Yeah, we like big robots round these parts. We're not ashamed to admit that the opportunity to pilot a hulking great mass of metal through the streets of some random futuristic city gets us a bit excited [although it depends if it's attractive metal -Ed], and it was with some degree of anticipation that we picked up Armored Core 3, hoping to have our missile-laced walking tin can desires satiated.
It starts predictably enough: post-apocalyptic future, corporations fighting for power. You can guess the rest. You play a citizen of the ravaged future society who has applied to become a Raven - hired guns of sorts, licensed to pilot their very own mechs. The basic aim is to earn a wage by carrying out missions for each of the main corporations in the city, which you can then spend on upgrades for your mech in order to earn yourself even more money.
There's no complex plot involvement and no character interaction or development, the emphasis is simply on getting the job done. The game occasionally makes a weak attempt to let you know what's going on in the world by sending you pretend e-mails. This is fine by us, we imagine there's only so much of a story you can tell about a 20ft robot mercenary.
The game keeps the content interesting and the progress through the game slightly less linear by giving you options when it comes to choosing each mission. You will usually have two or three - perhaps more - missions to choose from the various corporations, and successful completion of one of those will lead to more work for specific corporations. You might, for example, decide to forge an allegiance to one particular corporation, or you might simply choose to just go for the highest paying jobs regardless of the employer. The latter method sees you backstabbing everyone all over the place, such as one mission which had us defending a bridge from attackers for one company, and subsequently placing demolition charges all over the same bridge for another.
The variety of missions is actually quite impressive. We really didn't think there was much a mech could do aside from stomp about in streets blowing up other robots, but it seems like From Software has other ideas, with tasks ranging from simple "Destroy everything" missions to infiltration, escort and hunting objectives. Sadly, the prevalence of missions that have you either bumbling around streets or in various industrial buildings starts to become tiresome and samey despite the range of objectives, and by the time you get to some sprawling wasteland or drab-looking forest, you just tend to stop caring thanks to the trudging pace and uninspiring locales. There's also an arena battle mode as an aside to all the main missions, which pits you up against a ladder of battle-hardened warriors who will kick you into next week as soon as you bother trying, unless you have a suitably souped-up mech.
What makes each mission annoyingly similar to all the others, almost ruining the variety, is the way your mech handles. From the start, you'll be plodding your way around each level, popping off slow rifle shots and poorly aimed missiles at what feels like about five miles per hour. L1 and R1 handle strafing, while the left analogue stick or D-pad takes care of your general direction. A jetpack takes care of vertical movement, but it saps energy from your core extremely quickly, so covering any kind of distance can prove perilous.
The mech initially doesn't feel anything close to agile, and moves at a speed which isn't slow, but isn't anywhere near fast either. At times you're not sure if the lack of decent response is by design, or if the controls are simply crap. The placement of the controls for looking up and down really is crap though - L2 and R2 let you look up and down respectively, and it just does not work. Why not the right analogue stick? I'm not using it for anything else! And you can't even remap it there. This glaring oversight in the control scheme hinders the player far more than it should, and makes targeting roof-mounted or flying enemies a task in itself.
We should be able to fling our battle-bot around levels and into the air, pummelling targets all over the place. Instead we found ourselves fumbling the pad trying to boost into the air out of the path of oncoming missiles, instead scooting across the floor into them, or trying to take off above ground-targets to launch some terrifying death from above, only to manage to fire one missile and land staring at the ground, remembering that we needed to hold R2 to get our line of sight back.
Tweak my torso
It is possible, however, to get some more nimble machinery in your hands once you've got a sizeable collection of successful missions under your belt and a subsequently fattened wallet. Armored Core 3, you see, is all about its tweaking. There is an incredible amount of interchangeable bits and bobs you can purchase for your mech to replace existing bits and bobs, or bolt on the side for some extra... bulk.
If it sounds like we don't really know what we're talking about, then you'd be quite right. The equipment menus consist of multiple choices of heads, legs, arms, back units, radiators, cores, insides, missile repellents... all sorts of stuff we have no idea what to do with, but sounds quite fancy and important. The names of the equipment usually go along the lines of CMD-XRDL101-3, with an accompanying description: 'The CMD-XRDL101-3 is a masterpiece, much improved over the CMD-XRDL101-2.' So unless you spend time picking through the statistically nightmarish menus, it's unlikely you're going to be able to figure out just what you need to spend your cash on.
If you manage, through some miracle of trial-and-error, to get yourself a speedy, nimble, well-armed rig up and running beyond the initial lumbering default set-up, then you'll likely get a lot further than most people will. However, gamers unwilling to tweak the machinery to absolute perfection will soon find that the game becomes impenetrable, as the real money offers start coming in and you end up head-to-head with other mechs during missions, each more likely than the next to hand your shiny metal ass back to you. Accessible Armored Core 3 is not.
Presentation-wise, you get the impression all of From Software's time was spent making the robots looking brilliantly hulking and menacing with all their shiny angles and random spiky bits, and they just couldn't really be arsed with the rest. The backgrounds are pretty much incidental for the most part, blandly structured and textured, and occasionally too dark to even see if there's a wall in front of you or not. The mostly grey and sludgy visuals contrast against the impressively rendered battle machinery.
The sense of scale is also slightly lacking, with cars and tanks actually looking like teeny tiny cars and tanks instead of making your mech look huge. This is thanks to the lack of detail on buildings and streets, and the fact that warehouses and corridors look and feel about 10 feet high.
If you're a fan of the long-running Armored Core series, and fancy some time alone with your mech to tweak away at your heart's content, then Armored Core 3 is probably for you. However, players looking for something a little more accessible to dip into occasionally should look elsewhere, since the frankly mind-boggling amount of customisation required to understand and actually get anything out of the game - coupled with some ropey visuals and that infuriating control set - far outweighs its value in any kind of traditional action gaming terms.