The fundamentals are there but it misses the mark in the long run
The Bad: Missions are too short; building personal Nexts is fairly useless in the single player campaign; control can be erratic
Growing up in the 80's with the likes of Transformers, Go-bots, Voltron, and MASK, I've been a big fan of big robots and mechs for a while. In the 90's my interest in the genre was revitalized when I played MechWarrior II for the first time (and later enjoyed Neon Genesis [Shin Seki] Evangelion, and Gundam Wing). Pretty much, if it has big robots with even bigger guns I'm gonna be attracted to it and probably naturally like it to a degree.
Armored Core 4 is my first experience with the series so obviously I'm jumping on board pretty late here. But with Chromehounds leaving me wanting I was anxious to try out the "Gundam" route. After-all, it was the fast and agile Japanese types that I grew up with. And with it being several years since I had played the glorious dream that is MechWarrior I couldn't wait to hop inside another Exo-skeleton and blow sh*t up.
I wasn't all gun-ho however. I'd read the reviews. And I knew that the same company that was responsible for the uninspired story and gameplay of Chromehounds, was also behind AC4. Most unfortunately, my reservations were not unfounded. Anyone in a similar position as myself should not expect anything like MechWarrior - on any level.
Without question, AC4 take a little getting used to to control with any proficiency. And while the two pre-set configurations aren't all bad, it doesn't help that the developers made the preferred set-up the non-default one. I imagine they did this only because to use the second set-up effectively, you have to hold the controller a bit unorthodox; index fingers on the bumpers, middle fingers on the triggers. Once you get the right control set-up for yourself, controlling gets substantially better.
The Nexts (mechas) themselves handle well enough. They can be a bit erratic at times and they certainly require a soft touch to pilot well. A tad frustrating is that your Next will respond differently depending on the soft touch - all of it undocumented. i.e. it's possible to do quick, 90 degree turns or transitioning between gliding across the ground and taking off to full flight.
The biggest gameplay issue has got to be the short missions. Honestly though, the length of them really didn't bother me much. It's nice to play a game for a change where you can sit down for 20 minutes and play through a few missions rather than get half-way through one. My gripe has more to do with your expected behavior and how missions are scored. AC4 is all about efficiency. Complete the objective as quickly as possible with as little ammo and taking as little damage. Which sounds right. That's how wars are fought. War is costly. But blowing stuff up is so much more fun. So instead of being rewarded for destroying everything the enemy throws at you, you'll be penalized for taking too long and using up your resources. It's this mindset that makes the game ridiculously short. And yes, just about every mission will be completed in a couple minutes.
GRAPHICS & PERFORMANCE
Visually, AC4 is nothing to write home about. The Nexts themselves are superbly detailed but you never really get to see them unless you view them in your hanger - in which they look badass. Why couldn't the whole game look like that? Environments are sparse but acceptable. Personally I think they're better than those in Chromehounds but barely. But there's not much detail done in models or textures.
The framerate clips along pretty smoothly as well. When there's a lot going on it might stumble a little but it's not really noticeable. Where performance suffers is load times and the number of times things have to load. Jumping between screens or even pictures of Nexts will cause ridiculous load times. Starting missions are the worst and replaying a mission if you fail makes you start from the mission briefing so you get to enjoy all the loading again.
AC4 is oozing with potential, it's heartbreaking that FROM didn't capitalize on it. Games these days suffer so much from repetitive play and while you're pretty much doing the same thing from mission to mission, there's good variety in how those missions are carried out so you won't ever feel like your replaying the last mission you just did. Most missions offer a unique challenge as well which only adds to the enjoyment of playing through each one.
In terms of difficulty, AC4 is a roller-coaster ride. I myself started out beating the missions fairly well but would get pwned on 1-on-1 matches against the CPU. Then I unlocked the uber-weapons. From there on out the game is ridiculously easy. For the "A" rating at least. Trying to complete both difficultly levels for high marks is unforgiving. You'll cruise through the game on normal - even with S grades. But go to Hard and forget about it.
Also, because each mission is centered around one objective with no regard for enemy defenses, each mission will play out the same and will be fairly predictable the second time around.
Mech customization is a mixed bag. For the campaign you only need 2 or 3 variants of the same design. For player-vs.-player matches you'll get a chance to play around a bit more and develop a mech that suits your style. While there are lots of options in terms of weapon choices and body parts (not to mention combinations of such) you won't be creating any wildly experimental types and the customization process in terms of what you can actually build is fairly limited.
IN THE END AC4 could be so great. The story is a bit loose and not nearly as engaging as say, MechWarrior II, but it's there and it works a lot better than Chromehounds. The missions may be short but they're fun and with good variety. But ultimately, they prove to be too focused on the end-game, penalizing players for having fun. Complete the game for the parts, then build your dream mech and try to find a nice person on LIVE to play against to extend the value of this one.