“Japan was the first country to successfully make bipedal robots. They’re still the best in the field of robotics.”
-Hal ‘Otacon’ Emmerich
Before Pacific Rim drug the genre of mecha-action through the mud with rampant silliness and hyperbole, there was the highly technical, post-apocalyptic Armored Core franchise. Armored Core 3 for the PS2 (later ported to the PSP in ’09) is an action game built around mechs (Armored Cores or AC’s), building them, completing missions with them, and squaring off against other mecha-pilots, called Ravens. Ravens serve as advanced, skilled mercenaries completing missions for mega-corporations and private groups.
Customization plays an extremely heavy role in Armored Core 3, which requires that players construct their own mechs piece by piece and part by part, taking care to balance offensive output with defensive capabilities with total weight with speed with boosting with maneuverability with cooling, etc, etc, etc. There are a lot of numbers to be crunched and compared. The games in the Armored Core franchise are among the most complicated character-customization games I’ve ever played (Sorry, Robo Pit).
AC3 is set in a future where humanity has migrated underground after harsh nuclear winter has left the surface uninhabitable. The survivors of the great world war have established a society known as “Layered” which is dominated by corporate powers and mercenaries in huge mechs.
Presiding over this subterranean society with uncontested rule is an artificial intelligence: The Controller. “One entity ruled the world” the opening text informs, handling “the major decisions of everyone’s life”. This computer entity has almost total authority over the citizens of Layered, who consider little consequences for their actions. Practically every decision anyone makes in Layered is dictated to them by their ever-present Controller.
However, strange things have been happening in Layered, things which should not be able to conspire, given the hold that the Controller has over society. This leads several to believe that the logic systems of the Controller have begun to fail, even malfunction. But nobody knows what this will mean for humanity if it can be proven to be true.
Despite the unparalleled omnipotence of the Controller, several rival groups within Layered vie for power. Three of these are the main superpowers of their society, known as the Corporations. Like feuding countries, they are willing to go to any length to expand their influence, to grow their market share and brand recognition, even so far as assassination, espionage, violating agreements, and hiring mercenaries that pilot massive mechanized units for their operations. It’s a nightmare of corporate Japan. Armored Core wears its anime influences proudly. The Controller itself is said to be manipulating the war of the Corporations, under the promise of safety and prosperity.
The first of the Corporate superpowers is the industrial manufacturing giant, Mirage. They are all about advancing their hold on society by taking things to the next level: gaining access to the Controller and using their proximity to the computer entity to further their brand and eliminate their rivals. Mirage are the big bullies of Layered and their ambition knows no bounds. They are self-entitled and act as if they own everything. As a producer of AC parts, Mirage focuses on offering quick and energy-based weapons and components.
In direct opposition to Mirage is Crest. They began in bioengineering and moved to developing parts for AC’s. Though they are just as greedy as Mirage, Crest is opposed to manipulating the Controller for their own agenda, which puts them in direct contrast with their more ruthless competitor. Crest swears loyalty to the Controller and believes that Layered functions perfectly where it’s at. Crest’s products focus more on durability and impact weapons like launchers and missiles.
Far below the big two is Kisaragi. They are just as ambitious as their two competitors but because their operations are small in comparison, they can only opt to push for their advantage when such an advantage is clear and doubtless. They represent a middle ideology on the Controller, somewhere between Mirage and Crest, biding their time to surpass their rivals and become the leading manufacturer of AC components. Kisaragi can only offer products that serve as support elements in battle, since Mirage and Crest monopolize market on AC cores. Kisaragi radars and other electronic add-ons can often be seen as complimentary to an AC build in combat.
A fourth group exists in Layered which doesn’t belong to the classification of super-company. Known as Union, they are an extremist group interested in rebellion against the authority of the Controller, receiving massive support after the increased “malfunctions” of the computer entity. Union is opposed by Crest, the Controllers staunchest supporter.
AC3 opens with an entry-level trial mission meant to test your combat capabilities. If you can complete the mission by destroying all targets, you will be officially registered by the Controller as one of the elite: a Raven.
Global Cortex assigns you a liaison rep, Laine Meyers, who will help to hire you out to Cortext clients who require a “special brand of mediation”.
In other words, Cortex is how you get paid for doing the dirty work of Corporations. For example, Mirage will hire you to “remove” interlopers in a mine with rare ore. The Corporations had agreed that the ore, discovered by Kisaragi, was to be evenly distributed and that Mirage was to take over operations. But Kisaragi continued to mine the ore, in violation of their pact. That’s where a Raven comes in with maximum firepower, though on that particular mission you’d need to be careful not to damage mining equipment as they’re take it out of your paycheck.
And you’ll need that paycheck if you hope to advance through Armored Core 3’s difficult story missions and tough Arena competition. The road to best-equipped Raven in Layered society is paved the wrecks of your enemies’ Cores and many, many credits earned. Play all sides of the conflict like a real mercenary would and uncover the truth about the Controller for yourself.
The 8-Bit Review
I can distinctly remember being floored by the opening cutscene on the PlayStation 2 in 2002. The level of detailed realism and high-intensity action was jaw dropping. Like any opening cutscene, these were the best graphics in the game. Once into the meat and potatoes of things, visuals got grainier but never poor. If anything, AC3 suffered from droll, monotone, sterilized colors and environments in most of its nightmarish future world. The vibrant orange and aqua menu screens are a nice accent.
Some of the best things about in-game graphics were the interchangeable parts with customizable color schemes, icons, and features for Raven AC’s. Some of the worst? The non-Raven enemies looked like little toys. Still, the game is overall impressive right from the start. More impressive than its predecessor, Armored Core 2. And given that there have been few mecha games since AC3, it still remains one of the best looking.
