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Let’s Talk About Mechs, Baby

Let’s Talk About Mechs, Baby published on

I have a funny history of sorts with the Armored Core series. Even though I love the daylights out of the games now, I actually didn’t care for it too much at first. I was kind of going through a phase where I was more into the Super Robot sub genre (like say, Voltron and Gaogaigar), and while I liked the tabletop version of Battletech, the Mechwarrior games felt too clunky and restrictive for my tastes. Basically, I went in hoping for something more “anime” and threw together something that looked “cool” but was horribly overweight and couldn’t do anything without depleting its energy meter and get shot to pieces. Years later, I found myself jonesing for more robot combat and gave Armored Core 4 a shot, but still wasn’t impressed, in this case it was more a fault of mission design than skewed expectations.(Seriously, the mission Aerial Interdiction was responsible for my shelving and later reselling the game between its combination of a last second sidetrack to destroy a train that leaves the mission area faster than you can reach it if you weren’t already expecting it and a really obnoxious sunset bloom filter.)

Somehow, I still kept giving the series chances to impress me. Maybe it was the shortage of half decent mech games. Later around the holidays, I decided to get one of the Portable games for my PSP thinking I would give it more of a shot if I was stuck someplace with it waiting on my memory stick. Because I’m a complete moron, I wound up deciding to order Last Raven Portable “because it has the most parts to work with.”

This is where Present Me laughs at Past Me, loudly and scornfully.

See, Armored Core is a series from the makers of Dark Souls. That both means that it carries From Software’s hallmarks of unforgiving gameplay that is immensely satisfying once it finally clicks, and more importantly hiding most of the lore in bios and offhand mentions within flavor text and leaving it to the player to piece the bigger story together. What I’m basically getting to here is that I picked the ultra hard conclusion title to the Armored Core 3 sub-series and was thoroughly, embarassingly trounced but unable to put it down. I hadn’t fully gotten over my habit of thinking full on ‘anime,’ so I still painted my AC up like Optimus Prime, but I was starting to play by the rules. Eventually, I still gave up on it, but decided to try Armored Core 3 Portable instead and fell in love with it. All the pieces finally fell into place for me- the setting was basically a hybrid of Shadowrun and Battletech, the difficulty was more reasonable, and I started to find part combinations and builds that suited me, specifically. I started to feel like I was really getting into the setting- I’d lose an Arena fight then start scouring their bio for hints on their weaknesses and strengths or seeing them as a rival if they beat me too many times. I’m probably a little too attached to Royal Mist after spending ages trying to beat him, then hiring him as a wingman pretty much any time he became available. From there, I played the other Portable installment, Silent Line, then felt ready to attempt Last Raven again with all of my imported data and goodies.

Of course, the engine was completely overhauled in between Silent Line and Last Raven, to the point you *can’t* import files on the original PS2 version, so all of my endgame mechs were rebalanced to suck and many parts were removed (including OP-INTENSIFY, a postgame ‘cheat’ part that redeems itself by making you unlock all of its functions one by one.) As such, Last Raven remains a test of skill and knowing just what part to use for what mission. It also progresses in a different way than its predecessors, along a Devil Survivor-like timeline where taking missions takes away time leading towards a final showdown between the two surviving forces. Combined with the ‘countdown’ of remaining AC pilots (the titular Ravens), it’s just a really exciting, engaging scenario to me. As suggested in the title, the true ending leaves you as the Last Raven with nobody left to oppose you. It’s kind of satisfyingly grim.

So, I wound up playing the rest of the series more or less backwards, finishing For Answer then returning to 2 and sampling the PS1 games, and enjoying V and Verdict Day for… what they were. I’ve even gone through the oddball “non game” Formula Front, which was a tournament based game where you fought mostly through AC’s equipped with custom programmed AI routines. Interestingly, Verdict Day brought the idea back with programmable UNAC partners controlled by a system called Formula Brain.

