Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Armored Core 2

Year: 2000
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Agetec
Platform: PS2
Metacritic score: 78
VGChartz sales to date: 790,000

Like many games from Japanese developers, especially ones with a small but dedicated following, From Software has released numerous iterations in the series between each numbered sequel and picking just one from the many revisions was a tough call.  I chose Armored Core 2 because it marked the high water point in terms of sales and it established a number of conventions that continue to define the series.  This is a mecha game for people who like tinkering just as much as they enjoy blowing stuff up.

The series takes place in a dystopian future in which powerful corporations influence and control the government and the populace at large.  To achieve their (often nefarious) ends, they rely on groups of mercenaries euphemistically referred to as "mediation firms" employing piloted-mecha to destroy opposition from other corporations and government-controlled armies.  The plot of Armored Core 2 revolves around three major corporations trying to control the terraforming project on Mars.  You play as a new member of the independent mercenary group Ravens and as such find yourself caught between the warring corporations and the government bodies trying to impose order.  Completing contracts assigned by your handler advances the story while rewarding you with cash and parts depending on how well you perform.  In addition to the 30 single-player missions, you can also compete in the Arena by challenging 50 other AC's to work your way up from bottom-ranked newb to the most feared Merc on Mars.  

If you want to unseat top ranked pilot Ares in his AC Providence you'd better be damn good because he won't give up the crown easily
 The game plays as a 3rd person shooter, albeit from inside a 3-story multi-ton mecha called Armored Cores, referred to as AC's for short.  Contracts task you with using the considerable arsenal at your disposal to destroy enemy MTs (the game's grunt-level units), target valuable enemy assets or defend assets of the corporation that hired you, assassinate specific targets, or just raise hell for rival corporations by causing as much damage to their infrastructure as you can.  Because the Ravens operate independently you will often find yourself accepting contracts from each of the various factions.  This will occasionally result in one of them putting out a hit on you, and a contract that appears to be a cakewalk can quickly turn sour as you find yourself beset by other AC's trying to intervene.  Like any true mercenary, you'll want to carefully manage your cash flow to ensure you can purchase needed upgrades, resupply your ammo, and cover any necessary repairs.  Any damage your AC incurs will come out of your paycheck, potentially wiping out any earnings from completing the assignment.  This task is made easier thanks to the new overboost feature that allows you to achieve flight for short periods before either running out of energy or overheating.  

The garage is not just where you build and customize your AC, but also where you test out your creations.  This heavily armored AC uses a hover tank for legs, but will the combo prove to taxing for its generator?
The heart of this game is found in customizing your AC between contracts, and the sheer number of options is truly staggering.  Heads, arms, legs, shoulder mounted accessories/weapons, and internal components like generators and radiators all have a variety of effects on your AC's performance in battle.  You must balance weight and power requirements when building your AC while also keeping track of the various bonuses or limitations of each individual part.  These customizations influence movement speed, armor, targeting systems, energy output, the number of weapons you can equip and even whether or not you have access to in-game radar systems.  There are 14 different component categories to personalize, each with dozens of options to choose from, ensuring that you can build an AC to match your own gameplay tastes.  Like to move slowly and carry a big gun?  Bulk up your AC with high-armor parts, put it on tank treads to handle the weight, and fix heavy cannons to your shoulders capable of destroying enemies in a single blast.  Or maybe you prefer to stay nimble and get in close to do your dirty work?  In that case, stick with bipedal legs and maximize your boost output so you can fly in close and cut down enemies with you arm-mounted energy sword.  You can even personalize your paint scheme and design your own emblems in a graphical editor that puts the current version of Microsoft Paint to shame.  Even the in-game HUD can be adjusted to display in any color you can think of.  Just because you're a hired gun paid to destroy anything in your path doesn't mean you can't look good doing it.

Anyone who says hot pink isn't an appropriate HUD color for your giant deathbot can take it up with the business end of your grenade launcher.
And you have plenty of options when it comes to beautiful destruction.  Sniper rifles, rocket launchers, energy swords, shotguns, laser rifles, missile launchers, plasma cannons, flamethrowers and more can all be affixed to the various weapon slots on your AC's arms and shoulders.  Hell, you can even ditch your arms entirely and replace them with fixed dual-wielded weapons.  The type, weight and power of a weapon determines where it can be affixed and how many slots it uses, preventing you from unbalancing the game by equipping 4 MIRV launchers, for example.  You'll also want to carefully consider how your weapon choices fit your AC design philosophy.  For instance, if you like to keep on the move while fighting you probably don't want to equip a chain gun on your bipedal AC since it would require you to kneel in order to fire it.  But if you equip tank treads or quadrupedal legs this limitation is removed, allowing you to shower enemies with a constant stream of bullets while avoiding return fire.  In addition to the comprehensive list of offensive weapons, you can also equip defensive parts designed to evade target lock, deploy decoys, jam enemy radar, or replace your energy sword with a shield.  Simply put, there's enough options to play with that it's unlikely you'll find any two AC's that are exactly the same.

