The third game in the Armored Core series follows in the footsteps of the second game - Armored Core: Project Phantasma - in that it's more like an add-on pack than a new game in the line. Armored Core: Master of Arena provides new missions, arena opponents, and other assorted bits, but the interface, graphics, and overall feel are essentially the same.
If you haven't played an Armored Core game yet, there's some explaining to be done. You're a Raven, a mercenary pilot of a giant robot known as an armored core. You lend out your services to various companies and agencies that hire you for missions such as bodyguard work, search-and-destroy runs, and even the occasional rare-item retrieval. From there, you can use your earnings to buy additional parts to improve your mech so you can do your job better, make more money, buy new parts, and so on. Areas of your robot that can be configured include the head, core, arms, legs, CPU, generator, back weapons, hand weapons, and special parts. A wide variety of items are available, allowing you to create a fairly distinct AC of your own. This customizability is one of the best things about the series.
Beyond going on missions, the Ravens also like to compete against each other for top ranking within the organization. In a kind of future gladiator-style matchup, two mechs enter one of a number of disparate arenas, and only one leaves. To the victor goes prize money and occasionally an extra part; to the loser, nothing at all.
These features remain in Armored Core: Master of Arena. In fact, the similarities between this game and the last two games are overwhelming. The graphics are almost identical, which is unfortunate because they're looking more and more dated as time goes by. What deserved a score of eight a few years ago is now lucky to get a six because the visual standard has been raised, but none of the game's camera problems (your AC sometimes gets in the way of your view) have been fixed. The missions in AC:MOA are largely variations of earlier ones. In one, for example, you're parked on the top of a submarine, and you must fend off attackers from above. At one stage of AC: PP, you were parked on top of a helicarrier in the same way. This isn't to say that's bad; it's just more of the same. There are some fun and somewhat fresh new stages in AC:MOA - such as one where you attack a huge armored fortress - but they're exceptions. Many of the missions are pretty hard to accomplish, causing one to wonder how players who haven't imported ACs from previous games can survive the missions at all.
Besides the missions, there are also several new, mostly well-designed arenas and new weapons and parts. Most distinct from previous AC games, though, is AC:MOA's multiplayer and configurable enemy options. First, its multiplayer mode is different from that of Armored Core: Project Phantasma. In AC: PP, two original copies were needed to compete in PlayStation Link Cable play. Armored Core: Master of Arena, however, comes with a second disc, making it a little easier to link up and fight. The second disc is also noteworthy because it offers a few more enemy mechs to battle, and it gives you the ability to create your own AC opponents, much in the same way you've tooled together your own machine but with some basic AI levels to boot. It's a nice function, but it's not quite as cool as it sounds since you're limited to fighting one mech at a time.
Even with these new elements, Armored Core: Master of Arena is really only recommended to die-hard fans of the line. It's much more of a stand-alone game than the last one was, but it's still not nearly all that it could be. The series could use a complete graphics overhaul, an update to the camera and controls, the ability to fight several mechs at once in an arena, and maybe even some bio-organic parts, just to mix things up a bit. People interested in checking out the Armored Core trilogy should start with the first game, which offers the same essential play you'll find here in a more comprehensive package - or wait for the upcoming full-fledged sequel on the PlayStation2.