Mega Man 4 (PS3, sort of)

For some reason, one of these old Mega Man games seem to be rereleased about every 6 months on the Playstation Store.  These are Japanese releases of versions originally from the late 90’s on PSOne, and contain Japanese text and sub menus.  This is a rerelease of a rerelease, the original Mega Man 4 debuted in 1991.  Seriously, you can’t read the menus, they are in Japanese.  If only there was a Google Translate for Playstation!   If you press start enough times you’ll eventually make it to the game (alternatively you could buy Rosetta Stone or something but that seems like a costly alternative).

Yet another 8 obscure bosses.

Yet another 8 obscure bosses.

Anyways, this installment of the Mega Man series was notable because of the introduction of the Mega Buster, which allows for the famous charged-shot which eventually would be a signature of the series.  Despite being memorable special effect in the game, the addition of the Mega Buster finally gives a base Mega Man some options.  The upgrade is also infamously cited as being “game-breaking” in that the premise of the game, stealing the powers of defeated robot masters, is essentially mooted by the introduction of a more-powerful and unlimited use super-weapon.

Having played and celebrated Mega Man for something over 20 years, and having the appreciation for the base mechanics brought back by Capcom’s 2009 and later 8-bit remakes, I can definitely say that the criticism of the Mega Buster is actually spot on.  The charge shot makes this game entirely too easy.  Mega Man 4 is not as challenging as the earlier games in the series.  I found myself rarely using special weapons in the game when I had a more reliable, higher damage causing weapon always at my disposal.  Charging the shot to full power does not take that much time, receiving damage while charging doesn’t disrupt the charge, the projectile has a larger collision pattern, and finally it cleaves through multiple enemies in a straight line.  It also generally does about as much damage to bosses as their special weapon weakness would, making a difficult weapon to use, like Skull Shield (Dive Man’s weakness) completely irrelevant.  The charge shot is also, technically speaking, not original here either (you can charge Atomic Fire in Mega Man 2).

Environment

This is a pretty consistent style and quality with prior Mega Man games.  There is a bit of a Russian style to the Dr. Cossack stages (obviously), which fits nicely, but generally the player is confronted with light-hearted anime enemies, catchy one minute and thirty second midi tunes.  The best and brightest spot is actually the introduction video, which is the only Mega Man game to develop Mega Man’s origins and reinforce some themes seen in earlier games.  From the beginning video we get that Mega Man is not a combat robot and, perhaps somewhat reluctantly it seems, volunteered to don his famous blue armor.  Maybe this explains why he’s screaming in every little jump.?  The game also begins as it ends, with Mega Man riding on a train.  The attempt here is to show that the character is pure of heart, and although he’s maybe not that confident, he’s willing to dig in.  Each journey out into the world against a new batch of jacked up robots ends with him preferring to go home to his quiet place in the country.  Although the changing seasons at the end of Mega Man 2 might be a little more sentimental, the use of the train as a metaphor for the journey of Mega Man, and the player is ingenious.  It’s been used before, but is best executed in this game.  The music and lighting effects in this brief little cutscene develop the game’s conflict, explain prior installments concisely (not that there was much of a story to rehash), and effectively build up tension needed to make the player get ready for the next adventure.

Levels have a formulaic feel.  Unlike prior installments, the game never seems to suffer from a framerate reduction as a result of too many sprites.  I suspect this is due to the fact that certain areas where there are lot of moving items (running currents in Toad Man’s stage for example), also have no backgrounds.  Although the quality of levels and pixel art and animation are roughly consistent with earlier games, it also shows the lack of progression in the development team.  There’s just nothing ambitious here, although there are neat gimmicks in most of the levels (lights out in Bright Man’s stage, heavy rain in Toad Man’s stage, quick sand in Pharoah Man’s stage).  There are pretty much all new enemies, although all have similar roles to ones we’ve seen before.  There is your typical big stomper-guy, and other propeller enemies.  I did not feel like there was a greater than normal number of new encounters, but then again it’s following a formula.  The second appearance of a giant Metaur also seems derivative following a very similar boss in Mega Man 3.

