Big, hulking robots. Towering, defensive behemoths ready to blow those same robots to smithereens. These are the key players in developer From Software's latest entry in the Armored Core series, the confusingly subtitled For Answer. They're also the main draw for longtime fans who have been tweaking mechs and taking them into battle since 1997. While this entry may not be the deepest or most involving game in the series, an increased sense of speed, highly destructible environments, and intense battles against gargantuan arms forts make this a game that should please both stalwart enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Not that this is a leap forward for the franchise--For Answer's environmental visuals are still extremely bland, and the gameplay, while tweaked, is much the same as it's been for years. But if you like to blow stuff up with giant metal automatons, this is your game.
But first, let's talk about the arms forts. These rolling instruments of destruction are new to the series and easily the biggest draw in For Answer. Doing battle with them is intense and satisfying, particularly in the more challenging encounters, such as that with the Spirit of Motherwill. In this battle, you and your mech take down a series of cannons while avoiding the wrath of missiles and other bots, and generally wreak havoc. It's rough, mind you: Depending on the arsenal you equip your bot with, you could find yourself out of ammo if you don't conserve properly, and dodging the constant barrage of cannon fire isn't easy. But destroying the fort is immensely rewarding, and while not all of these battles are as exciting as this one, they're all fun and (usually) challenging without being cheap. Even better, you can ramp up the thrills by adding a buddy to the mix. That assumes, of course, that you can find an interested participant among the tiny population of online players. A few weeks after release, fewer than a dozen individuals are playing via Xbox Live, and we found only a single opponent while testing the PlayStation 3 version. This could have been mitigated by offline co-op, but alas, the game doesn't feature such an option.
Standard missions play out with considerably less excitement, though they're amusing enough on their own terms. Unfortunately, most of them are still relatively short, some clocking in at under a minute if you're particularly agile with a controller. They may involve taking down a series of mechs, escorting a train from one side of a map to the other, or destroying a couple of generators and then escaping from the facility before it explodes. These missions are fine, but most are pretty easy and end just as they're getting interesting. It makes the single-player campaign feel fragmented, and it's hard to feel involved with a scenario when it's over in two minutes. However, the bite-size chunks make this a game you can turn to for a quick, steel-infused rush--a rush further enhanced by terrifically destructible environments. Cover opportunities in abandoned cities and among crumbling overpasses turn into explosions of smoke and particles, and the ensuing visual chaos adds a nice sense of urgency to battles. The quick, arcade feel of the action is augmented by your bolstered boosters, and the quick enemy mechs that whip about with alarming velocity.
This age-old franchise comes with age-old frustrations, though--ones that fans have learned to live with but newcomers will struggle with. The autotargeting is still occasionally touchy, and the camera never seems to be able to catch up when things are moving quickly, so expect to fumble a bit when you lose your lock-on or deal with camera lag during freefalls and other speedy moments. The controls are relatively up to the task, however. The default scheme is easy to get used to, though connoisseurs will be happy to know that a few other control schemes are available, and you can customize it to your liking. This is just as well, since there are a lot of control issues for newcomers to drink in, from purging and switching weapons to assault armor and thrusting.
As with previous games, how you outfit your mech before these battles means either sure victory or crushing defeat, depending on your own play style and the strengths and weaknesses of your AI opponents. This is where mech customization comes in, and it's as involving as fans would expect without being so dense as to alienate newcomers. As always, you can switch out everything from weaponry to thrusters to heads, which in turn lets you tailor your mech to be a bazooka-laden tank, a nimble sniping machine, or a melee-focused berserker. As you complete single-player missions and take part in arena battles against other bots, you unlock new parts you can purchase and then slap on. The retooled interface makes it easier to buy and equip parts, so while the menus may take some getting used to, they're easy to navigate, considering the great number of possibilities at your disposal. The customization possibilities aren't as deep as some previous Armored Core games (you don't need to worry about cooling, for example), but there's still a lot of room to tweak. And if you're really a mech-head, you can mess with balancing, fire control system parts, and plenty more.
If you're looking for a visual tour de force, For Answer won't give you one. Environments are bland, with very little to look at. Cluttered environments wouldn't make a lot of sense in missions and mech-vs.-mech arenas, but in too many cases, there is an awful lot of sand and perhaps a scattering of poorly textured gray buildings--and absolutely nothing else but you, your opponent, and blocky, canned explosion effects. On the other hand, arms forts are nicely detailed, and the destructible pieces and constant barrage of missiles produce vibrant displays of light and color. Additionally, while there aren't a lot of them, the in-game cutscenes look excellent. The Xbox 360 seems a little more capable of rendering the game; while frame rate hitches were relatively uncommon on that platform, the PlayStation 3 version seemed more prone to slowdown, though this problem wasn't blatant enough to interfere with the gameplay.
Sound effects are terrific across the board--familiar, certainly, but there's a lot of mechanized noise, all the time, and the effects are always appropriately bombastic without being overwhelming. On top of it all, the voice acting is quite good, and the music, like its predecessor's, is easy on the ears. Not that there is much context for the visuals and sound; the story plays out mostly in mission briefings, which is usual for the series, but misses an opportunity to flesh out its characters and theme. Multiple play-throughs uncover some of the story's mysteries, but the neat concept--humanity has fled to airborne habitats to escape oppressive pollution--could have benefitted from some cinematic flair.
On top of missions, you can work your way through a series of bots in the arena, though it would have been nice to have more maps to choose from. You can also take the fight online, and while there are more maps to play on in a multiplayer environment, there are very few people to compete with. Regardless, Armored Core: For Answer is a worthwhile addition to the series, and while the franchise could certainly use a face-lift, this strip-mall makeover covers up the main blemishes.