One thing I really love about AC is the mechanical design. (This was actually the thing I was going to blather on about in the first place, but got nostalgic and stuff.) Shoji Kawamori of the Macross series worked on several of the games, most notably the White Glint pictured up top, and the direction most AC designs take is a mix of gritty and sleek that I can best compare to how cars are built. Most AC’s blend pistons and dark, busy internals with shiny, streamlined outer paneling- It’s an aesthetic that really sells the idea that these are the kind of machine self-made soldiers would spend countless hours tweaking and bragging about to each other. Hell, if you go look up Armored Core videos on Youtube, most of the comment threads beneath them have at least someone talking about their old AC builds by name. It’s pretty neat the game inspires that in some people, and part of this is due to the level of customization letting you personalize your machine to your style instead of there being clear “best” parts and weapons you equip to keep your stats on a constant upward trend.

I feel like this really peaked in AC3- environments had enough variety that using the ‘weird’ leg types was actually an appealing idea for one. AC4 and 4A let basically anything fly and an auto hover feature has been present from 4 onward making the old Hover type somewhat pointless (though I’d argue they had a different enough play style they were worth keeping.) On top of the variety of parts available, you could also slot in optional upgrades for little fringe benefits, and Last Raven added a free tuning feature for individual parts for just a slight extra edge. (Tuning exists in other installments but is a bit less flexible.) 4 is still loads of fun, but it and its follow up For Answer especially get a little too focused on sheer power and speed focus while making most common enemies completely pathetic. They are to AC what Gundam Wing is to 08th MS Team, basically.

V and VD are both very solid games, and probably have the most intuitive controls in the series yet. At the same time there are some… curious design choices in it that make it hard for me to give an extra enthusiastic thumbs up. For starters, there’s a strange rock-paper-scissors system in play with weapons and armor, with the resistances being tied to specific weight classes (sort of justified by the realistic-ish designs- light chassis rely on deflection angles more than thickness so they resist bullet fire, medium weight designs feature extra paneling to resist explosives, and heavyweights have thick, insulated armor that resists heat from energy weapons.)

More odd for me was the shift in focus towards online squad based combat. Part of the ‘atmosphere’ in the older games was the sense of isolation and detachment you get from them- you frequently work alone, you never see anyone else face to face and communicate through email and briefing reels. In universe the massed AC combat also seems a little weird because AC’s are established as excavated and restored from scrap, with part quality being partly linked to what generation of tech it’s derived from the original. (The ‘lost technology’ angle does lead to a pretty sweet endgame reveal.) Unfortunately, though, the games are clearly balanced in parts towards ‘raid’ encounters where you have a full team wearing down the insane amount of hit points some bosses get. Awesome as it is, the end boss of Verdict Day in particular is easiest to deal with by you and your UNAC (or a teammate) loading up as much armor as possible along with a pair of autocannons and backup machine or sniper rifles.

Still, can’t deny I had some fun time running missions with Talking Tyrants and other friends and even did some dueling. I was glad that there was a focus on making builds more diverse again and combat was more grounded (literally) and strategic again. I think it’s telling that my For Answer machine by the end was a biped with dual rifles whereas my regular in VD wound up being a 4-legged sniper with automated shoulder guns that would buy me time to ditch the sniper cannon if someone snuck up.

It’d be really nice to see FROM take a break from Dark Souls and revisit Armored Core again sometime. A game taking cues from both would certainly be interesting, though my ideal thing for them to put out would just be a remastered AC3 timeline collection. The great thing is it isn’t completely impossible. Nexus on PS2 came with a bonus disc of classic levels redone in the new engine with alternate versions added. It’s a pretty amazing thing to see from a developer and I’d love to see more companies include this kind of extra along with an anniversary title or something (cough, cough, Metal Gear Legacy Collection, cough download voucher for PS1 classic instead of even a lazy on-disk emulation. Cough.)

P.S.- I didn’t really latch onto AC1 and AC2 and their spinoffs quite as much as 3, but they’re still pretty fun.

P.P.S.- If you can stand the kiddy atmosphere, I actually really like the customization in LBX: Little Battlers Experience and it is also pretty good for a fix.

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