Gameplay

This is maybe the 20th time I’ve played through this game, but perhaps the first time that I noticed it is considerably easier than Mega Man 1,2, or 3.  Although there are the occasional cheap kills waiting over bottomless pits (definitely guilty in Dust Man’s stage where you have no prior warning), most of the enemies don’t seem to do a lot of damage and can’t stand up against the Mega Buster.  There are, of course, 8 special weapons retrieved from each robot master stage.  The problem here is that most of the weapons aren’t that useful compared to the a charged Mega Buster shot.  I found myself using the special weapons very rarely.  Of course, a bunch of the stronger enemies don’t seem to have enough life as they did in prior installments either, so perhaps the difficulty problem isn’t just related to charging up.

It’s not that the charged-shot isn’t a good base premise for a game mechanic.  That’s not really an accurate statement.  It COULD be really good, provided the game was developed around it.  Perhaps special enemies would require combo shots, where a charged shot would open up a vulnerability that would require you to use a different weapon or salvo of normal shots to finish.  Mega Man gets a big bump up in this installment, but the world of Dr. Wily and friends does not.

I think all the criticism of this game mechanic could be effectively elimination with some reasonable balancing adjustments.  For example, make the charge reservoir take longer to fill, make it so you lose the charge when you suffer damage, and make the bosses generally more resistant to the charge shots damage.  A few simple tweaks could eliminate a lot of concern here.  The glowing graphic, sound effect, and animation of the buster shot are good.  Perhaps too good.

Final Thoughts

I find the notion that these old games are being released without translation, from a prior rerelease, one at a time for $9.99.  Perhaps Capcom realized it could have made a lot more money if it hadn’t released the Mega Man Anniversary Collection (all 8 of the first games on PS2 disk) about five years earlier.  Although I still consider it fun to go and waste an hour playing through these old adventures every once in awhile, I can start to see where things went wrong with this series.  Hopefully Capcom will get back on track before it’s too late.

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Syndicate [2012] (PS3) – SINGLE PLAYER CAMPAIGN

Picked up a new game, but only for blogging’s sake (separate budget from the wedding/house planning, so it’s ok).  I wanted to get a post out so I haven’t had a foray into the multiplayer yet on this one.  I understand the online play is considered the best part of this game from reading other reviews.  I promise to actually try the multiplayer this time also (as I’ve gotten older, I tend to shy away from game commitment).  Long and short of the single player campaign though is; middle of the road.  That’s becoming a difficult proposition for a game that retails for $60 and isn’t being stocked at local Walmarts/Targets around here.

Any sort of sequel or title referencing another source material will always draw comparisons to the original.  Syndicate [2012] preserves some of the dark motif of the original 90’s series.  The non-aesthetic elements of those games has not been preserved though.  First, get a feel for what the first two games were like.  The 90’s was a long time ago.  Remember how awesome Sound Garden was?  I’ve found some YouTube clips of the games below, so I can spare you from having to read another 5000 words of rant.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqO4iQCm8sM

I’ll confess, I liked the first two Syndicate games a lot for some reasons I’ll get into later.  At the time though, I knew they were not for everyone.  The core of the game’s theme was amorality.  The games also suffered from some terrible flaws in AI and controls (you MAY have picked this up if you actually watched the first YouTube video).  You couldn’t really go inside buildings and getting into cars was frustrating and possibly suicidal.  It was VERY difficult to play Syndicate Wars on PSOne.  I also understand completely that a 2012 game with an isometric overhead view and bad controls clearly can’t be a blockbuster.  Syndicate [2012] resurrects itself as an FPS.  Given the success of games like Skyrim, Deus Ex, or Modern Warfare, it’s clearly an adequate perspective to support great action and immersive story and gameplay.  So, I’m not going to gripe on the perspective change.

Story/Environment

First off, fifteen years is a long break between installments.  Resuscitating IP that old is risky, because it’s possible your fan base will no longer care or remember the original.  And true die-hard fans might not respond if you change something major, even if you’ve done a good job in making something new (I have to play as this blond teenager?!? WTF! #MGS2).  So I wonder why EA attempted to bring this franchise back?  I suspect what happened is that some new ideas for a shooter were developed, and someone found something in the IP vault that reminded them of Syndicate, and then the two were melded together.  “Oh, you’re coming up with some futuristic shooter, cool cool.  You know that sounds a lot like this other futuristic game we have the rights to…”

