More than any other videogame genre, mech titles have the tendency to split the gaming demographic right down the center. Time and time again this virtual schism has played out, resulting in two distinct camps: the hardcore mech fans, and the causal joystick jockeys. A game like Mechassault might find mainstream appeal, while a title like Steel Battalion makes the hardcore set weak in the knees. Balancing the wants and needs of both camps is extremely difficult, and often attempts to appeal to both arrive a bit busted. Still, as Armored Core 4 makes clear, even focusing efforts on just the hardcore can sometimes leave you with a lackluster experience.
The opening, however, is anything but dull. The newest Armored Core starts out with a bang in the form of an absolutely breathtaking cinematic. It's the kind of thing you'll watch more than once. Still, like your high school girlfriend, it's a bit of a tease. With each generational leap, it seems to be a problem plaguing gaming more and more. A stellar opening that you get to watch, and sub-par gameplay that you control. There is no bigger letdown.
The letdown is apparent as soon as the cinematic draws to a close. The game features a fairly basic eight-step tutorial that just exists to get you used to identifying buttons with their associated actions. Hold your joystick forward to move your mech forward! It's a must for the uninitiated, but a bore for an advanced fan. That being said, tutorials don't always provide the meat and potatoes of the experience. Sometimes you have to learn by doing, and you'll have plenty of opportunities.
Unfortunately though, the single player campaign isn't a whole lot more robust. There are six chapters, usually featuring multiple missions per chapter. As you beat a mission, a new one opens up and you work your way down the list. Despite some cool locales and scenarios, the missions themselves are quite boring. For starters, they are far too short. Often you boost over to a target, blow it up, and then rinse and repeat. And then there's the whole issue of story. The manual promises that clearing chapters will advance the story, but you won't really notice a whole lot of advancing. The story is pretty much nonexistent beyond commands to go wipe out one rival or another.
Some mission design fundamentals are a bit lacking as well. For instance, there's not a whole lot of mission variety. They usually boil down to protect an ally, destroy an enemy, or some combination of them both. The dichotomy can wear you down. Another frustrating oversight is that exiting the combat area results in mission failure. Since there are plenty of audio warnings, it isn't that difficult to avoid crossing the line, but it's annoying nonetheless. I thought next gen was finally when these sort of artificial restraints would finally disappear. New tech can't cover for bad design though.
It isn't all bad though. The missions do a good job, in some cases, of making you work to ensure that you have the right equipment for the job. Not having right weapons on your mech, for instance, can make a mission extremely difficult. This is what the game needed more of – integrating the mech customization aspect with the single player campaign in a fluid manner. Show not just how cool it can be, but how vital it is for success. It's an excellent way of integrating the joys of customization directly into the campaign. I'd have liked to have seen more missions that required it.
Thankfully, there is a ton of depth in the mech customization – a must for any Armored Core title. There are plenty of different options between the base parts, boosters, weapons, and stabilizers. You can also tune specific parts to your liking. As far as aesthetics are concerned, you can paint your mech and create your own decals and emblems. Despite all the options, I wish the purchasing system was a bit more direct. It's not really clear how much items cost and what items you have already purchased. It takes a bit to get accustomed to the system, but it's worth it for the experience of making a mech that you can truly call your own.
Marching your highly tuned mech into battle is going to help you earn a better ranking in the post mission reports. The ranking system adds a bit of replayability for hardcore fans, as does the fact that hard mission difficulty is unlocked for each mission that you complete. It's not a whole lot to keep you playing, but that's not to say that there isn't some solid enjoyment to be had here. Zipping around in a mech by hammering the boost is great. The speed and intensity of the mech vs. mech missions is particularly palpable, and those missions often warrant another quick play through.
The intensity of those mech battles is what makes the multiplayer so fun. The multiplayer is where this title earns its keep, even if it's also a bit lacking in variety. There are five different battles: one vs. one; two vs. two; four vs. four; a four player battle royale; and an eight player battle royale. Not a whole lot of diversity there, but then again not a whole lot is needed. The ability to customize the hell out a mech and take it online against other players is a great feeling. Even when your mech melts down, watching the rest of a battle royale play out is still a blast. When you're not duking it out, you can trade mech schematics and emblems with friends.
Ultimately, outside of hardcore Armored Core fans this installment is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of casual mech gamers. You can't fault it all that much, since collecting converts probably wasn't the goal but there is still too much to be desired. While mech customization can be a good bit of geeky fun, it shouldn't have to carry a whole game on its shoulders. A solid single player experience is the one thing most mech titles lack, and this is no exception. Even the hardcore fans should be asking for more.
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