Upon news of the PlayStation Portable’s release, a slew of launch titles were announced. Among these was another entry into the successful Armored Core canon, this time going by the name of Armored Core Formula Front. However, due to the control limitations of the PSP, a direct port of an Armored Core game was not feasible. Despite this setback the team at From Software managed to find a solution to this problem.
The solution lay in the series’ former installments, most notably that of Armored Core Master of Arena and Armored Core 3 Silent Line; both games had a customisable AI function. To solve the control issues in Formula Front the controls were, very simply, removed. The player’s role now is purely to customise their AC and its AI. Matches are setup against other AI AC’s, run without player intervention and rely purely on the player’s prior competence at AC and AI customisation.
For the most part, the game is fun and satisfying. The AI constantly has to be adapted because opponents utilise different tactics and weapon set-ups; therefore many matches take on a problem-solving aspect. This keeps the game cerebral and engaging. AI customisation, as a whole, is also very well implemented. The AI for your AC is situated in its head, which means a good choice of head (such as one with a radar and a high number of “performance points” – more on this later) is clearly important.
AI customisation is split into three categories: character, performance and operations. Character determines the manner in which your AC will move and react to the enemy (such as long or short distance to your opponent and aggressive or defensive tactics) and, moreover, certain facets of character conflict with one another, so you can’t just max out each value.
Performance determines the intelligence of the AI. Each and every head also has a certain amount of performance points, and the larger the number the more intelligent your AI has the potential to become. The important word here is “potential”, because any aspect in the performance roster (such as geographical awareness or heat and energy management) can be maxed out, but it can and will leave other aspects lacking. Therefore, your AI’s intelligence is only as good as you make it. Operations are the final part of the AI customisation equation. These are AI chips that offer a specific tactic or complex manoeuvre that would be otherwise impossible via the character and performance categories. The chips work over periods of thirty seconds and cease to function after that time.
All three categories need to be customised to work in harmony with one another and the AC’s part configuration. Setting a sniper AC to short range with poor geographical awareness and a chip that encourages your AC to detach it’s parts is tantamount to disaster. It is impressive, though, to realise that the massive parts list (with over four billion possible combinations) and the deep AI customisation all mesh so very well together.
Formula Front does have its faults, However. Despite the AI being particularly well thought out, it can be a little infuriating to begin with that you are unable to directly control your AC, especially when a loss is received due to a mistake that a human player could have avoided. Admittedly this is purely down to the player’s quality of AI customisation, but it can initially grate.
Secondly, the AI has trouble utilising back weapons. For example, a tank equipping heavy fire-power won’t always switch to its more powerful back weapons unless the right arm weapon is left unequipped. Admittedly, back weapons are used by the AI, but the only sure fire way to guarantee that those dual grenade launchers will come to bear is to actually not equip a right arm weapon at all (this is also a tactic an enemy AC also uses, so it’s clear that From Software knew of this glitch).
Thirdly, the language barrier is terminal for players who are non-Japanese literate. All the parts descriptions and AI titles are in kanji, which will leave players flying blind and, as such, it is highly recommended that importers abstain on the Japanese release and wait for an English language version to surface. If you have prior experience with either Armored Core Nexus or Armored Core Ninebreaker, though, then the nuances of AC customisation should be second nature in Formula Front (it uses the same parts list after all, though with a few additions). Admittedly, the AI will be something of a mystery, but the game will at least be playable.
There are also some loading time issues, with many of the customisation menus taking more time to load, access and exit than they really ought to. It is also needs to be said that the new garage music is possibly the worst in the series, and can really irritate during an extended session of AC customisation.
The last slightly unfortunate aspect of Formula Front is that the game itself is rather short. There are only two leagues available on the PSP version (though a third is planned for the PS2 release, hence warranting the connect-ability between the two versions). Completion can be easily attained in under five hours, if you can understand how the AI and AC customisation works.
Admittedly, the latter point is somewhat moot simply because Armored Core is a series that is predominantly focused on human versus combat. Formula Front is no different in this respect and wireless versus against another player’s roster of uber-AI AC’s is a lot of fun indeed. Formula Front is also a game that exudes a real visual flair, from the stunning opening FMV to the general design and layout of the menus and user interface. The teams that also make up the Formula Front world, and their subsequent funky iconography, really make for a different feel (especially for an Armored Core game). Graphically Formula Front is using the Nexus and Ninebreaker engine, though obviously toned down. The new arenas and the cleaning up of some older arenas also look stunning in-game. The weapon effects and explosions, again, are also visually impressive and do admirably show off the capabilities of Sony’s new handheld.
Overall, Formula Front is a brave, new and fresh attempt at pushing the Armored Core franchise into uncharted territory. It is also a lot of fun to play, and that is the only endorsement that really matters.
Note: The version reviewed is the original Japanese launch release and doesn’t include the manual control options seen in later revisions.