Let's face it: Armored Core developer From Software has had a tough time naming games. Armored Core: Project Phantasma? The Adventures of Cookie and Cream? And coming later this month is Armored Core: For Answer. For Answer? We don't even know the question, but we do know after our hands-on time with the game that From Software continues to lead the way in fully customizable postapocalyptic booster-powered robot action. What else would you expect from the developer of Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit?
This time around, From has ditched publisher Sega and gone with Ubisoft. For Answer is not a true sequel to Armored Core 4, Ubisoft told us, but rather a continuation, taking place 10 years in the future. And some future: The Earth has been so polluted that its inhabitants have either hidden deep underground or fled to the skies--7,000 meters straight up, in flying cities called cradles. While more than half of humanity has ascended, the battle for resources rages on the surface, fought by--you guessed it--giant friggin' mechs.
As a budding mercenary mech pilot, it's your job to pick and choose missions from the various corporations and factions, use credits to upgrade your mech, and then take on more dangerous (and higher-paying) jobs. It's the same Armored Core formula that has made the game a hit with gearheads since the original game hit the original PlayStation many moons ago. This time around, the League of Ruling Companies has constructed floating cradles to protect humanity from the pollution of the surface. What the League's crack PR team failed to mention is that the League itself is responsible for the devastating pollution, and the resource plants that supply the cradles are wreaking even more havoc on the biosphere. On the surface, rebels have bound together to form Orca, a resistance group hell-bent on retaking the Earth and dismantling the league. And in the middle is you, a lynx pilot with your very own mech, or NEXT.
Should you decide to take missions against the League, you'll do battle against Armed Forts, the League's answer to dangerous mechs. AFs are huge mobile bases, constructed with the sole purpose of keeping control over the Earth's resources on land, sea, and air. Thousands of times larger in size than a typical Armored Core NEXT unit, they represent the ultimate force on Earth. Lucky for you, you're not exactly going into the fight with a water pistol.
Head, core, legs, arms, radar, boosters, and, of course, weapons are all available for purchase at the handy neighborhood mech store. We plugged in a few cheat codes to unlock every part and began by constructing a walking WMD. With reverse-jointed legs for maximum speed, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, a sniper rifle, and a laser sword, our machine was ready to take on Giga, a sea-based armed fort with devastating firepower, in one of the single-player campaign missions. Because armed forts have serious long-range targeting capabilities, our mech outfitted with a "vanguard overed boost" unit. Wearing the VOB is basically like strapping a rocket to your back, and it's used to help you maneuver past the incoming missile attacks of the AF so you can get in close and chop it to pieces. Using auxiliary side boosters, you'll zip past enemy battleships and bombers, avoiding AF missiles, then ditch the VOB as you get in close and proceed to dismantle it, part by part. Of course, we were blown to scrap metal in the first 30 seconds. For Answer is hard.
High-speed robot action is decidedly easier playing with a friend, and almost every mission in For Answer can be played cooperatively, save for a few key story-based missions designed with only one player in mind. The only caveat is that one player must have already beaten the mission beforehand, so co-op play is not a true campaign, but rather a way to go back and play with a friend. Then again, if your buddy has finished a mission that you've had trouble beating yourself, you can beat the mission and move forward in your campaign.
The mech store and garage is very similar to past Armored Core titles. Play through missions to find or unlock new parts, sell your old ones, buy some new ones, and hit the battlefield. Thanks to a seemingly infinite number of possibilities, you can build slow, lumbering tanks perfect for dealing heavy damage, or light and speedy machines better suited for smaller enemies and precise targeting. The user interface makes it difficult to figure out exactly what kind of machine is best for the job. After a slick cinematic opening to each level, you jump into the action, though we didn't see any kind of true mission briefings in our time with the game. As such, we did find ourselves getting destroyed, returning to the garage, and swapping in the right tools for the respective job more than once. That said, the customization options are deep and impressive, and designs can be shared online with friends and are available to download and try out yourself. Should you rather spend your time in the warzone rather than under the hood, From has included several predesigned templates of different mechs. Either way, you'll feel the difference between light and fast mechs and slow and powerful mechs, and find a happy medium somewhere in the middle.
The battlefields are varied in size. Some are absolutely huge and have varied environments, some of which seem to have more-brilliant scenery than others One of our mechs was a nimble flying machine, able to boost through levels with ease--not a great trait in one river valley mission that ended in failure every time we elevated past 100 meters or so (something about us leaving the mission area).
After the co-op and single-player missions, we jumped into the competitive multiplayer mode, which will support eight players online. One map featured several floating cradles spaced thousands of meters apart from one another. Such a large map is great for snipers and high-flyers, while energy-sword-wielding melee players may prefer a city on the surface in which you use skyscrapers for cover. One quick note: Almost all cover is destructible, including skyscrapers.
Despite a few qualms with the menus and controls, For Answer looks like a worthy successor to Armored Core 4 and, in many ways, the original Armored Core. The basic game design hasn't changed much over the years, probably because designing your own mech and slicing an enemy in half with an energy sword remains a joyful experience. Look for Armored Core: For Answer when it hits stores September 16 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.