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Armored Core 4 (Xbox 360) artwork

Armored Core 4 (Xbox 360) review

"I stood on the lip of a craggy shoreline as ballistic missiles screamed towards my position. My mission was to safeguard the understaffed military headquarters that stood behind me. Set against the velvet backdrop of the night sky, they falter under the onslaught of bullets, rockets and pulsing laser blasts, their explosions causing a breath-taking chain effect as other missiles caught in the vicinity of their blast radius detonated early. The base I protect offer assurance..."

I stood on the lip of a craggy shoreline as ballistic missiles screamed towards my position. My mission was to safeguard the understaffed military headquarters that stood behind me. Set against the velvet backdrop of the night sky, they falter under the onslaught of bullets, rockets and pulsing laser blasts, their explosions causing a breath-taking chain effect as other missiles caught in the vicinity of their blast radius detonated early. The base I protect offer assurances when a wave is destroyed completely, report taking out a few strays themselves and scream damage reports if hangers or warehouses are destroyed should a few of the missiles slip through both defensive fronts.

Don't let the number on the end of Armored Core fool you: here we have a series that's run a lot longer than the aforementioned '4' would have you believe. Totalling eleven titles thus far in, FROM Software have steadily marched their mechanical army into the homes of players since the early days of the PSX. Armored Core 12 4 is the first game to feature on the newest wave on console, but itís very much a case of not straying from the beaten track.

Continuing the trend that started recently with Armored Core 3, pilots no longer use the shoulder buttons to change the pitch of your camera angle, doing away with the clunky but authentic feel of piloting a giant robot in favour of the tried-and-tested third-person norm of nudging the right analogue stick to swing your view around.

Neither changed is the heavy customisation that player can and must undertake on their mech -- or 'Core', as the AC series prefers to call them -- if they hope to stand a chance against opponents who think nothing of outclassing any of the standard six mechs you can choose to start with. Will you equip your Core with a quick-firing mini-gun or a hard hitting bazooka? Will you do away with an adaptable weapon choice all together and graft on twin heavy assault rifles instead of standard arms? Will you stalk the battlefields on a bipedal base, use tank track, or employ an arachnid-like four-leg set-up? The set up of your Core is just as, if not more, important than your skill as a pilot.

I drop from the sky and through the ceiling of a once-peaceful lighthouse now occupied by terrorist mechs. As I fall, I dodge and weave though the spiderweb of incoming laser cannon barrages, my own armourís afterburners burning electric blues as it power-strafes to the sides, streams of never-ending plasma missing so narrowly that it would probably blister my custom paint job. The roof shatters upon contact and I find myself in a claustrophobic, circular room where three terrorists await me, piloting standard NORMAL Cores. Staying on the ground level keeps me of range of the now-useless laser cannons, allowing me to shelter behind concrete pillars that soak up screaming missiles in my place and fall to the ground with a shuddering thump. Charging towards my aggressors, I cut their machines clean in half with a swipe of my energy blade, leaving broken bits of metal and burning husks in my wake. I turn and surge towards the next target.

You're even encouraged to change your set-up on the fly. When a missionís starting position is on the opposing bank of a heavily-guarded set of missile stylos, an energy blade is no good to you, but long-range missiles are a must. When youíre forced to speed through a man-made smokescreen to strike down enemy NORMALS, sacrificing your radar system in order to graft a huge energy laser to you back is suicide. Thereís nothing wrong with buying that long-range gun or that specialist bit of equipment for only the one mission before dropping it back in your store room to collect dust or even to sell back to your equippers. Not only is there nothing wrong with this practise, but itís oftentimes essential.

It's not just the strong AI or superior Cores that will drive you forward; the politically-themed plot will catapult you into short bite-sized missions with constantly changing assignments. You might find yourself skating over a shallow bay trying to strike down docked submarines that constantly litter you with tomahawk missiles while attack choppers buzz around your head like angry bees, while the very nest mission suspends you a hundred feet above the ground on a railway bridge and charges you with stopping the incoming carriage before it either bulldozes you off your perch or the long-range artillery trained on you blasts your Primal Armour rating down to zero, sending you and your robot back to the scrap heap.

