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Climbing Mt Entry Barrier: a newb tackles Armored Core V

Mech-virgin Stace Harman gets to grips with Armored Core V and ponders whether there’s more to these weapons of mass destruction than initially meets the eye.

With over a dozen entries in a series spanning fifteen years, most gamers will be quite comfortable in gauging their interest level in Armored Core V. The rest will likely have absolutely no idea what an Armored Core is.

This is understandable, it’s been some time since the series did much to capture the imagination; the most recent releases outside of Japan date back to 2007 and 2008 with Armored Core 4 and Armored Core: For Answer, respectively. Both of these titles garnered a tepid critical reception and didn’t trouble the charts too much – evidently, giant-fighting-mechs are an acquired taste.

As such, when the call came in to ask whether I would visit Namco Bandai’s London HQ to spend some time with Armored Core V, I resolved to put aside my personal disinterest and attend with a level of receptive and curious professionalism. However, in researching this long-running series I was reminded of something that piqued my personal interest, too: that the developer behind Armored Core is a certain FromSoftware, the Japanese developer that created Dark Souls, my own most highly regarded title of 2011.

This led me to think of the many people who grew to love Dark Souls but were initially sceptical of it; scepticism born of a dislike of its genre or of the perceived convolution of its game mechanics. Scepticism based on its intimidating reputation and bamboozling array of options in play-style, weapon customisation, inventory management and control configuration. In short, the same scepticism that has caused me to avoid mech games in the past.

A few days later, still considering this, I arrive at Namco Bandai Towers and endeavour to open my mind a little wider; to wonder whether FromSoftware’s involvement might be capable of triggering a watershed moment for me and my fellow mech-virgins.

“I think the game stands up on its own but, yes, I think that FromSoftware’s involvement might attract people that would have otherwise have overlooked it,” acknowledges Peter Oliver, UK PR executive at Namco Bandai.

“Certainly, [FromSoftware’s] fame in recent years has risen with Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls and has pushed it into the consciousness of the mainstream much more so than any of its previous titles, especially in the UK. I’d hope some of those people might approach Armored Core because of this.”

Perhaps there is a revelation in store for me, after all. I take my seat in Namco Bandai’s game room and begin to get excited, wondering if maybe I’m about to have my eyes opened to a brave new world of technicolour explosions and effortlessly cool, five-metre tall, death-dealing cyber-soldiers.

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A multiplayer walkthrough. Japanese
players are very, very good, so if you
venture online you'd better practise.

I outfit my mech, trying to ignore the feeling of momentary panic as I glimpse the dizzying array of assault, defence, recon and core-structure configuration options. I let myself get battle-high, spurred on by a mix of pre-match banter with my seven fellow combatants and a thumping, bass-heavy soundtrack. Setting foot into the death-match arena, I marvel at the multi-layered HUD and how cool everything feels.

And then, with very little preamble, I get swiftly blown to pieces.

With no respawn I’m forced to sit out the remaining four minutes and ten seconds of the five minute round and so I glance around the room, briefly wondering if there’s anything in the nearby first aid kit to soothe my bruised ego or help put my robotic Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

I rue that that my swift transformation from potential hellraiser to one-million tiny pieces is expedited by my inability to play with an un-inverted Y-axis; I also rue the lack of an in-game menu via which to rectify this problem. Regardless, even once we’ve switched to team-based multiplayer and I’ve resolved the Y-axis conundrum, which involves back-peddling all the way to the top-level menu to change the button configuration, I’m still one of the first to be destroyed.

We take a break and I question the wisdom of using videogames to escape feelings of everyday inadequacy.

Walk before you can run

“There probably hasn’t been a really great, all-round mech title on this generation of hardware,” ponders Oliver, later. “Chromehounds had a really great multiplayer and I think a lot of people hoped that Front Mission Evolved might fill the void, but it didn’t really. Armored Core V may well get extra attention because it’s by FromSoftware, but I think it’ll be recognised as just being a really great game.”

It’s not until I sit down with the single-player that I begin to see what Oliver is referring to. With time to explore, digest and understand the customisation options, especially the balance to be struck between a mech’s weight, raw power and energy consumption, things start to click into place.

Soon, I’m sliding gracefully around corners, gliding in-between and boost-jumping over high-rise buildings, engaging targets and unleashing rocket-propelled hell. For the first time that afternoon, I feel exactly how I thought should when deftly controlling a towering mechanical powerhouse: empowered.

On a more basic-level still, the ability to map the controls entirely to my liking – functions can be assigned to any button, analogue stick or D-pad direction – make my first tentative, boosted-assisted steps in a campaign story mission feel a world away from my earlier awkward fumbling in multiplayer.

Soon, I’m sliding gracefully around corners, gliding in-between and boost-jumping over high-rise buildings, engaging targets and unleashing rocket-propelled hell. For the first time that afternoon, I feel exactly how I thought should when deftly controlling a towering mechanical powerhouse: empowered.

Sadly, there’s no chance to try out the co-op mode and with the servers not yet live the to and fro promised by Invasion mode, that will see players battle back and forth to wrest control of territory as part of a larger, persistent team effort, is likewise inaccessible. And yet, following a handful more story missions and a stab at the varying objectives of the Order missions, something has changed for me: having given over a chunk of my afternoon to a game in which I had little personal interest, I’ve gotten more in return that than I thought I would.

Armored Core V is due out in a handful of days, which means in-depth reviews revealing how all of its component parts fit together will soon start to hit. Unexpectedly, I’ll be among those reading the reviews, despite my own long-held scepticism of the genre; it’s on this basis that I recommend my fellow mech-sceptics read them too.

Armored Core V launches for 360 and PS3 on March 20 in the US and March 23 in PAL territories.

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