Developer: From Software / Publisher: Namco Bandai / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB Teen [Mild Language, Violence]
For years, the Armored Core games have taken a semi-realistic approach to mech action games. But while this series has grown so complicated that it would be nearly impossible for anyone new to join in on the fun, this latest installment also has some serious visual issues that may irritate even the most ardent fans.
Set in the not-so-distant future, you star as a pilot of a bipedal robotic war machine, or mech, in the middle of a massive war. Why you’re actually doing any of this, however, is a bit of a mystery because this game does such a bad job of telling its story. Sure, it has cut scenes and dialog and whatnot, but unless you’re a longtime fans of these games, you’ll probably find its narrative to be inscrutable. What’s worse, it’s terribly melodramatic, with mech pilots acting more like high schoolers worried about “he said, she said” situations than trained soldiers in a combat situation. Best to just ignore it and just shoot anything that moves.
At its core (no pun intended), Armored Core V is a third-person shooter, but with you piloting a mech instead of running around on foot. You can even fully customize your mech, and not just aesthetically (though the game does have a lot of decals and color swatches to make your mech look oh-so-pretty). Besides different heads, torsos, and extremities, there’s a wide variety of guns and missile launchers you can attach to your arms and right shoulder, though you do need to be mindful of how much energy they consume and how much weight they’ll add.
What makes the core combat fun is that it takes real advantage of its urban settings. When fighting in bombed out city streets, your enemies will often head for the rooftops so they can fire down on you. Conversely, you can use buildings for cover when the gunfire gets too frantic. You can even, depending on the mode, plan out your attack with your teammates.
More importantly, you fight a good variety of enemies, from fellow mechs and helicopters to futuristic sentries and gigantic robots that would make Mechagodzilla feel inadequate. It’s just too bad the tanks don’t put up much of a fight.
For longtime fans of this series, the biggest change for this fifth edition is an increased focus on online play. While it does have a story-driven single-player mode — which consists of ten multi-part missions and 83 mini side missions — even it works better when you have a friend tag along, as the game’s difficulty has a tendency to ramp up rather quickly.
Of the online modes, the centerpiece is Conquest, which plays like Team Deathmatch. Except that winning a match doesn’t just give you experience points and bragging rights, but control over that small section of the map as well. The more territory you control, the better your team’s stats will be, and the better equipment you can buy for your mech.
You can even use a bit of strategy before you begin a match, deciding where on the map you’d like to spawn. And if that’s not enough, the Mock Battle mode lets you practice a battle against the computer to see how your team will do, so you can figure out the best plan of a attack.
You also don’t just form a team for that one match, though. When you start playing Armored Core V, you’ll actually join a persistent online team, which works like a guild in an MMO. And while you can switch teams whenever you want, the idea is to form a good one and stick with it, working together for the greater good.
Which is not to say you can only play when you’re whole team is online, as the game has other modes that let you play with other people. There are, for example, individual Conquest-style battles that require other people to play. Unlike the regular Conquest mode, though, these have more variety in that you’re not just killing the other team. Instead, one side has to take out all the helicopters in an area while the other has to protect them. Or, if you prefer, one side can protect some valuable information while the other team tries to steal it.
There’s also a regular Team Deathmatch mode called Free Battle. It’s too bad it’s not that fun since, unlike TDM in other games, you don’t respawn when your mech gets destroyed. Instead, you’re reduced to being a guy with a really big jetpack, who can fly around and offer recon. You do have a gun, but it’s like using a pea-shooter against a battleship.
Still, if you’d prefer to play alone, the Story Mode will give you plenty to shoot at. While the Order missions are short and simple — most have you just gunning for one or a handful of enemies, and can be completed in just a few minutes — the more formal Story missions have multiple objectives. Granted, they still just consist of taking out some enemies, and then taking out some other enemies, but they do mix those enemy types up, while adding such side objectives as “take out 10 helicopters” or “destroy 15 tanks.”
When engaged in combat, the controls of Armored Core V are smooth, intuitive, and responsive. While your mech doesn’t go very fast when it’s walking, the jets on your feet makes your mech swiftly slide around the world like an Olympic ice skater.
Shooting is equally intuitive, as the left and right trigger buttons on your controller corresponding to the guns on your left and right arms, respectfully. Again, these controls are responsive, and while trying to hit something manually is nearly impossible, thanks to a targeting reticule that’s so thin and such a slight shade of orange it’s practically invisible, your mech does have effective auto-targeting.
In combat, Armored Core V takes the gritty realistic visuals of a Call of Duty or Battlefield game, and mixes it with the cyberpunk flavoring of a Matrix movie.
It’s just too bad the rest of the game’s visuals aren’t as spot-on. For starters, your HUD consists of a large circle that distractingly fills your view. It’s also rather unsightly, like something a first-year graphic design student would put together at the last minute because they got so wasted last night, dude.
There are also a number of scenarios where there’s lots of little objects floating in the air. Sometimes it’s snow, sometimes it’s burning ash, and it’s obviously an attempt to give this some atmosphere, but it never really has the desired effect. Instead, it just clutters up the screen, making the otherwise interesting visuals look unsightly.
To combat this, you could use your mech’s scanning mode, which can identify your objectives and targets on screen. But this, oddly, turns off your weapons. Because that’s what you want to do in a warzone, turn off your weapons.
It also doesn’t help that the layout and fonts of the menus are ugly and overly busy. Especially since there’s so much to this game that having it so badly organized will not only turn off new players but will probably irritate veterans of the series, as well. It is easily the most user un-friendly game we’ve seen in years.
For veteran of this series, the numerous modes and customizing options in Armored Core V will keep you engaged for a long time. It’s just too bad some of that time will be spent trying to figure out the ugly and convoluted menus; is it really that hard to set up sections for the “Single Player,” “Co-op,” and “Multiplayer” modes? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, while it’s not hard finding the next story mission on the world map, making us manually scroll to each one ruins any kind of narrative flow.
It also doesn’t help, as we mentioned, that some of the visuals are also annoying. Again, the obtrusive HUD and messy atmospheric bits aren’t bad enough to ruin this, but as with some of the questionable facets of this game, you can’t help but wonder how much more fun it would be without them.