[14 November 2013]
It feels like this console generation went on too long, doesn’t it? We’ve seen franchises rise to dominance, rule for a short time, and flame out completely (hello, Guitar Hero), we’ve seen sports franchises with ten—ten!—iterations on the same console, and we’ve seen so many military shooters there’s no way to even keep track of them all. Remember Call of Duty 2? Doesn’t it feel like it must have been on the original PlayStation? Call of Duty 2 is on the same console as Call of Duty: Ghosts. It almost doesn’t seem real.
Armored Core: Verdict Day feels like the detritus of a too-lengthy generation. Its franchise has a rabid and devoted fanbase clamoring (and willing to pay) for more product, and yet there’s a good chance that its development team squeezed just about everything it could out of the current generation’s tech for Armored Core V early last year. And yet, here we are, another “new” game that’s essentially a continuation of the last game in the franchise with a minimal set of tweaks and updates. Developing on the current generation’s systems is familiar and probably far more cost effective now than it was when they were new; this publisher may as well squeeze as much bank as possible out of this generation before having to work within whatever confines the next will bring.
That said, Armored Core is basically the only game in town when it comes to getting into a giant robot and blowing up piles of other giant robots (and helicopters, and tanks, and presumably some humans, though they’re rarely shown). If you’re looking for a video game where you can hop into a robot and shoot machineguns and rifles and missiles at things and watch those things blow up in spectacular fashion, yes, this is absolutely the game you want.
Speaking as a relative newcomer to the Armored Core series, it is a consistent and pleasant surprise just how fast the action is. The first few missions of the single-player game are wide open “kill all the baddies before they kill you” exercises, over almost before they begin, particularly if you’re a player with any experience. This is a version of the giant robot game that plays as if giant robots aren’t all that different from, say, soldiers. Success as a solo player in Armored Core: Verdict Day depends very much on the player’s understanding of the game’s customizable weaponry and the cover that its various scenarios provide. You’ll find yourself hiding in the shade of buildings and peeking around buildings in a way that’s surprisingly reminiscent of, say, the Battlefield series.
That said, who needs single-player skills when you have a whole squad of robots on your side?
Verdict Day tells a post-apocalyptic tale that sees the world divided up into three distinct factions with just a little wiggle room in between for independent contractors. As a single player, you’ll play as one of these rogue contractors, willing to side with any faction for a decent payday. Start playing multiplayer (which, really, if you’re going to play Armored Core, you have to play multiplayer), you’ll find yourself a part of one of the three factions.
Multiplayer Armored Core is not for the faint of heart. This is a game that rewards teamwork and communication, and teams that play together enough to know their members’ tendencies inside and out will find themselves on the winning end far more often than the cobbled-together impromptu teams manage.
That said, perhaps the one thing that most separates Verdict Day from its predecessors is the ability to play multiplayer…by yourself. Really. rather than spend all that much time on the visual aspect, the gameplay aspect, or the customization of the bots, From Software spent the last year on A.I., and they did a bang-up job on something called the UNAC (that’s an UNmanned Armored Core) System, which allows a single player to deploy a collection of A.I. “players” in a multiplayer scenario.
It’s an interesting way to address the primary problem with the Armored Core series, that being its unfriendliness to newcomers. Much of the time, I prefer playing with the UNACs because they swear at me less, but the entire time that I’m playing with them, it feels like there should be more interaction. There is something wonderfully organic, despite the robot facades, about playing some of these massive scenarios with and against other humans. You feel like you have a job, a responsibility. Even as I may never reach the skill level that it takes to adequately fulfill those jobs in the eyes of the allies I manage to wrangle up for these games, it’s a little bit comforting to know that they’re counting on me and that I can (mostly) trust them.
All of that said, is the end of a console generation the right time to try and expand your audience? There is a combination of risk and security in introducing such a potentially game-changing feature to your franchise. It seems as though you could maximize the audience growth that such a feature could bring by introducing that feature at the start of a new console generation, when players are almost by definition ready to try new things. That said, if your core multiplayer-oriented fanbase feels betrayed by the introduction of the UNACs, well, maybe you actually want such a feature to be relegated to the realm of the quietly forgotten.
Perhaps that’s the benefit of a console generation gone on too long: the ability to experiment without risk. That you still get to blow up robots as you participate in such an experiment is just so much icing on the cake.