Help, Armored Core has consumed my life
Oh hi, it’s been a bit, hasn’t it? What if I got back into the habit of playing video games and writing about them, hm? Too much has happened to me in the last few months but I’m back and ready to throw down thousands of words for a scant few readers in my lonely little corner. It’s fine. With the slow erosion of the games press from every conceivable angle, and especially the devaluation of written content thanks to SEO guide hell and AI bullshit, I’d just like to say that I was ahead of the pack by never ever actually making a cent off of this shit despite doing it on and off for the last fourteen years. This is just therapy at this point. I don’t even *care* if you nerds read it. Okay I do. A little. If you’d like to support me in my stupid bullshit either give my twitchy twitch a look and watch me stream, or you can support Deep Listens’ patreon. I’m on their podcast sometimes! We talked about Dragon Age II! You should listen to it!
2023 has already been a banger year for video games. Like, shockingly so, in both the “garbage made specifically for me”, and “Popular things which are good” categories. You’d better believe I have strong opinions about Baldur’s Gate 3 and other, far more obscure or weird bits and bobs. I also played through pretty much all of The Legacy of Kain series and might eventually have some things to say about that! Heck man, I might even get back into the garbage streams again. There’s a non-zero chance more horror write-ups are coming later this year, because I’ve found some stuff I need you to see. I have a lot I want to talk about, basically, and I might as well start with the thing that’s devoured my attention this summer.
To summarize, Armored Core is a franchise where you kitbash various parts of robots together in order to do bite-sized ill deeds (and the occasional war-crime) for megacorporations, often using controls not meant for human hands, with a level of accessibility and difficulty one would expect out of 2000s From Software. It’s my jam. I’ll admit this was not entirely my own idea. You can blame VaatiVidya’s coverage of the Armored Core series for being the catalyst to this. In retrospect, it’s frankly absurd I wasn’t an Armored Core person *before* this. I’ve already expressed a willingness to delve into From Software’s pre-Souls back catalog, I love stupid granular video game mechanics, and I think giant robots are mostly cool and rad. OF COURSE I would be into this.
It’s also no surprise that none of these games reviewed especially well. It’s hard to imagine now, in a post-Elden Ring world, but this series was pretty consistently poo-poo’d by various western games press outlets. This was the case for a lot of overly-esoteric or overly-Japanese series in the 2000s, but pre-2009 From Software was uniquely qualified for the ire of mainstream outlets. To quote G4’s review of Last Raven: “The presentation is weak, the gameplay flawed, and the reliance on insanely in-depth customization will likely end up annoying most gamers.” I will never not take an opportunity to swipe at “Old Games Media” and this is another case, like the early Yakuza games, where motherfuckers just didn’t get it. That’s their loss and my gain, as I’m here to recount (almost) every Armored Core game and its status in the overall energy of the cosmos. This is my service to you, and also my way of forcing myself to write things again.
Armored Core, Project Phantasma, Master of Arena (1997-99)
There are many series that don’t find their footing until the second or third installment, but to Armored Core’s credit, they kinda figured it out from the get go. If you like customizing robots, ice cold corporate wetwork, and the kind of UI design only a company who started out making bizdev software could do, they did it in one. Oh, to be clear, you also have to live in a world where using R1 and L1 to strafe and R2 and L2 to look up and down becomes a reasonable way to live your life, but it’s fiiiiine. I did it! Me, the person who regularly plays weird old games with nonstandard control schemes, says the old video game with a nonstandard control scheme plays just fine. Which means you can believe me. Part of why this is tolerable has to do with the very generous soft targeting system AC has going on. As long as you can keep the enemy inside the targeting box, you’re locked on. The size and shape of the box is determined by the weapon you’re using and the FCS you have installed. The real problem is dealing with vertical enemies, of which there are… some.
I will not pretend that a From Software game released before the year 2015 has any real desire to be played by human beings. I will say, however, that the general mission structure of these games is bite sized in a way that makes them less daunting than otherwise apparent. The average mission in most of these Armored Core games is less than five minutes. If they’re particularly spicy, they might be closer to ten. This is even more apparent in this first PSX generation, where draw distance is at a premium and corridor crawls are frequent. Most missions involve you needing to blow something up, prevent something from being blown up, or going from point A to B. The exceptions to this structure tend to be big late game set pieces. The last mission of Armored Core the First is notoriously one of them, featuring a platforming sequence I might generously call “pretty awful.” It’s the most egregious bit of the game and I have no regrets about abusing the hell out of save states to get through it. Later games definitely have their share of bad mission design, but none of them will ever be as bad as “destroy floating mines.”
