Mecha, mobile suits and big freaking robots—you gotta love 'em. Who in their right mind wouldn't want to strap into a 10-ton metal monster and lay waste to an evil empire of their choosing? Until the day the armed forces can offer enrollment in a Valkyrie squadron, or advanced-yet-confused aliens drop off the latest Uniframe hybrid on someone's doorstep, such things will be forever out of reach in real life. However, all is not lost. The PlayStation 2 is now home to Armored Core 2, a game which is probably the closest most of us will ever come to piloting our very own walking weapons platform.
Armored Core 2 is the latest metal combat title from Agetec and From Software. The fourth in the series, this chapter takes place on the planet Mars (post-terraforming) and places you in the role of a mercenary-for-hire called a Raven. Ravens take on a variety of assignments ranging from attacking corporate installations to eliminating biological weapons in order to earn money and live the good life. The means for accomplishing such tasks are the game's namesakes; the Armored Cores (ACs). Cores are the fortified torso pieces of large, mobile robotic suits around which you can place a wide variety of appendages, support technology and weapon systems. The goal is initially to survive, and having achieved that happy state, you have your choice between various paid missions or competing one-on-one in an arena to earn fame and fortune.
The game starts off with a very snazzy CG intro featuring an AC plummeting to the surface of Mars from an orbiting cropship, followed by a rabid assault on a desert fortress. Quite impressive. After you wipe the drool from your chin, you'll quickly be lead into the slick, techno look of the menus and general front end. By navigating the available features for a minute or two, you'll quickly find that the Armored Core series is heaven for people who love options and equipment.
The name of the game here is mixing and matching. It's an accessory fetishist's paradise with literally hundreds of different parts ranging the gamut from arms, legs and treads to more exotic pieces of hardware such as anti-missile units, minelayers and energy sabers. Guns, too—lots and lots of guns. I'm no math whiz, but there are an obscenely large number of variations the player can build, with any style of combat catered to. Large or small, walker or floater, melee or sniper—it's ALL in there. As if that wasn't enough, you can alter and modify the color scheme of all the parts down to the smallest detail. Always wished you could drive a pink, chicken-legged robot with huge radar dishes? No problem. There is simply no other "big robot" game available on any system that even comes close to giving as much freedom with as many customizing options as you'll find here. Simply amazing.
While putting those parts together you'll notice that they turn out to be extremely sharp-looking pieces of machinery when assembled. You can for the first time actually see the vents on boost verniers opening and closing, while long range cannons visibly swivel and lock into place from their shoulder mounts. Every piece of equipment changes the appearance of your unit, and you'd almost swear that you could count the rivets on your newly-assembled can of whup-ass. Graphics are definitely not lacking here with the ACs getting the lions' share of attention, though the environments aren't slouches, either. Some very nice environmental effects like radiating lava flows or eerily lit plateaus add life to the range of places you'll be firing lasers in. The lighting is definitely noteworthy and eye-grabbing with all manner of explosions, rocket trails and energy beams casting their fierce radiance on everything in the immediate vicinity.
Lastly, two unexpected areas where Armored Core 2 really achieves are the voiceovers and multiplayer. Surprisingly high-quality, the voices of various executives and mercenaries who contact you add a nice level of immersion and give you a feel for the type of person who might become your boss. As an added bonus, depending on which head you equip on your Core, you can choose between having a male or female voice for the cockpit prompts. Sweet.
If you've got friends over, the requisite split-screen features are here, but the really cherry option is the link-up. It's a bit of hassle, but if you can find another person who was lucky enough to snag a PlayStation 2, an iLink cable, an extra TV and another copy of Armored Core 2 you can play the incredible head-to-head battles on two separate TVs for the full-screen effect. It's a lot of work, and most gamers will never see it happen, but if you want the most intense mecha battles you've ever been in, the Armored Core 2 link feature can't be beat.
However, despite all those positive readouts, not everything is running at optimum efficiency on Mars. The first thing that I would list as a negative isn't really a flaw with the game itself, but rather something of a broken promise from the developers. One of the biggest draws to the Armored Core series on the PlayStation was that the data from the first game carried over into the second, and from the second to the third. What this meant was that you could bring your favorite AC and all the parts you collected with you through each new game. This feature was promised to fans prior to the release of Armored Core 2 quite a while ago, and I was extremely disappointed to see that it was removed. For a game system supposedly powerful enough to guide an ICBM, claims that the data on a PlayStation card can't carry over to a PlayStation 2 game don't ring true.
One other rather disappointing thing is the rote, unimaginative decision on the part of From Software to keep the exact same controller setup that had been standard on the original games. While some gamers will make noise about the lack of analog control, personally I always favor digital (though it would have been nice to at least have the choice). Besides the issue of having no analog, a bigger problem here is that looking around is still done by using the shoulder buttons—one to look up, another to look down. In addition, the turning speed of an AC is quite slow. In a game where you're in constant fear of missile clusters rapidly approaching your six, the refusal to maximize controls on the Dual Shock 2 makes no sense at all. Logically, looking around could have been mapped to the right stick (which would just be much easier to perform, honestly), and the other shoulder buttons could have had two additional combat functions to make for a more natural control scheme.
While the last two things I just mentioned are disappointing to be sure, the biggest and most significant problem with Armored Core 2 is the difficulty curve. Since the option of carrying over any equipment from prior games wasn't included, you have to make the most of what you have from the very beginning of the game. Naturally, the developers start you off piloting the junkiest, most vulnerable and barely-functioning bucket of bolts possible. While such a handicapped beginning is to be expected of nearly any game, Armored Core 2 trips up by making the equipment for purchase quite overpriced, which in turn makes accumulating the parts necessary for advancement in the game overly tedious and difficult. To add insult to injury, the beginning missions can be especially harsh on players by heavily penalizing up-and-coming Ravens where it hurts most—the wallet. Credits are deducted for damage taken and ammo spent, which makes saving those vital credits even tougher.
In this set of circumstances most gamers will get through a couple of missions and have enough money to buy one part, maybe two. Trade-ins on equipment are possible to help cut costs, but it slows the accumulation of necessary tech even more. It will be quite a while before you have enough parts to alter your Core's performance significantly, so you'll soon hit a ceiling of missions in which your Core is simply inadequate. The only thing to do after this happens is to go broke after your embarrassing defeat and let the game take you through the re-start process. After restarting, you'll keep the equipment you've earned but have all stats and missions reset. Save money again, buy parts again, hit wall of difficulty again, repeat. The fact that the in-game restart process (called PLUS, which also adds various permanent power-ups to your character to ease the difficulty) even exists points to the fact that the developers anticipated the need for it. Instead of adjusting the difficulty curve to make it more playable, it's apparent they chose to rely upon the re-start crutch. Bottom line, most players will find themselves restarting much more than is reasonable in any average game, and the repetition and boredom imposed by the extended period of money-grubbing will be a big turn-off to some. It certainly was to me.
Overall, this game is something of a mixed bag. Given the sparse offerings to choose from in the PlayStation 2's current library, I'd say that Armored Core 2 is one of the safer titles to purchase, but it's missing the special spark and balance which would make it more enjoyable all-around. It's a solid title and will probably please most of the series' fans, but it's not something which really takes the game to the next level above what's already been done—in spite of all of the amazing new-age eye-candy.