Reviewed: June 26, 2005
Released: June 13, 2006
You’ve got to hand it to the folks at Agetec: when they think of something that works, they stick with it. The “Armored Core” series has thrived for almost a decade with three principle games and several not-quite-stand-alone expansion titles, including the recent “Nexus” and “Nine Breaker”. Through it all “AC” has remained consistently…well, consistent, with little deviation from its entertaining formula: action-packed single player missions, a one-on-one arena mode, and LOTS of cool customized parts and pieces to tinker with.
Now, with Armored Core: Last Raven”, Agetec has unveiled its fourth chapter of the mech combat anthology, a swan song of sorts since it’s likely to be the last on the PS2. Consistency, however, can be a double-edged sword. As we stand on the brink of a new era of ultra-realistic gaming, can the aging “Core” keep up?
If you managed to miss “Armored Core”’s previous efforts, I’ll bring you up to speed: it’s the future, and warfare as we know it has been turned on its ear thanks to Armored Cores, or ACs, enormous mechanized battle suits that combine the fire power of a fighter jet with the resiliency of a tank, all in an agile exoskeleton. Freelance mercenaries, called Ravens, custom-tailor these ACs with radical weaponry and offer their services for big cash.
In previous games Ravens fought for and against rival corporations seeking to carve the galaxy up among themselves. In “Last Raven” these corporations have banded together into a single, all-powerful organization called Alliance, and basically rule the world. Opposing Alliance is Vertex, a revolutionary faction that makes up for in bloodlust what it lacks in resources. As always, you can fight for whomever you please, gunning exclusively for one side or playing both ends against the middle by simply working for the highest bidder. For the first time in the “Core” series, however, the contracts you fulfill will significantly influence the way the game unfolds, with as many as SIX different endings depending on where you place your loyalties.
You live or die by the strength of your AC, which you can customize to thousands of possible configurations with the myriad of available arms, legs, heads, generators, computers, and, of course, weapons. Use your imagination – do you want a fast, stealthy little dragonfly or a lumbering behemoth with tank-tread legs and twin grenade launchers? Maybe you’ll want a balanced machine to cope with the variety of challenges you’ll face. Fortunately “Last Raven” boasts a bigger selection of AC parts than ever, making your potential combinations near-infinite. Think carefully before you purchase that shoulder-mounted plasma cannon, however, since AC legs can only carry so much weight and AC generators can only power so many gadgets at once.
“Last Raven” has a new feature in which you can suffer damage to specific AC parts. If you take too much damage to your legs, for example, you’ll slow to a crawl, or get hit in the arm and you may find yourself ditching the busted limb and slogging on without it, weaponless. Also new to this game is the “tuning” feature, which allows you to toy with the stats on any item you equip, improving defense, decreasing weight, and generally getting more out of your hardware. The idea is to maximize the good features while cutting down on anything that might hamper you, like overly heavy armor or an inefficient generator. This is the kind of thing detail-oriented micro-managers just eat up. Trying to create the best AC for your money is easily half the fun of the “Armored Core” series and this latest title is no exception.
The mission segment of the game runs the gamut from entertaining to impossibly tedious. The best assignments place you in wide open environments where you can stretch your legs and participate in some simple, super-satisfying destruction. Occasionally you may be contracted to kill another Raven. These are awesome missions because they pay extremely well and they usually result in terrific, intense head-to-head battles in cool settings. Too often, however, the missions require you to be indoors or underground, navigating cramped tunnels where there is barely room to pivot, much less enjoy all your rocket-powered mobility. I had hoped at this point in the series “AC” would’ve done away with all the claustrophobic sewer and hallway levels, but no dice.
Though you can cherry-pick most of the missions, certain ones are unavoidable, being the ones that advance the tepid plot. Each successful assignment nudges you closer to Vertex’s zero hour for a massive counter-strike against Alliance, at which point all hell breaks loose and the few Ravens who haven’t already been killed go to the trenches for their chosen side. The countdown idea is a good once since it adds some suspense to the story and gives you a reason to keep playing the mission mode.
Unfortunately some objectives can be maddeningly vague and leave almost no room for error. It’s not uncommon to fail a mission in less than one minute, requiring you to restart over and over until you get some inkling as to how not to screw up. One early level at a power plant demands such ludicrous amounts of trial and error it becomes unintentionally funny because it seems so stupidly, over-the-top difficult. On the plus side, the developers have snuck in some slightly more unique challenges to the usual search-and-destroy, escort, and defensive missions by adding neat – and darn annoying – features like EMP zones where your AC refuses to function, or making you work in the dark for the duration of a level. At least they keep you on your toes.
