Forcing balance can be a tricky thing with game design, especially when it comes to sequels. If you have already set a precedent on acquiring ever more powerful weapons in a game franchise, to deny that in a sequel would (most probably) irritate the hell out of your customers. In this particular case, From Software got it right.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, where mankind has retreated to the sanctuary of underground cities, humanity is still in the throws of petty corporate warfare. Disregarding the possibility of human extinction, the corporate schmucks decide to speed up the carnage by hiring mercenaries. This is where you come in. Your ride of choice is a fully customisable mechanical monstrosity, an avatar of destruction if you will. You goal is to take on missions and proceed to earn cash to buy more parts that can kill things quicker. In short, it is great cathartic fun.
The big changes in Armored Core 3 are several fold. The first big change is that the game is now four player. Matches can either be free for all or team based. When team based, the first side to destroy the opponent’s “Leader” wins. A system not all that different from Hitmaker’s (rather disappointing) Virtual On Force. In the missions part of the game this follows on somewhat. On some missions you are allowed to hire “consorts” to help you out, this can be extremely helpful on some missions.
The next addition is that of “Exceed Orbits” (EO). These are, essentially, parts of the core that detach and fire at opponents at will (partially similar to the funnels/bits within the Gundam franchise). This means there are now two types of core to choose from, EO or OB (Over Boost). EOs are good for adding extra firepower(if they hit), whereas having an OB function allows a Holy Grail-esque type of “Run Away!!” tactic. Thankfully EO shots regenerate, giving the player unlimited ammo.
Yet another addition to the game is the function of being able to “purge” parts mid-game. Once you have depleted a weapon’s ammo cache you detach it, freeing up some waiting and energy resources (allowing you to move around more freely). Some of the more cheeky players have been known to equip super heavy parts, detach them at the beginning of the match and wait until their opponent inadvertently picks it up. Thus slowing them down and making them an easier target.
The last big addition is that of left-arm weapons. Previously only laserblades (and then shields) were only equipped on the left-arm (the right-arm was for pure firepower). Now you can equip all manner of weapons on the left arm (from howitzers to flamethrowers). Naturally hosing an opponent down with a flamethrower whilst, simultaneously, drilling a hole in them with machine gun fire is immensely satisfying (popping out a few EOs at this juncture also helps to rank up the “fun” level).
To anyone that has played the previous five games (yep, I said five) all this information may seem a little redundant. To that I agree, however Armored Core 3 is profoundly different from its precursors. In the previous games it was possible to use a special set of powers called “kyokaningen” (human plus) and “juryokata” (over weight), when used, vast swathes of the parts list became irrelevant. Why use a tank, which can fire back cannons while moving, when you can do it on a superfast lightweight biped? This problem has been addressed for Armored Core 3.
If you wish to overload your Core you have to pay a hefty price. You move like a rock. That isn’t all either. If you wish to use human plus attributes, you now have to equip an option part called OP-INTENSIFY. In order to use the attributes you have to earn them by completing certain tasks within the game (this also goes for certain secret parts too), a stark contrast to the “fail and get rewarded” game mechanic of the previous games. Even then, once this option part is equipped, you cannot use any other option parts. Shell or energy defense screens? No. FCS window enlarger? No. This balancing gives you no other choice but to appreciate the sheer blinding genius of the intricate parts system.
This I can utterly assure you, the parts system is now balanced nirvana. You want to equip the new Karasawa, feel free. Now it no longer stuns and it weighs a ton. Equip it and realise that you will need skill in order to utilise it properly. Otherwise you will fritter your shots away and become a harmless harbinger of incompetence.
On to more superficial matters, aurally and graphically the game is particularly accomplished. The game fully utilises Dolby’s “Pro Logic II” surround sound. This means that you can really hear the aural detail and direction when a fellow player laserblades your back with coldhearted precision. The music is also vastly different from what we are used in this franchise. Gone is the bland techno, instead we now have a touch of pathos added to the harmonic proceedings.
Graphically it is astounding. Considering that both Armored Core 2 (and Another Age) were produced on this same system, it makes Armored Core 3 look all the more impressive. The design work (by Shoji Kawamori no less) is crisp, clean and superbly detailed. There are also vast swathes of extra environmental effects (eg – heat shimmering for the boosters and discarded shells from machine gun fire). Gone is the abysmal draw distance and fogginess of the previous PlaySation 2 incarnations, instead we now have a beautiful ubiquitous clarity.
Following on from this somewhat, many players of the previous PlayStation 2 games would be well acquainted with the John Woo-esque super slowdown that these games offered. Firing missiles (among other things) resulted in the game freezing up and frustrating a fair few gameplayers. First off, there is very little slowdown now (none in two player versus). Secondly the games moves much faster now, superfast in fact. The net effect is that the game is now fun to play. In closing I would like to iterate how damn fine a game this is,here’s hoping that it is commonly appreciated as such.
There is also a PSP port of this game now available but due to somewhat simplified control inputs and a more erratic framerate it is regarded by this reviewer as being consequently quite inferior.
[spoiler show=”Final Level Video”]