Saturday, June 13, 2009

L/N Review: Armored Core For Answer

Review of Armored Core For Answer
developed by From Software
for the Playstation 3
and released in North America in September 2008.

The charmingly titled Armored Core For Answer is From Software's most recent entry in their venerable mecha franchise and the second Armored Core release for current gen consoles. For Answer is a considerable improvement over its predecessor Armored Core 4, which introduced a faster paced but no less complex style of gameplay to the series. Part simulation, part action game, the Armored Core series demands commitment from the player and For Answer is no different. Player excellence requires both a fighter pilot's nervous system and a foolproof understanding of the scientific method.

The single player game consists of the player taking a customized mecha -- or AC in the game's parlance -- through a branching path of missions, unlocking more and more AC parts as he progresses. By the time the player has completed all of the missions, he will have played through the story mode multiple times and unlocked hundreds of parts with which to customize his ACs. More time will have been spent in the hangar fiddling with his ACs' multitude of components and conducting test simulations than will have been spent completing story missions. There are so many interacting parts and variables, so many possibilities, that real experimentation is required to understand how they all fit together. Hypotheses are formed, tested, rejected, and further refined until specialized engines of destruction are created for any potential scenario. The player can create optimized snipers, heavy tanks, lightning fast melee specialists, missile boats and more in countless variations. Proper planning in the lab will make some of the nail hard missions doable and may even make those coveted S Ranks attainable. And then, it is time for Hard mode.

When it comes time to actually pilot an AC, the speed of the ensuing action will be a shock to almost anyone who hasn't played Armored Core 4. But despite the frenetic pace, For Answer is still a simulation. An Armored Core is a machine with certain functions and capabilities, all of which are mapped to the control pad. There are three different varieties of boost, for instance. Normal boost is the standard mode of movement and doesn't consume any energy unless the AC is completely airborne. Quick boost is a rapid dash/dodge which consumes a chunk of energy. Finally, Over boost can be likened with piloting a drag racer and rapidly depletes both energy and kojima particles(KP). The consumption, power, and recovery rates of all these forms of movement and energy depend on the parts equipped, of course. The player must integrate all three types of movement while managing the resources they require. Energy reserves are also shared to power weapons and other functions while KP is also used to fuel the AC's shields and a few Kojima-powered weapons.

Movement and resource management are definitely the most complex parts of piloting an AC and are key to combat strategy, but they aren't the pilot's only concerns. An AC can be equipped with up to five weapons: left and right hand weapons, left and right back weapons, and a shoulder weapon. Spare weapons can also be stored to use if a hand weapon is depleted of ammo or is otherwise no longer needed. There is an array of weapon types powered by traditional ordinance, energy, and even Kojima particles. There are assault rifles, machine guns, bazookas, grenade launchers, energy blades, missiles, sniper rifles, plasma cannons, rail guns, and more. Thankfully, ACs have a degree of auto-targeting and lock-on with most weapons. Without auto-targeting, the high speed of combat would would make it almost impossible to hit anything.

The end result of all this complexity is that For Answer is one of the few games which really requires the player to dedicate two fingers on each hand to the controller's triggers. The game's button mappings are completely customizable, but the player should never have to take his fingers off the main boost buttons or left/right fire buttons. Although awkward at first, with practice the game's controls actually become quite natural. The initial awkwardness is due more to unfamiliarity than any design flaw.

Mechanically, then, the gameplay is excellent. The missions themselves are also nicely varied, without too many frustrating moments. Past Armored Core games usually had a few relatively unexciting but hard missions with strict time limits. Thankfully, in For Answer the hardest missions are those where the player must face off against one or more opposing ACs. The most prominent missions however are those where the goal is to eliminate one of the gigantic moving fortresses known as Arms Forts. These missions are quite dramatic, but unfortunately -- at least on Normal Difficulty -- are a bit anti-climatic. Most of the Arms Forts can be taken out with a few swipes of a melee weapon once within range.

Aside from the main campaign, there are also numerous 1 vs 1 arena battles against AI opponents. These will serve as good practice before venturing online. Online there are team and survival battles with up to eight players. Between matches, players can chat and trade schematics. Overall, the online experience is much improved over Armored Core 4, although there are still instances of lag in certain circumstances.

The narrative of For Answer is sparse to say the least. As in previous games in the series, For Answer features a completely silent protagonist. The plot unfolds through mission briefings, in-mission communications, and brief cut scenes between chapters. These elements combine to beautifully capture the moral ambiguity of war. There are numerous factions, none of which except for one is clearly good or evil. As a mercenary, the player will work for almost all of them and it will likely take multiple playthroughs for the player to piece together the goals of each. The understated and biased mission briefings contribute greatly to the moral fog of war. A mission targeting 100 million civilians sits innocuously next to the mission to save them. Moral judgments on the player's part must be made in a vacuum of emotion, because there are few emotional cues in the business of war. The few scenes which do draw on human emotion are quite poignant as a result. Aiding the narrative further is a beautiful musical score, solid presentation, and sometimes dramatic imagery. The mecha designs are unique and quite evocative.

Armored Core For Answer is one of the deepest games around. The hours will while themselves by with the player lost in its systems. The music and creative design will suck him in further and the plot will sustain interest and never fall flat. For Answer is one of the high points of the series.

On a normally distributed scale from 3 to 18, Armored Core For Answer scores:

17 for Ludology
15 for Narratology

For an explanation of my L/N scoring system, read my posts on the theory and the implementation.

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