pylon_trooper's Armored Core: Formula Front Extreme Battle (PlayStation Portable) review

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Armored Core: Formula Front EB - Fighting its own battles.

It’s amazing how much street-cred the already popular Need For Speed franchise garnered after the addition of car modification was introduced with the Underground series. With the ability to pop the hood, tweak the engine, change the paintwork and slap on a number of designer decals, it became very trendy indeed. That, and the bling. Oh, the bling. Finding balance within the modification did not have a particularly steep learning curve, it at least showed stat-crunching to be a popular past time with many gamers.

Enter one of the best-but-possibly-most-unplayed titles of the PSP’s first wave library.

A much-maligned game, Armored Core: Formula Front is best described a mech garage simulator. The aim is to build a running, leaping, jump-jetting machine of absolute maniacal deadliness from the ground up, in both the hardware and software departments, then have it compete in single player tournaments or against ad-hoc opponents. The original Japanese version didn’t have manual control, and while the Western releases do, it’s a moot point as the game is better played without controlling your mech. What’s that, you say? Better NOT to control your mech!? Just keep reading to find out why.

Selecting the hardware is a disciplined and thorough process. It really pays to have an idea of what type of machine you’re trying to build, as careful consideration must be paid to all aspects in regards to parts. To build a fast-moving machine, for example, lighter components are naturally better to use, but at the cost of armor. In addition, the mech needs a decent generator to power agile movements, which means a competent radiator must be chosen to keep your creation from overheating as it races across the arena. In turn, a fire-control system must be selected with complimentary weapons. For example, a mech that boosts around at a rapid-pace is going to need a FCS that locks on to a target quickly, and fires its weapons appropriately. It’s also worth mentioning that many of the individual parts can also be tweaked and changed. With a quick tune-up, that hefty generator can been made lighter, the booster pack made just that little more energy-efficient, or that head component just a touch more resistant to ECM pulses.
At this point, you’re only halfway there, as electronic countermeasures, radars, jammers, defense systems, additional ammunition bins and secondary weapons are also available for equipping.

Once you have the physical side of the machine ready, it’s time to assess the glorious inner-workings of your machine’s AI. This aspect is definitely rewarding. Your machine’s AI is programmable via three interfaces: Base Character, Performance and Operations. The Base Character is essentially the constant traits of your machine; whether it prefers long or short ranged engagement, stable or varied engagement methods, defensive or offensive patterns, just to name a few.
Once your machine has its general characteristics, the Performance section allows you to assign different values to the ten onboard capabilities of your machine, based on its AI capacity. As an example, if higher values are placed in Heat Control, Energy Control, Search Control and Terrain, your machine will resolve to manage its heat levels more effectively; strive to utilize its power output in a more efficient manner; boost its targeting in regards to opponents and in tandem with missile, laser or decoy defense systems; and analyze and interpret its surroundings to move around in a more efficient fashion.
The Operations section allows you to assign timed parameters in the form of operations chips. Each battle lasts for a total of 180 seconds, with each operation chip triggering for 30 seconds. This allows for six operations chips to be used in sequence, with events such as “prioritize blade attacks”, “utilize boosters and prioritize airborne attacks”, “execute left/right zigzag movement” and so on.

So how does this equate to the game being fun without actually controlling the machine? Armored Core: Formula Front allows you to see your choices unfold in all their glory. You witness your AI conducting itself in battle exactly how you programmed it. You are able to see your machine as it manages its internal parameters and systems and, in particular, whether they work or not.
It’s a stat-cruncher’s dream come true, since every detail is available during and after the battle. Heat, Energy and Armor management in real-time during battles and in graph format at the battle summary. Movement distances, weapon usage statistics, ECM disruption times and more...all very useful in finding out where your machine needs improvement. Figuring out small changes to the AI, for example, can mean a very different battle next time, or changing weapons and FCSs for a much more effective fire/hit ratio, only adds to the sense of satisfaction that Armored Core: Formula Front delivers.

Manually controlling your AC is functional, sure, but it’s definitely not what Formula Front is about. And you’re definitely in for a frustrating time if you choose to do so, as the AI performs a constant myriad of complex combat engagements with deft aplomb, with human dextrousness perhaps reaching a tenth of what it does in comparison.

Formula Front is a quiet, unassuming title that managed to garner little support from the majority of critics as they perceived it to be a dry title, devoid of fun. Perhaps this was a bleed-through of their perceptions of the console variety Armored Core games; they in themselves a series of niche, parochial, newbie-drowning titles where only those in the know truly appreciated their take on the genre. And realistically, apart from the Mech Assault (and Warrior) games, Armored Core owns the heap. If one can look past the apparent impenetrability of the statistics and science of Armored Core: Formula Front, they will find themselves happily tweaking and tinkering their machines till the early hours of the morning, enjoying the satisfaction of putting together a mech and programming its capacities before sending it off into battle...watching the results and learning from the stats.

Let’s face it. Armored Cores are endlessly cooler to modify than cars.

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