Infinitely more fun and tedium-free is the VR Arena, the futuristic Coliseum where you and your fellow Ravens can pound each other into oblivion and win big bucks in the process. After shredding the first couple of challengers things can quickly turn ugly. Your opponents are GOOD, though the AI can be a bit ditzy on occasion, and you may have to resort to some unorthodox strategies to defeat them. Indeed, a few Ravens seem almost unbeatable, but the thrill of victory is a potent incentive to keep after ‘em, and it’s a nice distraction from the mission segment. I did notice that the arenas in “Last Raven” aren’t anywhere near as creative and fun to look at as in previous “AC” games, and the computer chooses your dueling site rather than the player. Boo. Hiss.
The AC control scheme has undergone a minor overhaul, with all of the most vital functions (shooting, boosting, switching weapons) nicely streamlined. Now you can fight, move, fly, and interact using only the analog sticks and “L” and “R” buttons, no D-pad required. This isn’t anything earth shattering but it’s definitely worth mentioning since mech combat games can often get hung up on the complexity of the controls.
“Last Raven” looks about the same as “AC”’s previous PS2 efforts, but again this is simply because the designers made it look really good to begin with. The opening animations are positively jaw-dropping, appearing at least as advanced as the CG in, say, “Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within”. In-game graphics are clean and colorful, with lots of explosions and loads of action onscreen at any given moment, pleasantly free of processor lag. The texture mapping is more sophisticated this time around, pushing the PS2 just a little further than it’s gone in previous AC titles. All the environments have a greater sense of depth and size and there are tons of pre-rendered details all the way to the horizon. All this combined with negligible load times definitely make the graphics something to crow about. The fact that it looks as good as it does only adds to the frustration that so many missions take place indoors and under domes where there isn’t much to look at anyway. It’s here you may encounter the occasional camera jitter or phantom wall, but it’s a minor annoyance at best.
The “Armored Core” series boasts some of the lamest, most overdone voice-overs this side of “Soul Calibur”. I can report with confidence that “Last Raven”, in keeping with Agetec’s commitment to consistency, is no different. But who cares if it sounds like they’re reading from cue cards? You’re not playing a mech combat game for the stellar dialogue. You’re playing it for the wonderfully satisfying explosions, which this game has in spades. The effects are great, if a tad quiet (I recommend fiddling with the sound options to pump up the volume), right down to the oh-so-sweet “stomp” you hear every time your AC takes a step. Virtually every weapon in the game has a slightly different sound, giving them a kind of identity that sets them apart, especially the lightsaber-esque energy blades that thrum like a too-tight guitar string whenever you tackle the enemy up close.
The mission mode is oddly quiet, big on effects but devoid of any music that might put you in the mood. The Arena battles, however, are complimented beautifully by pulsating, techno-heavy tracks reminiscent of “The Matrix” or the “Devil May Cry” series, though there are too few of them to really mix it up. What a perfect fit, though, for the glossy future “Last Raven” depicts – a synthesizer’s dream come true.
“Last Raven” has a lot to offer the player, probably more than any previous “AC” title. For the first time in the series there is an actual incentive to play the story mode through multiple times since the missions you choose will influence how the game ends. You can support the radical Vertex movement exclusively, for example, and things will turn out very differently than if you had gunned for Alliance the whole time. The only way to do every mission the game has to offer is to play though several times. This was a great idea on the part of the developers as it makes “Last Raven” a meatier package for the serious single player.
The Arena segment is a blast start to finish, and players can go back and re-fight their favorite battles anytime, using different AC configurations and trying new strategies. There is also a two player versus mode and an online option in which you can challenge as many as three other players in free-for-all or team battle. Veterans of “Nexus” and “Nine Breaker” will be pleased to hear you can transplant AC data from those titles to “Last Raven”, letting you resurrect your favorite Cores. Any way you slice it, there’s plenty to do.
The real element that will keep you coming back to “Last Raven” is the infinite potential of the AC construction. It’s possible to spend hours just tinkering with your design, swapping rifles for machine guns and tank treads for hover-legs. There is even a handy graphic on the assembly screen that illustrates how well-balanced your AC is (or isn’t), making a kind of mini-game/puzzle out of building a better mech.
Eventually there will come a time when you’ve done all you can do and “Last Raven” might lose its sheen, especially once you’ve conquered the arena and watched all the endings. But it will be quite a while before you can claim to have seen and done it all…and by then it’s likely the next “AC” will be ready for release.
So we return to my original question: can “Armored Core” withstand the rigors of age and keep pace in a market that is absolutely saturated with 3D action/shooters? Yes, but you shouldn’t expect "Armored Core: Last Raven” to win any awards for innovation. Really, this is just more of the same from Agetec – they found a formula that works and they stuck with it. It’s still fun, and there are a few minor improvements here and there, but it’s tough to shake a sense of having seen and done it all before. I think fans of the series will find it a solid effort, but a very familiar one as well. Like I said: consistent.
But if “Armored Core” is to survive the transition to the PS3 it’s going to have to be a lot more than just consistent – it will have to ratchet up the action, integrate a more interesting story, and work hard to keep from being as predictable as it has become. Otherwise this admirable series will quickly stale and be left in the dust.