Despite the popularity of PC games such as Mechwarrior, Heavy Gear and Battletech, along with the relatively large fan base of shows such as Gundam Wing, mech games really haven't been given much of a chance here in the States, especially on home console systems. The only reason I can think of is the usual "sports, fighting, racing" mentality of the major U.S. game companies. Or maybe it's the mentality of the majority of gamers here who want nothing but sports, fighting and racing games, and balk at the very thought of trying something new. Anyway, the Armored Core games on the Playstation have always been excellent in nearly every aspect, and the latest update for the PS2, Armored Core 2 is a more than worthy follow up. The game is packed with more than enough in the way of superb graphics and sounds, near-endless mech customization and challenging gameplay to satisfy the most hardcore AC experts.
The game is divided into two sections: a Campaign Mode where you play as an up and coming AC pilot, and an Arena Mode that has you going up against over 40 other mechs in one-on-one combat. The way the game is set up, you need to progress in the Arena levels in order to make enough money or acquire new AC parts to progress in the regular missions. This time out, the game is set on the planet Mars, as the Earth has been wiped out by years of wars and abuse. Like in the first Armored Core, you have to undergo a little initiation rite that involves destroying a few well-armed enemies before you can actually take on any of the regular missions. You'll also get to practice using the controls which, even for veteran AC jockeys, can be a bit on the difficult side. In fact, some people will probably bust up a controller or two (and their thumbs) playing this one, but more on that in a few…
Longtime AC fans will be in pure heaven when they see this game in motion- the programmers and artists really took advantage of the PS2's capabilities, and the game runs at a really smooth frame rate. The stages are highly detailed, and there are a few interactive objects in each level (i.e. stuff to blow up). As you progress in the game, you'll see some really varied indoor and outdoor environments populated by a wide variety of deadly enemies. Speaking of wide variety, there are over 200 AC parts to buy, find, or earn, and the possibilities are nearly endless as to what sort of killing machine you can come up with. You can spend over an hour building a single mech once you have a nice assortment of parts, and success in the game comes from building the right mech for a particular mission.
As I said above, the game's controls can be a bit overwhelming at first. The game uses every button on the PS2 controller with one notable exception- there's no analog support at all. You can change the key configuration around somewhat in the options, but as much as you futz around, the analog sticks are just as good as a cupholder on an F-16. Sure, you can use the R3 stick for an over boost, but this drains all your energy, leaving you open for attack. The funny thing is, you can tailor the controls to match From's King's Field games, but you're not playing KF- the action in Armored Core 2 moves way too fast for the too stiff controls. You find yourself fighting both the enemies and the chunky turn rate of your mech. And if you're surrounded, or have enemies coming from behind you, your best strategy is to run like hell or boost away to a safe spot. Why From didn't program the game to use the analog sticks is beyond me- all I know is, if I were really piloting a huge mech, I'd want a lot more feeling of control.
Another small complaint is that you can't import any of your mechs from previous games in the series. In Armored Core: Project Phantasma and Armored Core: Master of Arena could load your best mech from an Armored Core memory card save, and use it in the newer games. But, this doesn't turn out to be so much of a bad thing as it forces players to adjust to, and more importantly, learn to master the controls. Which is why the Arena Mode is so important- you can practice your skills on the mechs there, and come to grips with the controls. The first couple of battles are fairly easy, but around the fifth or sixth contest, you'll need to do some serious upgrading of your AC, or it's a quick trip to the game over screen. You can also grab a friend and go at it in the two-player split screen battle mode, which is just as frantic as the single player game. If it's someone who hasn't played an Armored Core game before, he or she probably won't be your friend for long, as you practice your skills on their unsuspecting hides. At least they'll die listening to some really great music- AC2 has another fantastic score, something From hasn't disappointed with yet.
One one hand, Armored Core 2 is definitely one of the better PS2 games out there, and I can't wait to see what From does as a follow up. But on the other hand, they really need to program further games in this series with analog support, before I wreck my thumbs trying to enjoy myself. Still, the game comes highly recommended- don't miss it.
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