The original story has apparently been discarded from what I can tell, but the world of Syndicate has essentially been preserved.  In the future, there are mega-corporations that are so big and powerful they have displaced governments and nation-states.  They fight each other in brutal proxy wars and engage in violent espionage.  These corporations control the population thoroughly through brain implants, and turn their “agents,” into cyborg slaves devoid of free will.  Their product is control.  In Syndicate, you were the bad guy.  There was no doubt about it.  Your missions were to assassinate rival scientists and leaders, and “persuade,” which of course, was not through delicate means.  The goal was to conquer the world one country at a time by displacing local and rival syndicates.  One aspect of the original franchise was that you were clearly NOT the agents on the field, but an executive controlling these living puppets remotely.  I tend to think that acknowledging the player’s existence is a neat narrative trick.  Syndicate has you feeling like an honest to goodness entrepreneur.  After all, it’s just business.  Human life, meh.  In these isometic view games, it also explains the rationale of why the perspective is the way it is.  You’re not Link running around with a sword, you’re watching your agents from a satellite or airship located over the terrain.  Truly you are “roleplaying” here.   I love these old 80’s and 90’s games where they had to create a story where the player was actually being sucked into the game.  Aside from being able to hack pedestrians and turn them into drones, you also could customize your own operatives with metal skeletons and bionic implants.  Fine tuning of combat performance could be achieved by administering reservoirs of narcotics which increased speed or weapon accuracy, but also could cause your agents to go on an unintended killing spree.  Metal Gear had the balls to insinuate drugs could be used to make you shoot better, a concept Syndicate did earlier times 100.

Syndicate [2012] has you taking the reins of a Eurocorp agent, and not that of an executive.  Presumably EA has re-imagined these agents as having somewhat more autonomy.  The brain implant is back, and now is the primary source of your amazing FPS ability to survive thousands of rounds of automatic weapon fire.  The brain implant is the source of the main abilities of your character.  You grow through extracting (physically) other brain implants from dead agents.  Your chip lets you hack remote devices as well as enemy chips.  This is the principle puzzle-solving element in the game, moving an elevator up or down or opening an access door locked from the other side (although it is underutilized).  The drug-use aspects of the game has been removed (ages M for Mature…??), and replaced with a Dart6 Overlay, which essentially is like a cross between some sort of futuristic meta-vision and the Max Paine “bullet-time” function.

The story centers around discovering your origins, a covert resistance group fighting the corporations, and ultimately revenge.  There are really only like 4 characters.  None of them are very interesting or sympathetic.  You are predictably thrown into very long action sequences that don’t really escalate in difficulty and are pretty darn easy because of your awesome chip.  The campaign moves nonstop from action sequence to action sequence without any noticeable breathers or reflection.  There are technically breaks in missions, and the game separates chapters by giving you score recaps and statistics on performance, but the theme is noticeably devoid of control and options.  I guess that is the life of an agent after all, but you were never the agent in the original Syndicates in the first place.

The environments are generally futuristic corporate facilities.  You know the type, glass lobbies with a lot of cool lighting and access tunnels and elevator shafts.  Although there are pedestrians and civilians caught in the cross-fire of these escapades, once they are alerted to your presence they usually just lie down and hope to not get shot.  Certainly this is a rationale response, but what is missing is the open-ended worlds you could walk around and the careful plotting you could do while  looking for ambush points.  The gameplay quickly feels redundant.  The strategy and plotting aspects are gone, as are the open ended city exploration (which to be honesty was barely utilized in either of the original two games).  You are funneled through installations which are comprised of ventilation shafts and lobbies.  The cities of Syndicate are gone in place of something that looks cool, but has been done before.

The brooding synthesizer music in the first two Syndicates (think Blade Runner) no longer permeates the environments you’re roaming.  Some cool techno is in this game, but it’s only noticeable in a few points.  I can’t say for certain that there is no music in the rest of the game, but if it was there, I didn’t notice.  I think maybe some corners were cut at the end of development.  More would be welcome here.  Afterall, a lot of music for a video game is like 25 minutes.  It’s not that much effort honestly (explain to me why a game like Starcraft where the developers know people are playing for literally 1000’s of hours only has like 35 minutes of music?).  There is a chance here to really make ANY game better with more and better music that was passed up on.

