Believe it or not, there are a lot of PlayStation 2 games I wouldn't mind seeing ported to the PSP. For instance, I would love to play Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 on the go. Obscure gems like Bombastic and Sky Odyssey would really shine on the small screen. And even though we already have Rock Band Unplugged, I definitely would pay money to get either Amplitude or Frequency on the PSP. Of course, there are more than a few PS2 games that don't need to hit Sony's handheld. Among them, From Software's outdated Armored Core 3.
As luck would have it, today's review is of Armored Core 3 Portable, the entirely unnecessary remake of the middling 2002 game. For the most part it was a smooth transition from a console game to handheld release, and the original game's short mission structure makes it easy to play on the go. Unfortunately, it turns out that Armored Core 3 isn't all that memorable of a mech action game, which translates into a painfully dull exercise in repetitive missions and boring battlegrounds.
Like most of the Armored Core games, you are expected to pilot your way through a series of missions collecting money that you can use to build and customize your giant mech. There's a story here, it involves a bleak future where large mega-corporations are raping the world. Instead of playing a pilot looking to change the system, you are really only here to make a few bucks. You'll be asked to take on a series of missions for money, which will flesh out the so-called story in boring and predictable ways. The truth is, mech fans aren't here for a plot full of political posturing and talk about the socioeconomic effects of decades of war. No, mech fans are here to blow crap up. And Armored Core 3 Portable delivers ... for the most part.
Not unlike many games in the mech sub-genre, the main focus of this game is customizing your robotic suit and taking it into large scale battles. The good news is that there are tons of choices for legs, arms, weapons, etc. Gear heads will no doubt find a lot to love in the garage. The problem is that there's very little for you to do with these giant mechs. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of missions to take on, but few of them are exciting enough to make you want to invest valuable time customizing your mech.
The missions are diverse, if not a little too straight forward. Most missions involve you planting bombs, defusing bombs, killing all of the enemies, protecting a friend and so on so forth. If you've played an Armored Core game you will no doubt recognize many of the mission types that show up throughout the game. The missions start easy enough, but it won't be long before the computer will all but force you to upgrade your equipment. Thankfully by that time you will have earned enough money to go crazy in the garage. These missions are generally short, usually taking no more than a few minutes each. I like the quick pacing of the missions, it makes a good argument why this would make for a great portable game.
Early on many of the missions have you fighting underground, usually in similar caverns and tunnels. After battling through a crazy amount of enemies, you finally reach more interesting areas, including a bunch of outdoor environments. While I like the change of pace (the underground stuff feels limiting when you're piloting a giant mech), I wish the levels were better laid out and easier to navigate. Many of the areas are too small and don't offer enough coverage. Other levels are too large, making navigate them a real chore. A lot of these problems were resolved in sequels and updates, unfortunately you're not playing one of those sequels or updates. The controls are surprisingly intuitive. The game definitely has a lot of buttons and things going on, but it didn't take long for me to get the hang of my mech. You move your character around with the analog nub, which leaves the developers room to map the D-pad and the face buttons with all kinds of crazy actions. The "X" button makes you jump AND speed forward, depending on if you double tap or hold the button. You can also speed forward using a mighty surge of power, but you do that by using the D-pad. The face buttons allow you to look up and down, plus fire your weapon (which is really the most important thing).
Much of the targeting is done for you, thanks to the auto-lock functionality. Just as long as you're in range and looking at an enemy, you will lock on and fire directly at it. You can play around with this sort of thing by buying weapons and upgrades; finding the perfect weapons for you (and the situation) is one of the most important things you can do in the game. Thankfully the controls are easy enough so that you can spend the rest of your time target practicing and blowing crap up. Like the PS2 original, the controls feel a little clunky. Then again, that's the kind of thing you can expect from a mech game, so you should already be used to the woes of piloting a giant robot.
The graphics have been reformatted to fit the PSP's widescreen display. The graphics are about as good as what you got on the home console, although I'm not sure that's a compliment in this case. It's not that the graphics are bad, it's that they are uninspired. Eight years is a long time in the video game world, and there's no question that the original graphics look a little archaic when compared to the newest PSP games.
A large part of the problem is that there have been seven Armored Core games since 2002, including four on the PlayStation 2. In that time the series has really grown, improving on every aspect of the gameplay, level designs and narrative. If you're going to port any of the games, then why not shoot for one of the more recent games, perhaps Nine Breaker or Last Raven? Well, it turns out that Last Raven is on its way to the PSP later this year. Apparently Armored Core 3 Portable was just a warm up.
Perhaps I'm missing the point. It may just be that I haven't been following the series closely. Outside of reviewing Armored Core 4 three years ago, I have very little experience with the series. Perhaps Armored Core 3 is to the Armored Core series what Street Fighter II was to that franchise. Or what Super Mario Bros. 3 was. Or maybe even the original Halo. Maybe the problem is that I don't have the nostalgia for this particular game. If that's the case, then enjoy this portable version, it's cheap enough and controls well enough to warrant a look. But that's assuming you're already a fan of Armored Core 3. I personally didn't see what the big deal is and found the missions, story and level designs to be outdated.
Something else that rubbed me the wrong way is how little was actually added to the game. Armored Core 3 Portable is still riddled with the countless typos and strange English translation that we saw in the PlayStation 2 game. The graphics haven't changed much, the controls are basically the same and nothing has been done to address the complaints people had about it eight years ago. Maybe that's expecting too much from a cheap download game, but if Konami can go back and fix the writing in Symphony of the Night, then From Software can fix the strange "Engrish." On the other hand, the PSP does offer some new content and a multiplayer mode, so it's not like they didn't spend any time adding to the product.
There are times when I was having a great time with Armored Core 3 Portable. For the first little bit right after I mastered the controls, I really felt like I had missed something special. Sadly that feeling didn't last long and I ended up getting stuck in what felt like an endless parade of inane missions. And things went from bad to worse when I remembered that there are so many better Armored Core games that could have been ported. Armored Core 3 proves that not every popular PlayStation 2 game needs to be ported to the PlayStation Portable.