I remember the release of the original Armored Core 3 on the PlayStation 2 quite vividly. Living in Japan at the time, most shops offered midnight sales on the day of release. However, From Software had cut a deal with a number of convenience store chains meaning that you could buy the game pretty much anywhere. Still, in the middle of nowhere I queued at midnight. That’s right, queued. There were at least thirty people in the line as well, it seemed that even in the remote Japanese countryside people really quite wanted some of that Armored Core 3.
In any case, the original game was sublimely good (check out our review if you don’t believe us) so the thought of a handy portable version would be suitably brilliant, right? Well, unfortunately no. Armored Core 3 Portable is rife with a number of severe issues that render the original game virtually unplayable in parts and mostly frustrating in others.
Armored Core 3 was intended as a reboot after the rushed debacle of the first two PlayStation 2 games. It boasted a very impressive draw distance, solid framerate and a whole new engine with an emphasis on how the original PlayStation games operated. The game had all new and suitably gritty designs by Shoji Kawamori too and it even offered 4 player versus, a then first for the series. In Japan it also offered online multiplayer, via a USB modem setup. It was a very crafted game and one that expected suitably precise player inputs.
So when Armored Core jumped to the PSP with Formula Front at the hardware’s launch, many weren’t overly surprised that the action element had been removed in favour of something more akin to Carnage Heart. Where you build and program an AC to fight on its own. Following on from this was an update to the game, called Formula Front International, which afforded player control whilst retaining the AI elements. However, realising that the button configuration on the PSP wasn’t a good fit some functional considerations had to be made.
One of the more tricky control elements in the original games, until Nexus at least, was how the player looked up and down. This was strangely handled by the shoulder buttons and many just gave up as they felt it was unwieldy. That said with enough practice the shoulder buttons made sense as you could still boost, change weapons, fire, strafe, use your laserblade and all manner of other inputs whilst still resting your fingers on the shoulder buttons ready to change where you were looking. Admittedly, you could reconfigure the button layout but the default setup actually worked very well (once you’d spent some time with it at least).
On the PSP though, this option isn’t really available. So in Formula Front International, looking up and down was handled automatically for the player and it worked. Consequently making the game manageable on a handheld. In the latest port of Armored Core 3, this option is nowhere to be seen.
To really clarify this, what this means is that in an arena encounter against another AC who likes to be spend time airborne you’re having to sacrifice several inputs before taking your fingers away from the buttons to try and look up at your target. This makes what was once a very fluid and tactile game play very disjointedly. Plus, there isn’t the learning curve that renders this issue moot any more as you will always need to let go of at least a few inputs to look up or down. Whilst the original Armored Core games were harsh in their expectation in having the player deal with practically all the buttons on the pad, they were also quite fair as it always meant – with practice – you could instantaneously control every facet of your AC.
Now, this Armored Core 3 port could have been rebalanced to take all into account but unfortunately this isn’t the case. The game is identical in terms of the enemy scripting, so they behave the same despite the control handicap. This makes what were once pretty straightforward missions a real slog and ultimately quite frustrating. In addition, Armored Core 3 was never an easy game and this lack of rebalancing makes the port feel quite arduous in places. Admittedly, if you restrict your basic movements and attacks you can just about scrape through a mission but that’s missing the point really.
All this though isn’t the real problem with the game, though it obviously doesn’t help. The main issue, that renders the above almost trivial, is down to the game’s reduced input framerate.
Normally, most games keep their input framerate high so even if the visuals falter your controls won’t entirely let you down. Admittedly, if the graphical side of things does grind to a halt then obviously the controls will be affected too but you should never sacrifice your input framerate over your visual. Well, From Software did exactly that on this port. So whilst visually the framerate is mostly solid, your inputs really aren’t. What’s worse you don’t have the visual framerate drop feedback as to why this is happening and coupled with the lack of mission rebalancing the final result is quite depressing.
The main probable reason for this is that the port is still appearing to use the same disc reading code from the PlayStation 2 version, as it’s constantly reading data from the UMD (which also neuters your battery life). Having a data install option would have made a world of difference and would have at least rendered the game moderately playable. There are other stupid things as too, like the awful draw distance and that it also doesn’t look that great for a PSP game either. So even with the new parts, of which there are a few, replaying what was once a great game in this way just ruins the whole experience.
In case people are curious, I still managed to S rank all the missions and unlock all the parts too but it was by no means an enjoyable endeavour (like it originally was on the PlayStation 2). Honestly, if you liked and enjoyed Armored Core 3 in any way leave this port well alone. It’s pretty much unplayable.
This review was undertaken via the Japanese UMD release. The digitally distributed US version may operate more smoothly, as it won’t be using the UMD drive to access the game’s data.