One especially irksome thing I find about this game is how big parts of the story and environment are hidden in a menu available data-dictionary.  You pick up an item in a stage and it updates an entry in a little in-game encyclopedia.  Talk to a character, and their life story is loaded up there.  Complete an objective and you sometimes learn about something unrelated.  This is just frankly lazy writing. If the developers want me to understand the motivations of the CEO of Eurocorp, they can develop it through narrative or some sort of actual in-game event instead of trying to story board with stupid footnotes.  When you’re constructing a sci-fi world, naturally there are going to be a lot of elements that aren’t explained fully.  The important ones to the plot need to be explained in the plot.  I’m not going to pause a game that is non-stop shooting to go read a bunch of crappy Wikipedia entries.  This was a stupid and annoying concept in the Xenosaga series, and it was stupid in Final Fantasy 13, and it’s still stupid now.  Granted, I don’t want all these extraneous details in a Metal Gear type 45 minute cut scene where someone is talking, but perhaps an interactive database could be prepared.  A mission briefing screen that reads these elements to you in the form of a history lesson.  The interface for this encyclopedia menu itself is clunky too, it’s actually kind of tough to read the text and the font is relatively small.  In the future they forgot how to make Kindles?  I didn’t read most of these little updates, and I think consequently the story didn’t make a lot of sense.  Please, figure out a way to explain what’s going on by showing me what’s going on, or having me somehow interact with it through what the characters are saying and doing.  Don’t make a bunch of text and hide in a menu.

If you find the futuristic thing interesting, try Deus Ex 3 instead.  That game deals with the issues of technology and social control on a much more cerebral level and is a more complete experience.  The most shocking thing about the story is how short it is.

Gameplay/Action

This isn’t a bad shooter, but the mechanics and balance elements haven’t been thought out that well.  There are cool and diverse weapons that all have a feature that separates them from just another assault rifle or machine gun.  There is a gun that goes around corners, a gun that penetrates light cover, a sniper rifle, and of course the awesome mini-gun (a Syndicate favorite).  Been there, done that. These have all been done in other games already.

The hacking skill is neat, but generally most of the puzzles setup require you to either hack a remote switch to open a door, or hack an enemy armor to cause it to lose invulnerability.  I think there is potential for this option to be used more here, but that would require more interactive environments.

The Dart6 Overlay is neat, but it can be used too frequently and is overpowered.  Your Dart powers regenerate with time, making most encounters that of patience, rather than skill.  The Dart mode increases damage resistance, can increase health, can increase the damage you cause, and also starts with the bonus of slowing down time.  They might as well call it Jesus mode.  It recharges after about 30 seconds from being completely depleted.  So does your health, which will only be depleted if you take too much damage in a short period of time (think Call of Duty).  I’m not naturally good at these shooter games, but this was just way too easy to exploit.

Actually,while we’re talking about other games, come to think of it, think God of War too.  Certain doors or metal grates that need to be opened prompt the player to either hold the square button, or tap it repeatedly.  This is clearly borrowed from the God of War series, where you had to interact with massive pieces of stone or repeatedly bludgeon somebody by ferociously tapping a button.  This works really well in God of War, because it links the feats of strength and endurance of the player with the feats of the avatar, the God of War, Kratos.  Most importantly, if you fail, the stone you’re trying to push or the monster you’re trying to decapitate will punish you.  Here, the “feats of strength” come up infrequently and are really just a distraction.  Why do I need to tap square repeatedly to open a door?  My character can snap a metal chain and padlock with his bare hands.  It just doesn’t make sense and is inconsistently applied.  But there it is every time you open a certain door or lift up a certain grate.  There also is no punishment and these never really come up during actual action or tension scenes.  They merely add a very plain interactive element to areas where swarms of enemies aren’t flooding and trying to blast you.  It’s in the game because it worked in another game that was popular.  Arkham City had something similar.  I hardly believe Batman would have trouble removing a ventilation duct cover.  Although it works in God of War, it feels tedious when it’s half-hazardly applied.

Dart special abilities, which let you hack enemies and cause general disarray, are primarily limited to affecting enemy bots.  The potential here is not really developed.  Although you can force a suicide or persuade enemies to fight each other, these elements aren’t used in puzzles or any type of level design.  Perhaps there could be an infiltration mode where you have to move from target to target to force them to open doors for you.  Instead, there is just gun battle after gun battle.

