There's a theory - one which has a few holes in it, we'll grant - that if a game series manages to produce seven sequels, it's probably doing something right. Whether you like or loathe Final Fantasy, the fact that it's spawned so many iterations means there's clearly an adoring audience for it, and the same holds true for everything from FIFA to Mario. Regardless of the regular moaning about "sequel-itis" smothering innovation in gaming, there's no question that a bucketload of sequels means that a franchise has found a recipe for success.
That's something worth bearing in mind when approaching Armored Core: Nexus - which is the eighth game in From Software's venerable Armored Core series. To have lasted for this long, the franchise is obviously loved by quite a lot of people, and therefore it's worth delving below its incredibly hardcore, forbidding surface to find... Well, that's where the logic falls down a little, since below the hardcore, forbidding surface of Armored Core lie further layers of increasingly obsessive and complex gameplay.
Cool (the other meaning)
In other words, Armored Core is one for the fans, and if you don't think you're a fan of the game, you probably aren't. To explain: the game is a mech simulator in the strictest sense of the term. Giant stompy robots may not actually exist, but From Software have gone to great lengths to create an ultra-realistic simulation of how they would behave if they did exist - making this into a game just as inaccessible to the bulk of the gaming population as the most technically-focused military simulations imaginable.
The most important thing to recognise about the game, however, is that it's almost entirely an exercise in customisation. While there are a lot of single-player missions in the game - around 100 original ones, and 40 favourites from earlier games in the series, tweaked to include the enhancements found in Nexus (more on those later) - it's is less about actually playing the missions and more about building the mechs (or "cores" - whatever) that you use in them. No matter how skilful you are at controlling your shambling beast, if you haven't built a unit that suits your play style and the mission at hand, you'll lose. Quickly. Crushingly.
The essence of Armored Core lies in putting together the right components to create a balanced mech for the task at hand, and the game presents you with a bewildering array of options in this regard. There are literally hundreds of parts to choose from, and the basic design can range from a humanoid Gundam-style giant robot to a hovering behemoth or something more like a tank. Weapons range from missiles to lasers and even swords, and you'll also have to work on the nitty gritty elements like power supplies, thrusters and - vitally - the radiators which cool your mech.
Simply throwing together elements willy-nilly will result in the mech equivalent of one of those old Skodas - you know, the ones they made before they claimed to have begun understanding how to actually build cars. The most likely scenario is that your mech will be barely able to move, as it'll be too heavy, or it'll power down or even explode in a matter of minutes as the temperature of the components under load exceeds the capacity of the radiator. Balancing all of these elements in your design is vital, and that carries into the action gameplay as well, as you'll need to keep a close eye on power and temperature levels.
Still with us?
If you haven't yawned yet, you might be an Armored Core fan after all. In that case, you'll probably be interested by some of the changes that have been made to Nexus - although bewilderingly, it's hard to tell whether the developers are trying to appeal to hardcore fans or attract new fans, since there are as many changes that rack up the difficulty level as there are those which make the game easier to get into.
The biggest change of all is the control system, which has taken a leaf out of the Halo book on game control, and now offers the increasingly familiar dual analogue system where you move around with one stick and target with the other. Weapon selection and firing controls are on the shoulder buttons, which feels pretty natural to use, and the face buttons are mostly reserved for fiddling with the internal systems of the mech.
Admittedly, this system is still slightly overwhelming for a newcomer to the series - but ultimately, there's only so much simplification that can be introduced to a game like Armored Core, and it's more important to ensure that you have total control over the mech that you're piloting than it is to make the learning curve more gentle.
However, it's still a little confusing that where the control system seems to have been made a bit more logical, the actual missions are tougher than ever. Some of that is simply because the enemy AI has been improved - they tend to actually duck behind things now when you shoot at them, for example - but the biggest difficulty hike is in the planning stages, with missions requiring more specialised hardware than previously and a lot more forethought. That's all very well, but most missions don't make it clear what you'll need to do beforehand, so you'll be going in largely blind - meaning that there's a regularly frustrating game of trial and error to be played out here.
In terms of presentation, Armored Core: Nexus is somewhat disappointing. The graphics engine doesn't seem to have been upgraded since the very first PS2 game in the series, and while the mechs themselves are quite nicely detailed, the environments you battle in are painfully barren - filled with over-simple textures and the horrible jaggies that most good PS2 developers learned to work around years ago.
If the graphics are poor, though, the audio is even worse - with pretty awful techno-style music for the most part (some of it sounding unpleasantly similar to older Armored Core games) and rather unremarkable in-game noise. Voice acting is minimal, which is probably just as well, with the focus being on telling the exceptionally sparse and unimportant story through text boxes instead.
In other words, after spending a few hours with Armored Core: Nexus, it's already apparent that this is an evolution - and quite a gradual one at that - rather than a revolution. One area we haven't explored, however, is the game's multiplayer modes - which include a four-player LAN mode, potentially offering a far more engaging experience than the single-player does. Even at this stage, though, we can tell that this is one for the fans. If you dream of military mechanical beasties in the same kind of detail that most petrol-heads reserve for Aston Martins, this may be your game - but those looking for a quick-fix of anime-style mech action had best look elsewhere.
We'll bring you more detailed impressions closer to the game's launch.