You would think that mech games would be a perfect fit on a video game system. After all you're piloting a giant killing machine that you can customize and use to blow just about anything up. Mechs and video games just seem like the perfect fit, yet so often we have to put up with substandard games that end up taking all of the fun and excitement out of what should otherwise be an amazing experience. Armored Core 4 is one mech game that manages to get a lot of things right, but at the same time I can't help but feel that with only a few minor tweaks it could have been a much more enjoyable experience.
Not only is this the first next-gen Xbox 360 Armored Core game, but this is the first time the series has hit the Xbox 360 at all. Before this we had seen the Armored Core line (which included both numbered sequels and spin-offs) on the PlayStation platforms. As an introduction to the series Armored Core 4 is as good a place as any to start, but due to its painfully short levels, lame multiplayer, and difficult custom workshop some Xbox 360 owners may be left wondering what the big deal was.
When you start up the game you get this amazing cinema introduction that is full of detailed graphics, huge explosions and cool looking mechs. It really makes you think that there's going to be something cool on the other side of this carefully produced cinema. Unfortunately there isn't, after you start the game you have to put up with boring cut-scenes that advance the story at a snail's pace. The story itself is completely forgettable and the only thing that really matters is that it sets you up for dozens of short (albeit fun) missions that you can take in just about any order.
At the onset you can choose from several different mech types, each with their own specialty and stats. From there you are on to tackle your first several missions, which all involve killing a bunch of enemies and surviving to the end of your mission. The first thing I noticed when starting Armored Core 4 was that all of the mission felt very short, some of them were only a few minutes in length. If it wasn't for the graphic fidelity I might think that this was originally intended to be a PSP game, the missions are just very short and to the point. While the game's difficulty does increase as you move through the 37 missions, the length of the missions is still a little too short. In your typical mission you are dropped into an open wasteland and are tasked with taking out the leaders of the opposition. This means that you have to find and defeat the main enemy (which is generally the bad guy with the largest mech), which takes no more than five minutes and sometimes as little as sixty seconds. And then after you've done that a little message will pop up and tell you that the mission was a success and then it just fades out.
Thankfully there are missions that are more interesting than just going in and killing a bunch of bad guys, but to be honest that is what a good chunk of these missions have you doing. Some of the levels are nothing more than variations on the traditional escort mission, such as having to protect a large boat as it cuts through the icebergs, protecting an airfield so that the "good guys" can use it to launch further assaults, and so on so forth. There are a few other types, including some fun one on one battles that remind me a little bit of Sega's classic arcade game Virtual On.
But let's be clear here, what you do in the missions isn't the real problem. Even when I was doing nothing more than blowing other guys up I was still having a great time. My problem lies solely on the fact that the missions are just too short, it seems that just about the time I start to have fun the mission is over and I'm off to the next level. Part of me really wanted to see them do more with these levels, but the entire game plays out where you just go in and do one thing and then you're out.
For the most part the mechs handle fine, they are occasionally a little stiff … but then again, we are talking about giant mechs. Your mech does all of the basic stuff, you can use your energy to fly into the air and sprint straight ahead. But the real fun of a giant mech is the weapons, and Armored Core 4 definitely delivers in this department. From the get-go your mech will feature four different weapons, two that are stored away and two that you can use at any time. Each of the two main weapons are mapped to the A and X buttons, and if you get bored of those weapons you can select the secondary weapons at any time. This means that you can have everything from a short range to long range to everything in between all ready to go at a moment's notice, which makes your mech ready for any situation the game throws at you.
If you've played an Armored Core game (or really any mech game for that matter) then it won't come as a surprise that you have a lot of different weapons and upgrades at your fingertips. You start out with only a few different items you can buy, but as you progress through the game (and play the bonus missions) you will be able to select from an impressive collection of weapons, armor and upgrade chips. The problem is that there's just so much stuff that it's often confusing to narrow down what you want. While I'm sure some gearheads and mech enthusiasts won't have a problem deciding on parts, it's worth mentioning that those of us who haven't been studying mechs for twenty years probably will feel a bit lost and overwhelmed.