There are moments where you’re operating in a sort of stealth mode, at least according to your chip’s narrator voice (think of it as a pro-murder version of Siri).  I get the impression that the point was to make infiltration, and it’s close friend discretion, seem like they are part of this game.  They are not.  Granted, in the original Syndicates, you couldn’t really do covert missions due to the AI, the game tries to make you feel like you’re sneaking when you’re not.  You’re forced to fight the same enemies no matter what, they know where you are all the time, and they’re going to swarm you just the same anyway.  Why ISN’T there a stealth mode in this game?  The classic Syndicate agent, and your character in this installment, always sort of looked like ninjas with their face coverings, so it’s only natural to expect that, right?  Basically these stealth modes just serve to break up the action.  There’s no suspense because you can’t blow your cover early, and there is no penalty, because you can’t blow your cover.  It just sort of happens.  Why not just shoot everyone when you’re coming in to kidnap someone instead of just shooting everyone when you’re coming out?  It’s nonsensical from a design perspective, as the “chip” and “hacking” concepts that are supposed to be imbedded in the game logically should support some sort of stealth or meaningful trojan-horse-play.  There are definitely missed opportunities here.

Gameplay, due to the overly awesome chip modifications, is pretty easy.  Gripes I have about this game I generally have about all other shooters; enemies have too much life.  Headshots are valued as a statistic and do more damage, but this isn’t exactly Metal Gear where certain areas react differently to gun fire (tranq in the leg vs. the head for example).  Little details like this are appreciated when someone plays a game enough.  The extra mile effort is simply not here.  Enemies have different skins and designs, but ultimately all have the same weapons as you do.  Combat seems repetitive with exception of the boss fights which are all pretty good.

Choice and Final Thoughts.

What is really lacking in Syndicate [2012] from earlier Syndicate games is the lack of choice that you have.  Again, if you’re an agent, this does thematically make sense.  But it’s not satisfying from the player’s perspectives.  The first two Syndicate games did not really have good balance as far as weapons and upgrades, but they did give you some control over your destiny.  You had the choice of what missions to choose, what equipment to bring with you, what mods you wanted to implant on your agents, and finally, what you actually wanted to do once you got to the mission (knock off a bank in en route to your assassination maybe…??).  It made you feel entrepreneurial (mentioned above).  In this story, there is no real choice.  I think if you want a good Syndicate feel, the right game is probably Deus Ex3.  Hey, maybe it’s not $60 anymore.  That’s what’s really missing here.  Or if the illusion of free will was supposed to be a part of the narrative, why isn’t it as good as it is in BioShock?

SPOILER ALERT (not really….).  The game ends with a question, “what are you going to do next?”  Aside from it being a confirmation that you’ve earned your freedom, this ending is presumably an invitation to go online and murder a bunch of strangers.  If you liked the game, you’ll like playing with your friends, or other randoms from all corners of the internet.

I doubt that though.  Competitive and healthy online play only come about from there being a healthy community of people who want to play the game online.  It’s called the network effect in economics.  It’s the theory that the value of a good or service is dependent on the number of other people using the good or service.  Nobody wants to play a game that isn’t a blockbuster.  I think this aspect of online gaming is frequently overlooked.  You need to have a REALLY good game to get a lot of people online to create a critical mass.  Otherwise it will be a flop.  Think of the vacant lobbies of Syndicate [2012], but only instead being empty lobbies of multiplayer mode.  I will have to test this theory on my own when I decide to use the multiplayer.  I think I’d want to play a Halo or a Call of Duty before I’d want to jump into a niche like this.  Without being a perfect 10 game, developers are really asking a lot out of their audience to commit to the massive amounts of time it takes to get good in an online environment, potentially filled with out of work super gamers and other ace players (like my totally cool friend Erik Lawson).  It’s especially insulting to make a crappy single player mode for a franchise that nobody probably remembers, and then expect people to just jump online.  If I’m disappointed in the mechanics of the game, why would I want to play it with a bunch of hopped-up super teenagers who will call me a noob incessantly?  The single player mode it seems is an add on to EA’s intended multiplayer modes.  Again, I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I heard these were good.  But the correct approach is to totally blow a player away with the game as opposed to expecting them to just go online.  Convert me to the religion of Syndicate; don’t expect me to just read the bible of my own (the bible of the Church of the New Epoch maybe?).

The real question I’m left with is exactly what EA is attempting to accomplish here?  The product is a relatively run of the mill shooter that only sort of innovates.  It’s derivative and not daring.  On its surface, Syndicate appears to have the same dark-themed dystopic  potential as the earlier Bullfrog games.  An hour or so into the game dashes these hopes though.  The critical heart and soul of Syndicate, and its 1996 sequel Syndicate Wars, has been removed though, ironically much like the series signature “agents.”  EA, please, please, try and come up with something daring.  It may involve characters using drugs and controversy though.