Primal Armour is another new spin on the franchise: working much like an overshield, while this is fully charged, you'll take only minimal damage from explosive rockets, hot tracing bullets and melee weapons the size of your house. However, it can only take so much punishment and other aspects of your Core rely on it to power them, such as the Quick Boost that hurtles your machine in any direct to swiftly avoid incoming attacks. This forces you to strike a cerebral balance on just how you choose to dodge incoming attacks; you can't just weave around them this fashion without weakening your overall defence.

I charge through the whipping sands of a raging desert storm, blind to the threats around me and limping through with only my radar as a trustworthy guide. Targets spring from beneath dunes or from the shadows of the swirling sandstorm, peppering me with missiles and bullets. Their muzzle flashes the only visual aid offered until Iím either right upon them or theyíre right upon me. A once-mighty fortress used for ethnic cleansing now lies in ruins, but hiding behind the stone and mortar barricades lays fixed howitzer banks that has been turning local villages into smouldering craters. These mighty cannons may be fixed in place, but the patrolling NORMALS, the hives of attack choppers and the camouflaged regiments of tank platoons are not. You may not be used to using only your radar as you eyes, but they are. They know you are there.

You can boost without resorting to that option, of course, but not as suddenly or violently. You're free to plod along any of the differing environments as fast as your legs (or tracks) will let you travel, or you can speed yourself up using your burners to either propel you forward or upwards. You can literally skate across blackened tarmac or lush hills as easily as you can dance through the backdrop of a dying sunset to the attack jet-choked skies of perpetual twilight. Sometimes you feel like you need an extra set of fingers and a spare thumb or two to keep you Core on the move and launch whatever artillery you have grafted to it at the time, but the mastering of the system is nothing short of one of the most rewarding experiences a video game can give you.

Should you wish to stray into the improved version of the arena (now dressed up as a simulator, letting you upload various NEXT Cores to battle), youíll need all the practise and experience you can lay your hands on. NEXTS are not your normal run-of-the-mill Core: their pilots are linked directly to the machines, giving them significantly superior abilities that the lumbering NORMALS youíll mainly battle out on the field. In the simulator, you can go head-to-head with the digital representation of your own allies or take on the highest-ranking enemy foes so long as you obtain their data. You obtain new simulation downloads after each successful chapterís completion, along with a new garage worth of upgrades to purchase, stock up on or employ. Winning these simulations gives you much more then a sense of pride: like the missions you undertake, thereís a significant cash bonus top be won depending on your performance within, and successful fights even help further unlock greater bits of kit for your Core to abuse.

Keeping your cash high and your Core upgrades frequent is a must when Armored Core 4 has less of a difficulty curve and more a difficulty 400ft plummet. Failing a mission is not a finale, but a stumbling block, giving you chance to stop and rethink your position. Do I bulk up the armour, graft on a bigger gun and try to take out those long-rang cannons littered all over the canyon walls? Or do I lighten the Core up, concentrate on zipping through the centre of the valley, dodging as many of the heat-seeking missiles as I can? Itís not just about shooting, itís about preparation, and itís about evening the odds with the right mindset and the right equipment.

Like in all times of conflict, whether Amazigh is a bloodthirsty war criminal or a hero of the people depends solely on which side you reside. It doesnít matter to me: all I know is that the corporation thatís hired me is offering a sizable chunk of cash to take the man down. His Core, the Barbaroi, is a light model; build for mobility but packing serious heat. Dropped off in the ruins of a once prosperous city, I wait in the long shadows cast by the broken husks of what was once someoneís home, the setting sun sending hazy heat waves from the simmering desert.

In time, a clumsy transport will makes it way down lonely, winding road, oblivious to my presence in this graveyard of buildings. My choices are simple: I can hold position in my blind spot, only to rush the articulated truck, blasting and slashing it to smithereens before it has the chance to launch the NEXT into combat or I can stand in the middle of the road and invite the fight. In time, a third Core will join the fray, but, as to what side he takes, that depends on nothing but which side was the highest bidder.

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Community review by bside (January 20, 2008)

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