Thursday, December 16, 2010

At Random: Armored Core (PSX, 1997)

Spinning around three times and pointing at random, I've come up with a seminal 1997 Playstation game -- it spawned an enduring series that somehow failed to register on my personal radar, so I'm glad to be discovering it after the fact.

The game is Armored Core, developed by From Software and published by Agetec.  It's a third-person, mission-based mech combat game, with an interesting economic structure.  Two sequels appeared on the original Playstation, and the original game was re-released toward the end of the PSOne's life; the series is still going strong today, with Armored Core 4 on the PS3 and XBox 360, and a variety of portable and mobile phone titles.

The storyline is traditional post-apocalyptic sci-fi stuff, but it supports the gameplay in some interesting ways.  The concept is this: capitalism has run amok and the world is now ruled by amoral rival corporations.  The player, as a Raven mech pilot, accepts missions on a mercenary basis with no regard for ethics or long-term consequences.  Whether destroying a competing organization's factory or breaking a strike by killing the strikers, the player takes no moral position.  There are no heroes or villains here; instead, every mission is summed up with cold, hard numbers -- the corporate reward for successful completion, plus any bonuses, minus operating costs and damage coverage:

The 3-D combat is well implemented, benefiting from a few years' industry experience with the Playstation hardware.  The camera is positioned just behind the player's mech, with simple, intuitive controls for switching weapons, rocket-boosting, locking-on and firing.  The game's only serious shortcoming is due to its age -- it was created prior to the addition of analog thumbsticks to the standard PSX controller, so looking up and down relies on the shoulder buttons; this is clunky, but fortunately needn't generally be bothered with.  The heads-up display is straightforward and easy to read, leaving plenty of space clear to see the action:

The graphics are functional but unimpressive -- the textures are murky and repetitive, and the environment models are simplistic and glitchy, even by early 3-D gaming standards.  But while there's not a lot of graphical variety, the 45+ mission designs are varied and challenging enough to remain interesting.  Some missions impose handicaps, like disabling the player's radar; some encourage stealth; and some require careful ammo conservation.  And lots of stuff blows up real good:

Earnings from successful missions allow the player to purchase upgrades and make modifications in the garage.  Some missions provide special parts as payment, instead of credits.  I was impressed to see that the game allows creation of custom emblems, a feature way ahead of its time.

There's also a VS. mode for the rarely-used PSX link capability -- it allows two players (with two Playstations, two copies of Armored Core and two televisions, hence the rarity) to engage in one-on-one mech deathmatches.

As the game progresses, the missions become more difficult -- and losing the player's AC (Armored Core mech) during a mission incurs significant financial losses, as no completion reward is forthcoming and replacement costs are high.  The game will allow the player to continue in the red, up to a certain point -- the debt limit seems to be somewhere around -50,000 credits -- beyond which the bankrupt player "dies" and goes under the knife for experimental purposes, after which the missions must be restarted, though purchased upgrades remain in effect.

Rumor has it that emerging from bankruptcy and surgery confers special "Human Plus" abilities, but I didn't witness their effects, as I decided it was time to quit, once I realized I was going to have to replay missions I'd already experienced.

I like Armored Core a lot -- it's technically dated in almost every respect, but the mission-based gameplay holds up really well, and I spent a lot more time with it than I originally planned.  Part of the reason I'm doing this "At Random" series is to force myself to sit down with games I own but haven't gotten around to playing; this one is definitely staying in my collection.

Armored Core is a solid early 3-D game, and I'm sorry I missed playing it back in the day. It hasn't been made available via the PS3's PSOne Classics download service, but interested readers may be able to find an original copy for sale via this affiliate link:

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