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.

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