I don’t have a ton to say about the other first gen expansions. Project Phantasma adds the arena, which is a key component of the series going forward, and Master of Arena (unsurprisingly) focuses on arena fights and integrates them with the main story. I didn’t play too much of the latter, likely because I was already getting a little tired of the technical limitations and notable jank of the PSX generation, but if you get anything out of this know that these games are all shockingly playable in spite of their age.
Armored Core 2 and Another Age (2000-2001)
Armored Core 2 is one of THREE Fromsoft games to make the PS2’s North America launch , which is probably as good an indication of any as to how much they used to just throw stuff out into the ether. It’s easily a better game than both Evergrace and Eternal Ring (both of which have a… dubious quality to them, one might say) and I dunno I might go as far as calling it the best PS2 launch game. What’s gonna compete, hm? Fantavision? Madden? Tekken Tag? Those aren’t real games. Those are the games your normie cousin bought alongside a DVD copy of The Matrix.
To be frank, Armored Core 2 does not fuck around. None of these games do, but the second generation of Armored Core sticks out as having some of the more consistent examples of “From Software difficulty” in regards to mission design. They’re not more complex than the first game, at least most of the time, but they are often more demanding. Heat is now a concern, and I would recommend getting a better radiator as one of your first purchases so that errant enemy rifle fire doesn’t lead to considerable damage over time. I’d also say this is really where I actively needed to change up my AC on a regular basis to meet the needs of the mission, rather than relying on a single build to do most of the heavy lifting. While a lot of problems can and will be solved by building the biggest tank with the heaviest weapons, there are cases where that should not be the immediate go-to. For one, sometimes you need to be able to stay in the air for more than like ten seconds. Or go up a large vertical shaft.
AC2 Another Age is noteworthy mostly because of how much it’s just an unapologetic “mission pack” of an expansion. It has 100 missions, and to see credits you have to do all 100. I ended up skipping it for that reason, but now that I’m coming back around to write all of this, there’s a good chance I’ll revisit it. I mean, if VaatiVidya can play all of them, that clearly means I should as well. (I don’t think I will play all of them) (I might play all of them)
Armored Core 3 and Silent Line (2002-03)
The third generation of Armored Core was the first to dare asking “what if you could hold something other than an energy sword or shield in that left hand?” This opens up a lot of very stupid build variety options, as my various hijinks involving “What if Two Machine Guns” is any indication. It’s also the first game in the series to let you just dump a weapon to lower your weight and energy drain. Is it the first that lets you move the camera and aim with the analog sticks? No, of course not. Why would you think that? These games came out on the PSP for god’s sake. To be fair, AC3’s controls are absolutely smoother and more responsive than the prior generations, but you’re still strafing with the shoulder buttons. These ended up being some of my favorites of the bunch, and I think if you’re gonna check out one of “the older games” these might be the two I’d recommend.
My self-imposed challenge for Armored Core 3 was to avoid going as heavy as possible from the outset, which helped me improve . In both AC 1 and 2 I’d very quickly opted for a heavy quadruped build, whose combination of ground mobility, armor, and the ability to fire heavy weapons while moving was key to my early success in these games before I really “got gud” at using the series mobility tools. Legs determine your weight capacity, your mobility on the ground and in the air, and even the size of your AC’s hitbox. They’re easily the most important part of your robot, in the same way that they’re the most important part of Atelier Ryza’s character design. Besides bipedal legs, which come in all weight classes and varieties, there are reverse joint chicken legs (which tend to have excellent jumping ability), the aforementioned quad legs, full on tank treads (which unsurprisingly can support a lot of weight, have a lot of armor, and basically can’t move very quickly at all) and the awkward stepchildren of the bunch: hover legs (good for water missions and staying in the air, if nothing else)
Silent Line is probably the high point for me, as it’s where I finally “figured out” a lot of Armored Core mechanics and had more fun just goofing around and experimenting with builds. You may ask “Arby’s Waterman, how come you didn’t get sick of these games even tho you play so many???” and I think a lot of that has to do with both the bite-sized nature of missions *and* the stupid granular nature of customization. Once you understand the rules, the various bits and bobs, it’s easy to make something that works, even if that something is very stupid. What if you had ALL MISSILES? What if you had missiles for your missiles? What if you relied on the good grace of god and just shot a bunch of dumbfire rockets everywhere? What if *two* energy swords? You can make it work. You can, if you believe in yourself and think very long and hard about weight limits. And energy limits. You want both of those things.
