Two hundred years into the future and 70 years after the last Armored Core, From Software's Armored Core 2 picks up where the previous sequels left off: a world in ruin, humankind struggling to survive, and order on the brink of chaos. In this release, you'll assume the role of a Raven, a highly skilled mercenary for hire. Your tool of the trade: a ten-ton mech kitted out with a wide variety of rifles, missiles, radar units, explosives, and other destructive devices. Three dueling factions, the Zio Corporation, the LCC, and the Emeraude Corporation are vying for total control of the Mars Development Project. However, each of these groups lacks the resources to topple the others. Thus, across 30 missions, many of which are optional, each will hire you to do its dirty work. As for who wins, that's up to you.
Armored Core 2 isn't just about single-player combat missions, though. On the contrary, the Armored Core series has always been about an equal blend of mech customization, arena fighting, and mission-based combat. This PlayStation 2 rendition is no different. After you've completed the first training mission, a quick romp through a rebel subway, you're dished out to a mode select menu. From here, you can take part in one of 30 single-player missions, compete against 50 CPU opponents in the versus arena, or purchase and equip 14 different categories of armaments in the garage and shop areas. There's also a handy system for the saving and loading of character and emblem data. Your goals are simple: complete the missions, attain first place in the arena, and design one or more mechs that either meet or exceed the game's designation of "great." Doing so will take a great deal of time and effort, meticulously upgrading your mech and testing it in battle.
If you had to pick two words to describe Armored Core 2, "time" and "effort" would certainly be those words. With a gameplay engine and control system that are one part Mechwarrior and one part Virtual On Oratorio Tangram, Armored Core 2 may not be a burden, but it's no cakewalk either. You begin with a modest mech, with the lowest-level rifle, plasma sword, missile battery, and armor compliment. As you complete each mission or best an opponent in the arena, you earn credits toward the purchase of new parts. There are 15 part categories to attend to: head, core (torso), arms, legs, generator, FCS targeting, booster, back weapon left, back weapon right, arm weapon left, arm weapon right, radiator cooling system, inside options, extension systems, and optional parts. Each of these categories initially yields five to 15 upgrades, with more that are unlocked as you complete missions or uncover secrets. Sound painful? It is, at first. You'll spend a good six to eight hours initially, watching your hit points deplete, dying, restarting, and learning how to control every detail of your initially sluggish mech. However, as you complete missions, upgrade your components, and get used to the weight and energy requirements of all the different mech parts, the game's true beauty shines through - your mech begins to kick butt and so do you. While the control system - which rules out the use of analog controls in favor of digital-pad movement and button-controlled strafing - leaves much to be desired, the combination of exposure over time and mech upgrading really pulls you into the game. About the only crime Armored Core 2 is guilty of is being too realistic to the task. The game has a slick, arcade-like veneer, but weapons response and movement are stiff and unresponsive. Yes, they are realistic (or, as realistic as you can get when it comes to gigantic armed robots), but they're jarring to those who are new to the series or used to more inviting, competitive offerings. Frankly though, with a thick sci-fi plot and customization options to the gills, Armored Core 2 delivers its own brand of quality gameplay in spite of its painful controls.
Should you get bored with all of the tweaking and trial-and-error gameplay of Armored Core 2's single-player experience, you and a friend can also duke it out in the game's human versus mode - either through a one-on-one Virtual On Oratorio Tangram-style split screen or via Sony's i-Link link-up cable. Regardless of how you play, your friend can upload his or her creations to your game via a memory card, enabling you both to go toe-to-toe across eight maps with your own unique armored creations. The action is just as furious as the main game's arena mode, with zero slowdown, texture loss, or clipping issues.
Despite what you may gain from Armored Core 2's gameplay experience, the game's visual presentation is the best to date of any PlayStation 2 title. The action is conveyed in a third-person outside-the-mech view, similar to Virtual On Oratorio Tangram, with onscreen indicators displaying weapon choice, ammunition level, energy consumption, and hit points. Despite the sheer number of interchangeable, user-definable parts, Armored Core 2's mech models all ambulate, react, and handle as if every possible modification has been accounted for. Whether you create a four-legged walking tank with long-range missiles or a speedy chicken walker with pinpoint blasters, each of your creations will look just as if it were meant to exist based upon your own unique specifications. From the largest shoulder socket to the smallest metal flap, the number of moving objects attached to each mech is astonishing. Backing this up are a wide array of highly diverse backgrounds, 60fps animation, and the best use of particle effects in any mech title since Sega's Virtual On Oratorio Tangram on the Dreamcast. The only flaw one can readily find with Armored Core 2's graphical splendor is a lack of texture variety in flat terrain - a highly nitpicky issue that you really have to be concentrating on to notice. If you're a fan of great-looking mech games or have wanted an Armored Core title that lived up to your own imaginative expectations, Armored Core 2 is for you.
If gorgeous visuals weren't enough, Armored Core 2 is also the first PlayStation 2 title that backs up its graphical offerings with equally succulent audio. Background music is majestic and diverse, never repeating or getting on your nerves. If you enjoyed the drastic nature of Armored Core Project Phantasma's soundtrack, then Armored Core 2's musical score is going to set your senses on fire. It's not John Williams, but it certainly puts Gungriffon Blaze, Virtual On Oratorio Tangram, and every other recent mech title to shame. Surprisingly enough, Armored Core 2's in-game sound effects are just as detailed and varied as the musical score supporting them. Every weapon, with emphases on the word "every," has its own distinct sound effect for firing and collision. With 16 stock handheld weapons and a number of hidden armaments, such attention to detail is admirable.
Thanks to a few errant gameplay quirks, Armored Core 2 doesn't quite reach console mech perfection. However, thanks to a slick presentation, diverse gameplay, and overwhelming customization options, the game certainly comes close. If you've been looking for a vehicle to show off your PlayStation 2 or to wipe the rehashed taste of Project Phantasma and Master of Arena out of your mouth, Armored Core 2 is definitely a good start. Still, it's a shame that Armored Core 2's steep learning curve and stiff control mechanics are such an integral part of its gameplay, as there is a subset of the population that actually prefers the looser, more forgiving control systems that Gungriffon Blaze and Virtual On Oratorio Tangram offer. It's a true situation of apples to oranges, though, with orange lovers smiling all the way home.