Though Armored Core Formula Front was released last December at the PSP's Japanese launch, it's been one of the few Japanese-released games to not be released in the US. While this is fine for the likes of the small clutch of mahjong games released at the same time during the hardware launch, Armored Core Formula Front is conspicuously absent here, creating a mech-action deficit on American PSPs. Fortunately, it appears that Agetec hasn't forgotten about the game and has actually been hard at work on it, making it better suited for the US.
For those who missed it, Armored Core Formula Front is a mech simulation game where you tune a mech with an extensive selection of customization parts and options. Then you watch it fight against other mechs using computer-controlled artificial intelligence that you can also customize. You'll essentially be playing as an owner of a team of five mechs, making them fight one-on-one matches against other mechs. Your objective is to win battles to become the highest-ranking contender in the grand prix featured in the game. You start off by playing in the lowest-ranking league, and it's up to you and your customization skills to climb up the charts. You'll be prompted to enter a name for your team when you play the game for the first time, and you can also create your own logo for your team through the emblem option, which gives you a set of basic graphical tools for you to draw on a 128x128 pixel area that you can save to your Memory Stick Duo.
Your five mechs have different colors and settings when you start the game, but you can customize them however you want. Each of the mech components you use will have its pros and cons, so you'll need to customize your mech with components that match or can counter the opponent you're about to go against. You'll find that you can deal with different opponents quickly by giving your squad different settings, such as making one that's agile and good against close-quarter combat, while making another that's totally the opposite by being heavy and packing all sorts of arms. That way you can just pick the mech best suited for the enemy type you'll face before a fight, making minor adjustments if you need to.
The basic gameflow of Formula Front is that you'll first customize your own mech, tune its AI, and then watch it fight against the opponent's mech. You customize your mech through the garage menu, which lets you select the various components you want to use on your mech, starting off with the minimal requirement of parts you need, which are its head, core, arms, legs, booster, fire control system (FCS), generator, and radiator. The game won't let you enter the battle if you're missing any of those fundamental parts, like if you try to make a mech that only consists of a leg, for instance. You have a full selection for each of your body parts from the moment you fire up the game, which is convenient, considering you don't need to unlock them as in other games. You can also change around the color of your mech through a paint menu by either picking a preset or by making your own set of palettes by toying around with the mech's RGB settings.
In general, parts that only have basic functions tend to be lighter in weight and require less energy to use, while parts that are more useful are usually heavier and require more energy. So if you try to make a mech that's loaded with the most useful parts and strongest firearms, you won't be able to move around at all, and you'll become a sitting duck. The game features a load of different weapons, such as grenade launchers, pulse rifles, laser cannons, spread guns, bazookas, machine guns, flame launchers, and, as in all mech games, a selection of blades. You can hold two weapons, one in your mech's right hand and one in its left. You've also got hanging units and weapons you can attach on the back of your mech, such as homing missiles, stealth missiles, and rail cannons. In addition, there's a selection of supplementary weapons you can equip, such as land mines and ECM (Electronic Counter Measure) devices that can interfere with your opponent's radar and lock-on capabilities.
Mech Your Mark
Once you're done customizing the components on your mech, you can tune your mech's artificial intelligence via three options: base character, performance, and operations. In base character, you can define the personality of your mech's AI, such as the distance it likes to keep from the enemy, its frequency of jumping, and whether it fights aggressively or defensively.
Performance lets you customize the intelligence of your AI by distributing points in 10 categories, such as enemy analysis, geography analysis, attacking technique, defending technique, enemy searching, and overheat control, among others. Since you're limited to the number of points you can distribute to the categories, you'll need to change them around, depending on the situation of the upcoming battle. For example, if the enemy has a lot of weaponry, it would be important to raise your mech AI's enemy analysis and defending techniques. Or if the stage has a lot of obstacles, it would be good to raise your mech's geography analysis skills and enemy searching capabilities.
An interesting feature in Formula Front's AI customization is the operations option, which lets you make your mech act differently in 30-second intervals. You do this by selecting icons, called operation chips, and then inserting them into each of the 30-second interval slots located on the top of the operations option screen. The operation chips available from the beginning of the game are relatively odd commands, such as one that makes your mech jump frequently as its method of moving around or one that makes it completely disengage its equipment. You can unlock more operation chips as you beat opponents in the game, which are hopefully more useful.
Once you've finished customizing your mech's components and AI, it's time to start a match. You can play against the computer in the single mode's grand prix, or you can fight against another PSP owner via a Wi-Fi connection. Once the match starts, everything is up to your mech and its customized AI, since you don't actually control your mech or give it any orders. While you're watching your mech go at its opponent, you can move around your view of the battlefield by using the analog stick, and you can zoom in and out with the L and R buttons. The four main buttons of the PSP let you switch the viewing angles of the screen. You can also view the various data about your mech and the battle situation by pressing up on the D pad, which will display semitransparent control panels with information such as your remaining life, your mech's body heat, the consumption and recharge rate of energy that's needed for using the booster and some special weapons, along with other kinds of data, including the enemy's life and the screen radar.
After the battle is over, you'll get a results page that outlines details of the battle you can use as reference for future customizations. The results page displays data such as your average distance to the enemy, average lock-on time, how many times you've overheated, as well as the number of hits and damage for each of the weapons you've used against your opponent. You're also given the option to run a playback of the match, although the game, unfortunately, doesn't come with an option to save the playback recording.
Though the sim aspects of Formula Front were its big feature in Japan, the US version has been given one very important tweak: namely, the ability to actively control your mech. As a result, you'll be able to override your machine's AI and can lead it in to battle yourself. The simple tweak allows for a more hands-on approach, which was lacking in the original Japanese import.
From what we've played so far, Armored Core Formula Front seems to be a solid mech simulation game that will entertain you for hours, if you like to customize mechs. It isn’t an action game, but it features graphics that make it look like one...and in a quality you'd expect on the PlayStation 2. While Formula Front can be difficult to get into because of its extensive components and customization options, a few hours of playing should get you used to it. Armored Core Formula Front is slated to ship within the coming weeks.