Armored Core Nexus, Nine Breaker, Last Raven (2004-2006)
Often referred to as “Generation 3.5” by fans, the last trio of PS2 Armored Core games finally introduce modern controls that control like normal video games. Imagine, being able to aim with the right analog stick! It’s unironically the biggest deal. All three of these games are also quite different from one another, at least as different as three games running on the same engine tech with the same core gameplay can be. One gets the sense that it’s where a lot of experimentation was happening, given that at this point they’d managed to churn out like ten Armored Core games in nine years. Truly the Madden of robot customization games, or something. Except instead of a truck stick or QB vision cones or whatever they made it so now your booster generates heat and also overheating drains your energy bar super quickly instead of being a simple damage over time effect. Needless to say, cooling moves from being “nice to have” to “a fairly crucial part of one’s build” in case you didn’t need more plates to spin when designing a robot. I like that. You can also now store backup weapons when your primaries run out, in case you were to say, have two pistols and replace those pistols with two more pistols. Highly recommend that.
Armored Core Nexus is more-or-less an indirect follow-up to Silent Line, featuring the same corporations, many of the same basic parts, and seemingly a lot of the same game assets. However, between the aforementioned control changes, gameplay tweaks, and a bonus disk containing remade versions of classic Armored Core, Project Phantasma, and Master of Arena missions, it’s definitely worthy of being more than just “an expansion.” Nexus is probably my second favorite in the series behind the 3 games, and a lot of that has to do with the game being far, far more generous with money than any of the prior titles. This makes things a bit easier, but it also adds more opportunities for customization and different situational mechs depending on the situation at hand. This is where I made a build with floating legs and machine gun arms and managed to make it work.
Nine Breaker is an Armored Core game with no story missions and no shop, instead tying advancement to arena fights and bespoke training missions. If you import your save from Nexus, you also don’t get access to the parts the game would otherwise give you for free on a new game, which is a problem given the variety of tasks laid out in front of you. So, fair to say, I skipped Nine Breaker. This one feels like it’s the most “people should throw money at me if they want to see me suffer through it” of the bunch, and while I cannot explicitly link you to places to give me money on here, just know you can do that and you *can* let me know if you’d like me to play Nine Breaker.
Last Raven, on the other hand, might as well be called “Armored Core for Super Players.” I would like to consider myself pretty good at video games. I have completed most of FromSoft’s post-Demon’s Souls output. Armored Core: Last Raven might be the single hardest video game to come from this developer. I do not mean that as hyperbole, I don’t mean this as a “wow Elden Ring EZ” sort of brag. It’s just pure sicko mode shit made specifically for a hyper-niche audience of lunatics in mind, as you’d expect from a late model PS2 game from a long running niche series. Many of the builds which made easy headway in Nexus were powerless against the enemy AC pilots of Last Raven, all of whom are more maneuverable and aggressive than anything prior. If you like the AI flying over you and stunlocking you to death with perfect precision, I have great news. I don’t even know if this game is hard in a “fair” way so much as it’s just oppressive. A real fucker, you might say.
It’s maybe the hardest “git gud” wall I’ve encountered in some time, but to my credit I managed to get it done. Sure, I might’ve picked one of the easier routes (Last Raven only requires you to play roughly a dozen missions before seeing credits, as opposed to most other games hovering around 30) but I’m just proud I saw credits at all. A few days (and a few more AC games) removed, I'm almost dumb enough to want to see the game’s other routes, now that I’ve managed to get my expert bunnyhopping technique down. I don’t know if this is stockholm syndrome or a reflection on how much easier future AC games ended up being, but yeah I’d consider doing that mission where you fight another AC in an open field that is continually being bombarded by suicide drones again. I’d do that. For money.
Armored Core is good and these older titles are still worth going back to. Unfortunately, none of them are digitally available on modern consoles, which just leaves a scant handful of PSP and PS3 offerings if you're willing to go through the hassle of ancient desiccated storefronts. I did that, and as a result, I have access to a for real digital copy of Verdict Day. Given the current state of retro game inflation, further exacerbated by the announcement of AC 6, physical secondhand copies of these games have never been more expensive. I'm not going to explicitly endorse piracy on this here video game webzone, but I will say "get it where you can."
So, for both word count reasons and logistical ones (namely, the Armored Core V games don’t emulate well at all and I currently don’t have access to my PS3 to play Verdict Day at the moment) I’m gonna take a hard stop at the end of the PS2 generation. However, depending on how people respond to this as well as my own play habits, you can likely expect a follow-up covering the fourth, fifth, and possibly sixth(???) generations of Armored Core, as well as the ones I skipped (in case you really want my hot takes on Formula Front.) Spoilers: Armored Core 4 is lukewarm and mediocre, Armored Core For Answer is fucking rad. That's it. I'm done. Maybe I'll do my big Baldur's Gate 3 spoiler writeman. Let me know if that's something you'd be interested in.