For those that played the original Armored Core back in 1997, they may remember with trepidation the final mission their Raven’s mecha had to undertake. For those that don’t, it was a massive level, so big in fact that it had to be split in half and have the player restocked and repaired mid-mission. It also had the trickiest level design in the entire game, with the player having to negotiate floating platforms in a never-ending tower of guaranteed death to those that lacked the necessary AC piloting skills. Then there was Nineball.
Nineball, and its pilot Hustler One, were listed as the top ranking AC and Raven combo and from the various e-mails received from enemy Ravens and greedy corporations, Nineball was a terrifying and truly formidable opponent. In the last mission you faced him, twice. Many who have played Armored Core will know the significance of Nineball and that of defeating the bugger. Thus in Armored Core 2 a new term was introduced into the world setting, given to pilots of exceptional skill and design prowess; Ninebreaker. It is this terminology, this legacy, even, that From Software has built their latest traditional Armored Core game around. The term is also fitting to the fact that this is the ninth iteration in the series.
Ninebreaker is a direct extension of Nexus. It uses the same game engine and the same parts, however despite the lineage much has been improved and added. Not only have subtle and ultimately beneficial modifications been made to the already existing parts list, with the reduced emphasis on overheating being a somewhat sage decision, but the whole game engine has been made that much more graphically taut and the controls more responsive. On the barebones foundation of gameplay, Ninebreaker supersedes Nexus in practically every way.
However, Ninebreaker is not your average Armored Core game. These modifications, whilst clearly beneficial in the context of Nexus, have a different level of significance in Ninebreaker. The reason why Ninebreaker is different is because the missions and story that grounded previous Armored Core games has been, very simply, removed. Its replacement is something the series has been calling out for since its creation; a training mode.
In place of missions we now have 150 training programs that cover every facet of gameplay, piloting skill and customisation. These programs are split into six general categories: Attack, Defence, Move, Special, Technic and Overall. Within each of those categories you then have five specific tests, such as missile evasion, lock-on skill or blading skills. Within each of those tests you then have five playable programs. Each program is ranked in difficulty and the player starts off easy and then has their skills pushed increasingly to their limit with each consecutive program. The fifth and final program in each test is based purely on how far the player can push themselves within the context of that program, this is then given a score which can then be uploaded to the new online ranking system. Upon completion of each program the player is awarded a medal (gold, silver or bronze) depending on their success at meeting the program’s criteria.
The training mode is excellent and it will make anyone a better Armored Core player. It truly teaches you every facet of the game, in some cases in such a subtle manner that the results aren’t initially apparent until they are taken into the field. It is also a highly compelling game mode: you want those gold medals and each time you fail (to which you get a prompt saying “nice joke!” at your feeble skills) it only fires you up to do better. The real purpose of all this training though is for human versus and this is why the mode is so important.
In addition to this new training mode we have an arena. To all intents and purposes this is the same arena setup from previous games; one on one fights against another AC in an enclosed area. The two main differences with Ninebreaker’s arena though are the way in which opponents are selected and the enemy AC AI.
Instead of directly selecting an opponent in the ranking list, you search for a similarly ranked opponent. You are then given a choice of opponents and upon beating several of these Ravens you will then be given the opportunity to enter into a ranking match and raise or lose your rank. It’s a more dynamic system and the list of opponents is massive, but the real reason why the arena is actually useful now is down to the AI.
The AI does things it never used to do; in short it does what a human player would do. AC’s hide behind cover now after a battering, they also break your strafing run by heading straight at you (something that human players do all the time). The list of AI nuances goes on, but all of these force the player to break up their tactics and experiment. It keeps you on your toes and each encounter is consequently more vibrant and exciting.
Couple this with the training mode and you have, pretty much, the ultimate hotbed for developing any player’s skills for a human versus encounter.
That’s what Ninebreaker is all about you see; versus gaming against a human opponent. It prepares you like no other game in the series and with all the balancing in the parts list and the tighter game engine it is also the best in terms of actual gameplay.
However, there is one very significant problem with Ninebreaker and it is as a direct result of this emphasis on human versus preparation. Nexus was a self-contained entity; you could replay missions on both discs and square off against arena opponents and feel satiated. The story was also well written and intelligent; the game was an engaging singleplayer experience. Though, like almost every Armored Core game, the real longevity was in versus play against another human player. The fact that Nexus lacked an online versus mode was highly unfortunate; the fact that Ninebreaker also lacks this feature is simply inexcusable.
All the training, all the arena matches against shrewd AI opponents amounts to almost nothing if you can’t have ready access to another similarly skilled human player. This is not to say that the training and arena aren’t great fun to work through; it’s just that after caning the game it won’t let you use what you have learned.
Admittedly, there are ways to play online with both Nexus and Ninebreaker (via tunnelling software) but it’s not online out of the box and consequently this service is not inclusive. It is also infuriating that in place of online versus we have an online ranking system on From Software’s new web based ranking portal, Nouten.com, which is utterly pointless. As a versus experience, Ninebreaker is up there with this generation’s greats and anyone that invests their time and skill will reap some truly invigorating versus matches in return. So it’s this lack of online multiplayer that really kicks the game in the teeth, especially after so many lesser titles have already made the transition.
For those who wish to import, much like with Nexus, it is highly advisable that you wait until the US release. All the part descriptions and stats are written in kanji and will require fluency in Japanese in order to understand fully. There is also a rather strange glitch for those who wish to load their Nexus save in Ninebreaker, a feature that many Armored Core games generally support. In loading your Nexus save you are unable to unlock a part in-game. Whereas if you start the game anew, the part is available from the off. Again, the US version will be wiser investment due to the possibility of this issue being addressed.
As a game, Ninebreaker is possibly the best in the series and it is because of this that the fact it lacks any online mode is verging on gaming sacrilege. For those that want to bash AC’s together around at a mate’s place, Ninebreaker is what you are after. For those that desire a huge vibrant online versus experience, tough. From Software clearly couldn’t care less. That being said, when you have achieved 149 of the 150 gold medals and finally face up to the new and vastly improved Nineball and finally best him in combat, you are awarded a new part; his head. A fitting end indeed.
[spoiler show=”Final Level Video”]