It's the job of a game to predict these kinds of problems and offer enough information to the user to make the customizing enjoyable for just about everybody. But that's not the case here, Armored Core 4 expects you to either guess at what you want or do some research independent of the game. The custom shop was so daunting it took me quite a few missions before I even dared buy a new missile launcher or chain gun. It wasn't until I started needing better weapons that I decided to try and decipher what felt like a foreign language.
There are a lot of problems with the custom shop, but the biggest has to be that you don't really get a clear idea of what the weapons (and armor/upgrades to a lesser extent) do. It gives you a nice grid that shows how your stats will improve, but that isn't nearly as helpful as you would think it would be. It would have made more sense if they showed you how it worked or gave you some detailed explanation of what the weapon is. And then there's the problem that the prices all seem to be hidden. You literally have to go out of your way to see how much these weapons/upgrades cost, which I didn't even notice until half way through the game. The game seems set up so that you will buy a lot of stuff without knowing the price and then pay as you exit the shop, but this means that you will likely leave the shop spending more money then you have, which means you'll have to go back and un-equip all of the stuff you bought and find your old weapons. It's one of the least user friendly arrangements I've seen in a game recently, it just felt like the people responsible for this set up went out of their way to make this a painful experience.
As you might expect the graphics in this next-gen Armored Core sequel are much better than the previous PlayStation 2 outings, full of detailed mechs and some nice lighting effects. The way the game shows heat, dust and water is all very nice, and the mechs themselves look fantastic. There are some real glimpses of brilliance as you go through the game, including some cool looking boss battles and night levels where you have to use a flare to see what to kill. But don't get too excited, because a lot of the levels in Armored Core are completely forgettable. There are entirely too many levels that are located out in the middle of a boring forest or desert, places that are lacking a lot of detail and are generally boring to look at. When the game is good it looks great, but too much of Armored Core 4 feels like they fell asleep on the job. That doesn't make these levels bad, but it would have been nice to see some more attention given to making these levels even better.
Aside from the main storyline, you also have data packs, which are basically arena battles. You choose an enemy and go up against it one on one for points and new weapons. This is especially fun when you've grown tired of losing on one or two missions over and over. In some ways I actually had more fun with these battles because it actually felt like I was doing something. As you progress through the game you will unlock more of these data packs, so there are always quite a few different enemies to battle when you need a break.
If you don't want to go up against the computer then you can also go online and take on real opponents. Since you spend so much time customizing your mech you would think that this would be a perfect online game, but you would be wrong. Very, very wrong. For one thing the game offers only a few levels, and none of those environments are even remotely interesting. And then when you actually want to create a game you'll find that you have almost no control over it, you're basically limited to choosing how many players you want and that's it. You can do the standard one-on-one to four-on-four matches, as well as a four- or eight-player battle royal. The action is fine, but it just feels like they could have done so much more with this experience. This is especially depressing after the good (though flawed) online mode in Chromehounds (which was also developed by From Software).
If you can get over some of the technical problems associated with buying new equipment and dealing with short (and often boring) missions then you should have a good time with Armored Core 4. I couldn't help but think that a lot of these problems could have been easily fixed turning this from a so-so experience into a must-own game. But even with its faults, Armored Core 4 is still a fun game that is worth checking out if you're into giant mechs and huge explosions. It doesn’t reinvent the genre or dazzle you with amazing level designs, but it does have solid controls and a lot of customizable parts. While it's definitely a good first effort on the next-gen consoles, I think a lot of people are waiting for that first great mech game on the Xbox 360. Too bad this isn't the one.
More On:Armored Core 4
With is short missions and cumbersome customizing options, Armored Core 4 isn't nearly as entertaining as it should be. But if you can get past some of the rough technical problems then you should be able to have a good time with this flawed but still enjoyable mech game.