are easy. Then there are missions where youíll keep playing and failing until a harmonious bit of luck falls your way.


Game Mechanics:

Armored Core 4 is a much faster game than previous versions. Although it doesnít quite match the speed of games like Z.O.E., it is still a fast game Ė especially if you build your mech for speed. The primary reason for the speed upgrade is the new boost mechanic. In previous games, you could only boost for a limited time before your engines cut out, forcing you to wait for what seemed like ages before it refilled. Now you can boost to your heartís content. In fact, it is impossible to complete most missions without constantly boosting around the combat area.

The new boost mechanic is simple; energy is only lost when going vertical, allowing you to boost around on the ground (or over water) as much as you want. If you need to really get somewhere fast you can use a quick boost, which dumps a large amount of power into your thrusters, launching you to your destination. The coolant system has also been removed so you donít have to worry about overheating your thrusters.

As good as the boost mechanic is, it is prone to error. There were times where, even though I was trying to obtain a vertical boost, my mech kept boosting forward, often into a building or on-coming fire.

Armored Core has always been about taking a bunch of random parts, building a mech and tweaking the hell out of the stats. AC 4 continues this trend, though creating mechs is a little easier than in previous games. Rather than taking a stock model and cobbling together parts, AC 4 revolves around schematics, which are pre-built mechs that come with certain stats and uses already in mind. Though schematics help give you a base to work with, you can still modify them to fit your personal tastes or for certain missions. You can also save your modified mechs as schematics for quick access.

Purchasing and equipping parts uses the same interface, which is confusing initially though it slowly makes sense with time. Purchased parts arenít automatically equipped, nor are parts you sell unequipped. You can also equip a part in the shop without actually buying it. However when you try to exit the garage youíll be prompted to purchase something, but wonít know what it is. And, if you donít have the money, youíll have to dig through your entire part catalog to figure out exactly what you purchased and canít afford. One of the first, and hardest, lessons youíll learn is to make sure you are always aware of what youíre doing.

Rather than throwing 100+ parts at you right off the bat, you have to unlock parts by completing chapters. At first you arenít given much of a choice, though you can eventually unlock a good number of parts. This makes it easier to understand how things work Ė at least when compared to previous games. Many of the parts youíll eventually unlock are just upgraded versions of equipment you already have, which is a bit of a downer.

Once parts are installed, you can then go through and fine tune different aspects of your mech. Adjusting these can get confusing since it relies heavily on abbreviated stat names that arenít all that transparent. Some are easy to figure out while others arenít. Fine tuning parts requires the expenditure of Fractional Regulation System (FRS) points which are awarded for completing mission packs and chapters. Unlike other games, where you could adjust each part individually, the FRS mechanic breaks all of your mechís parameters into a handful of areas like boost, balance and attack. Mechs can be manually tuned or automatically tuned, though you wonít get the most out of an automatically tuned mech. On the flip side, manually tuning isnít much of a joy either and takes time, so it is really up to personal choice.

Even with gameplay changes, Armored Core 4 is still a game that will only really appeal to the seriesí core audience. It may manage to snag a few newcomers, but the emphasis on strategic elements rather than action, as well as the slow pacing, probably wonít appeal to a more mainstream audience.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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