Armored Core V: Thwarted

Took a couple of detours today to go hunt down a copy of Armored Core 5.  And, no such luck.  Nobody seems to be carrying it.  Yeah, this is a post about me not playing a game…  If it doesn’t show up at Target, or Walmart, or some other big box retailer it might as well just be a PC game.  I’ll probably breakdown and order a copy online or stop by my local Gamestop (begrudgingly), but I think just not being able to find this game might be the most relevant story about it.  It has been out for a week, so anybody that is going to carry it should have already had a chance to stock it.  I didn’t get my fix though and, instead, started to look at the critical response.  But first I want to explain why I think it’s come to this.

How could this miss, right?

I’ve always liked the Japanese giant robot aesthetic, so I’ve always been close to the target audience.  Armored Core 2 was my PS2 launch game, and, consequently holds a dear place in my heart.  I had played an AC1 demo for PlayStation and found the customization system and RPG elements combined with a military and battle game to be really appealing.  AC2 impressed me more.  The play online option is displayed in the opening menu prominently.  Ah, the early days of PS2 when programmers were forced to program online play modes for a system that didn’t have a hard drive.  The fantasy that you had to include an online mode that basically nobody would ever use was removed from later PS2 Armored Core games; of which there were seven.

Armored Core 2 took the robot future theme and embedded it the fiber of the game; the player menu featured a plethora of options relating to customization, mission selection, arena selection, and game email.  The email system served to immerse the player into the world; opponents bested in the arena would congratulate you, clients would thank you for saving a valuable asset.  The menu let you feel like you were in control.  Selecting missions meant favoring one corporation over another, although, as a mercenary, you could really be fighting on the other side at your next outing.  There was not much of a story, but the shininess of new awesome graphics with smooth gameplay overshadowed this.  The facelessness of your corporate benefactors (amoral entities who only share the common ethos of power and control) and the lack of any human characters (aside from voiceovers) can be forgiven; the coldness and lack of emotion are the motif of the future mechanized-mercenary.  The scale of the war machines, complimented with the polished HUD displays identifying targets, now bear a striking resemblance to modern combat.  The human element has been removed.  There are no alliances, and missions frequently have you switching sides.  The lack of characters or emotional attachment WAS the point.  Maybe, anyways.  At least the case could be made that it was deliberately soulless.  Choosing sides has its appeal as well, and multiple mission options existing simultaneously helped mute the relatively high difficulty some of the missions presented.

Combat in AC2 was smooth, and featured hundreds of weapon and armor variations.  Missions in the game sought to diversify the playing experience; a weapon or armor configuration for one mission might not work for another.  Tweaking to complete a relatively mundane mission when it was inconsistent with your dream-build served as a kind of tutorial to introduce you to new weapons and strategies.  Although close-quarters combat and controls were clunky, the freedom given through flight, fast movement, and big guns made up for these deficits.  This was a game to really get into.  And, to a point, so were the subsequent PS2 sequels.

But rather than changing up the form of the experience, From Software merely copied it it.  Lame, poorly translated and stories, lack of detail sum up the long line of sequels.  These sequels allowed you to import game data from previous iterations.   I think this feature also reinforces the clear message that these sequels are for die-hard fans only.  Without decent tutorials, or much of a story, if some of these games were your first entry into the series, you’d be awfully overwhelmed.  Missions became more specialized.  Although controls were refreshed, after 7 iterations the format felt stale.  Never once were decent stories or characters introduced.  The core of the game was your Armored Core and fighting in battles that eventually felt repetitive and bland.  During these PS2 days the cult began to form as well.  I can remember meeting someone in law school who played Armored Core.  He mentioned it casually and our eyes met and then we sort of stared each other down.  It turned out I was the better pilot, but also that he was very serious about the technical aspects.  But that possibly deliberate lack of energy and emotion that was ok in 2000, eventually just felt.  The dynamics of combat remained largely the same.  The graphics remained largely the same.  By the time Armored Core 4 came out for the PS3, this franchise desperately needed a reboot.

I liked Armored Core 4, and some fundamentals in the game were fine-tuned to make combat even more expansive.  Ultimately though, this is the same game as Armored Core 2, only without the email system and the motif of the mercenary.  Exactly who your character is supposed to be is really just unclear.    I had high hopes for the first expansion type game, Armored Core: For Answer (a game title that I suspect is actually touting the fact that its a bad translation).  These hopes were dashed though, as again fans were treated with a rehash of poorly developed plotlines centering around environmentalism (a recurring theme in the AC series seems to be that the ACs themselves are REALLY bad for the environment, which puts the player who must always be piloting one in an awkward position).  The strong point of AC4 was the emphasis on online play, although single PvP combat can be intimidating for casual gamers (like me).