A complex game saddled with controls from a bygone era.  From Software successfully made the transition from the PS1 to the PS2 in terms of graphics, but couldn't manage the same feat with controls.  Instead of utilizing the PS2 controllers dual analog sticks for movement and targeting, From Software stuck with the same d-pad based scheme it used on the PS1.  While a few minutes of practice was enough to get the hang of things, manuevering in tight or crowded spaces was tricky and no amount of practice could ever make using the L2 and R2 buttons to aim up/down feel natural.  One couldn't help but notice how clunky the game felt compared to all the other games on the market that made use of dual analog sticks, and the reviews at the time universally docked the game on this point.  
Split-screen multiplayer is available in horizontal and vertical flavors, but given the difficulty in tracking airborne enemies it's best to stick to a vertical split.
When you combine the difficult control scheme with the dizzying array of customization options, it resulted in a game that was downright hostile to newcomers.  From Software remains well known for their focus on hardcore gamers and unflinchingly brutal difficulty levels, with their most recent creation Dark Souls being equally lauded and reviled as one of the most challenging games of all times.  Given their unwavering support for this kind of design philosophy in the face of the Wii/App era of casual gaming, it's no surprise they held the same viewpoint back in 2000.  Failing a contract meant you went home empty handed, but still had to deal with repair bills and restocking your ammo.  Other contracts required specific parts to navigate an area or destroy a target, regardless of whether or not you have the cash on hand to afford them.  This meant that less-skilled players could easily find themselves buried under an insurmountable debt, preventing them from advancing and requiring a fresh start to finish the game.  Even in the days before spastic waggling replaced fine-tuned motor control, tastes were shifting toward games that were more accessible and required a minimal investment to get into.  Armored Core 2 was most certainly not one of those games, and as a result it struggled to find an audience outside of mecha-obsessed Japan.

Depending on how you define success, you could argue the series has achieved it since the series has continued to survive thanks largely to its own inertia and Japan's unquenchable desire to see large robots fighting each other.  Armored Core V (actually the 14th installment) was released in early 2012 for PS3 and 360.  But despite a much needed overhaul on the controls, transitioning the Arena concept to online multiplayer and continual refinements across the board each new release sees weaker sales.  Even in Japan, where each interest remained steady after AC2 bombed in North America, sales have dropped with each successive entry.  

It's hard to blame this waning interest on the poor control mechanics and resulting negative press of a game that's over a decade old at this point.  Rather, I believe the decline of the mech-genre in general is evidence of the shift in game design towards intuitive and widely accessible controls and mechanics.  It's probably no coincidence that the rise of mech games coincided with a new era in gaming hardware capabilities.  When you look at the progression of just game controllers from the NES to the PS2 you see them becoming progressively more complex in an effort to increase the amount of player-controlled interaction, sometimes taking things a bit too far (I'm looking at you, Jaguar).  The mech simulation genre was tied pretty closely to this design philosophy, aiming to make players feel like they were in the cockpits controlling these massive machines.  I remember going to the first BattleTech center that opened in Navy Pier and being completely blown away by it.  Sitting in a fully enclosed pod, surrounded by dozens of buttons, throttles, peddles and levers, and playing live against others in similar centers around the world felt to me like the future.  

But things didn't pan out that way as minimalist designs have become the driving principle behind 21st century technology.  The PS3 and 360 both use controllers with a nearly identical button configuration as their predecessors, while Nintendo actually reduced the number of buttons from the Gamecube to the Wii and again with the Wii U's new tablet-style controller.  Perhaps given this focus on streamlining controls it was inevitable that the mech simulator genre with its emphasis on total immersion would fall by the wayside.  Steel Battalion for Xbox was perhaps the dying gasp from that school of design and is remembered more for the intricate $200 controller it was bundled with rather then its actual gameplay.  Thanks to the devotion fans of the simulator genre tend to exude, these types of games will likely be with us at least until actual giant mecha are available for purchase.  After BattleTech folded, the property was bought by Microsoft and became the MechWarrior series which continues to this day in upcoming release of free-to-play MechWarrior Online, currently in open-beta for anyone who wants to give it a try.  But I think it's safe to say that mainstream commercial success will remain out of reach for these games, and as far as the gamers who enjoy them are concerned, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

This back-mounted plasma cannon packs a serious punch, but also eats tons of energy and requires taking a knee before it can be fired.  Still, I bet most of you already made up your minds about it at the words "plasma cannon".

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  1. I just read through all you posts and I liked them. I have played many of the games listed. You make me wish I had played them all. Bookmarked you and will check back again soon.

  2. Clearly you are a gamer with impeccable taste. Thanks for reading, and be sure to join in the discussion on our Facebook page!

  3. Well, I have played this and loved the game, and I understand where you say it has problems with movement because it doesn't use the analog sticks for movement, but of course, they do something.
    Left: if you press down on it, you activate your extensions.
    Right: The core opens up and you do a super boost - like blast called Overboost (OB for short).