With only the occasional techno-pop or -rock influence, the music in AC3 is predominantly tense, brooding and full of immersive dread but it can be distinguished from other action games by its use of vocalizations. There’s an oft repeating “aaa-aahhh” that reverberates at various volumes throughout several tracks on the AC3 OST, most prominently on the title screen theme above. Other vocalizations are less audible and sound like garbled speech as if they’re being unscrambled from coded messages. That’s not an overly-dramatic interpretation given the concept of corporate-subterfuge throughout the game. To me it sounds like the language of computers, and considering that there isn’t a single human being that plays a hugely prominent role (by name) in the game, the language of computers is an appropriate noise. All that to say that the soundtrack for Armored Core 3 was purposeful and well-thought out. That doesn’t mean it’s terribly pleasant to listen to, but it should be said that this was the first PS2 game to feature Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound.
The Armored Core series is one of the most technical series of games out there and constructing your AC by swapping in and out individual parts is an extremely rewarding feeling when done right. It’s exhilarating when the fine-tuning and fine-tweaking you accomplished by trying to balance weight and cooling and engine power pays off in the Arena, or when you discover a combination of the game’s many weapons that perfectly gels with your AC’s maneuvering capabilities, allowing you to ace a previously unbeatable mission with a Raven Rank-A.
With plenty of different gameplay ranging from missions to multiplayer to designing personal icons to the Arena to simple mini-games that test accuracy and range, there’s lots to love with AC3. If you get bored of one aspect of the game, there are others to play. Also, any aspect of the game can be particularly difficult so the challenge is always there to build better and buy more parts and be the best. It’s the central driving drama that pushes you onward and upward as a Raven.
AC3 further expands the third-person perspective action with a few new innovations. As the opening cutscene exhibits, AC’s can now drop unwanted armaments during an operation. If a Raven runs out of ammunition or simply needs more maneuverability, detaching armaments is an option that will instantly lessen weight and provide better energy usage. Another innovation is the Wingman system that allows you to take a tag-along AI controlled cohorts into missions. Just like a sidekick! Finally, there’s the new Core classification EO (Exceed Orbit) which replaces an AC’s “overboost” dash with an automatic weapon built into the core component.
AC3 supports up to 4 players for 2v2. I’ve never gotten that many friends involved in this particular game, as it’s not the sort you can just invite someone over for on a Saturday, sit them down, and expect them to learn in an hour. Therefore, I can’t give my impressions on 4-player. However, 2-player is quite fun. My brother and I played through the story mode on separate save files and collected our own set of unique equipment to build our own unique AC’s. Smashing both of them together in combat after all that work of accumulating the skill and components was obviously immensely competitive. Local multiplayer may be largely a thing of the past, but it was in its best form with Armored Core 3, where fine-tuning and intimate knowledge of how your AC handled made for some heart-pounding 1v1 combat.
If Armored Core 3 had a flaw, it’s that it was very difficult to learn. Supporting up to 4 players at once in 2v2 Arena battles is amazing, if you had the proper hardware and friends who were willing to mountain-climb up a steep learning curve. In high school, our friends simply knew AC3 as that robot game my brother and I talked about and tried to get them into. But it’s hard to introduce to someone because of the massive amount of customization and components that make up an AC, not to mention the controls. Modern games of this sort have moved almost exclusively to dual analog controls, making AC3‘s controls seem clumsy and outdated, overly difficult to master. Trying to hit flying enemies or quick strafing targets can be a real chore. And that’s coupled with the fact that AC3 is considered to be one of the more user-friendly games in the franchise…
The Armored Core series is notable for two things: Robots and Difficulty. AC3 may not be the hardest game in the franchise, but that’s like saying it’s only slightly the softest rock in a quarry. It’s still rock hard. At least you can progress in this game. I’ve played others, like Armored Core: Nexus, where I couldn’t even complete the first missions or get anywhere in the Arena. That kind of game makes you feel bad about yourself. AC3 is tough, but it takes baby steps. By the time you face the champions in the Arena or sign up for the final missions, you carry with you all the expertise of piloting an AC that you’ve accrued over the course of the game. Just like it should be.
With 50 solo missions, tons of Arena opponents, a solidly fun multiplayer, dozens of shiny mecha parts, secret parts to be found in missions, and countless possible customizations for your AC, I’d place the replay value of Armored Core 3 at fairly high. Constructing your own mech turns out to be quite addicting and many hours can be delightedly spent testing and re-testing the way your AC handles, then making the necessary adjustments.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Armored Core 3 is a complex, tough as nails, thematically deep, unashamedly serious game about giant frickin’ robots. I love its earnestness. It’s determined to sell giant mechs as cool as sports cars.
This is one of the games (alongside Final Fantasy X) that defined teen years for me. My brother and I played the heck out of it, both designing AC’s to best each other in a continuous cycle of escalation. As I recall (and hubris may be clouding memory), I eventually came out on top with a green and red bipedal AC I dubbed “Bloodstone” that was extremely light, and therefore agile, with the best cooling system in the game that made for continuous dashing and flight, armed only with a great radar, a light machine gun and a powerful laser blade, both with high stun. The idea was to swoop into position, pin the opponent down with machine gun fire, approach and then beat them senseless with wave after wave of blade-strike. It took a long time to test and fine-tune as the game uses the same energy to power these weapons as it does for dashing, boosting and flying. But that payoff, though…
AC3 is remembered as one of the best games in a franchise labeled as “too hard” and “too cut and paste”. But out of the handful of entries that I’ve played, I have to agree. If you’d like to break into the series, I’d recommend AC3 for its engaging mystery-plot, its more accessible gameplay, its top-notch PS2 visuals, and its exemplary mecha mechanics.
Aggregated Score: 7.4
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Categories: Game Review