That brings us to the present.  It’s really hard to gauge the actual quality of an Armored Core game, as I like the core fundamentals a lot (no pun intended).  Game reviewers typically begin to start punishing a lack of innovation in sequels though, and the AC series certainly has that stigma going forward.  None of the PS2 Armored Core games are 5s, but you’ll notice as more and more were released, the scores steadily dropped.  Armored Core 5, at least from what I’ve read in other reviews, seems to again suffer from the same limitations as its predecessors.  Limitations from a decade ago, in fact.  The difficulty and requirement of precise equipment combinations for missions has bee noted, as well as the very bland single-player mode’s story.  Now the new hot item seems to be the immersive multi-player features.  This allows you to substitute live players in single-player missions, in lieu of bots (which, not surprisingly, used to be really dreadful backup in prior versions), as well as a team and territory control system that allow you to wage a constant war to hold a dynamic terrain off from other players.  While the prospect of a never-ending war seems promising, it also seems to me another huge barrier to entry for casual gamers.  Without a really great tutorial, exactly how is a person supposed to get started here?  The competitive online landscape necessarily rewards people who put the most time into playing a game.  Nobody wants to play if they lose all the time, so people with full time jobs or families stay away.  PvP modes are pretty obvious for a game where there has historically been a strong emphasis on dueling and combat prowess.  It’s so obvious its right there in year 2000 before any significant number of players were interested in it  Now the requirement of total dedication is  right away is embedded into the core of the game, and up front that intimidates me.  I don’t have one friend who is going to buy this game, leaving me with the task of finding four buddies in random strangers online who have similar schedules.  How many guys out there do you think I can find that work 60 hours a week and are also in long-term relationships while studying for the CPA exam?  It doesn’t seem like our team would be very successful if I did find those guys.  My foray into the Warcraft 3 ladder system in college taught me one thing; I will never have time to play video games all day.  After reading these reviews I’m skeptical that I can ever get into a game where the majority of play must be online in a substantive way.

If a company like Blizzard has taught us anything, it’s that online gaming needs to be built up before you want to do an MMORPG style endeavor.  You need to make a mega-hit, have a huge following, and show everybody you can do online better than everyone else.  When World of Warcraft came out, it was released on the heels of a hot title when there was absolute faith that Blizzard had the creativity and technical ability to run a really big 3D online world.  People aren’t going to commit to something unless they know it’d gold BEFORE it comes out.  You have to prove yourself with a good single-player campaign to draw in that initial pool.  It’s key to getting to the critical mass needed to establish a community.  AC has been closed off from the rest of the world for too long though, and I fear by asking more of fans, this pool may actually shrink.  If the online community falters, then even the mediocre single-player experience has the potential to erode as well, because that’s been tied in as well.  The verdict on the single-player game is again the same as it has been since 2000; just enough to setup the missions.  I know with the inherent competitiveness of hard-core Armored Core  fans there will always be a bunch of really tough guys online controlling a big section of the war map.

I think of the critical reception to the single-player game, and how the online mode seems to be the crutch to make an otherwise blah game into something you actually WANT to get addicted to.  Online mode for a lackluster game isn’t much of a feature.  But how can the criticism of this franchise remain the same after 10 years, with no substantive signs of changing some of the glaring faults?  I think of the recent words from Keiji Inafune, and his comments that “Japan is Dead.”  Armored Core has so much of that faded-glory baggage that a reviewer will never be able to look at this franchise with open eyes.  The attitude should be shifting to making nonbelievers into fans of the series, not moving fans farther down their respective tunnels.  With a 66 aggregate critic score on MetaCritic, From Software won’t be winning any awards anytime soon.  Let’s hope they get things right with Armored Core 6, or the inevitable Armored Core 5: Some Answer.

I really want to experience the new terrain and cover elements, and the smaller mechs which supposedly can sneak down alleyways.  I hope the controls have tightened to the point where the endless strafing circles have been cut down.  I just can’t stand losing every encounter online.  I’ll write a review if I eventually decide to pick it up.  I just hate myself a little for wanting to wait for a price drop here though.