Armored Core: Nine Breaker is the latest in the long-running series of giant-robot combat games from From Software. The series has a devoted niche of fans who have latched on to its unique style, which is not as arcadey as Virtual On nor quite as tactical or simulation-oriented as the MechWarrior games. What's interesting about Nine Breaker is that the developers have stripped away any semblance of story, leaving a game that is sort of like a mecha version of Quake III Arena. For better or for worse, Nine Breaker is a pure arena combat game with absolutely no frills.
There are two primary play modes in Armored Core: Nine Breaker: training and arena. Training mode includes about 150 different exercises in areas such as marksmanship, navigation, and defense. These begin with simple exercises, such as shooting moving-target drones in a limited amount of time or making your way through a maze using your rocket boosters. You're rated in each exercise depending on your performance, but for the most part, these feel like basic minigames that aren't exciting or compelling. The real meat of the game is the arena mode, where you take on several ladders of AI-controlled robots, or "ACs." Each time you enter arena mode, you're given a list of opponents, and you can choose whom you're going to battle--seeing how many points you can stand to gain from a victory or lose from a defeat. As you gain points, you'll be invited to official matches, which let you gain in rank and class and thus move up the ladder until you're the king of the arena. That's pretty much all there is to it. Set up a fight, shoot up your opponent, get points, tweak your AC in the garage, advance up the ladder, then set up another fight. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The actual combat in Nine Breaker is straightforward. You're dumped into enclosed arenas where you must maneuver around and duel against human or AI-controlled cores. The game's 20 different arenas offer a little bit of variation. In many of them you can hide behind obstacles to shield yourself from incoming fire and missiles. But for the most part you'll be boosting around and into the air to dodge shots while slugging it out with a variety of weapons ranging from guns, rockets, and lasers to hand-to-hand weapons like blades and shields. Though the action offers a decent pace, you'll have some tactical concerns to worry about, such as running out of ammunition, overheating, and power concerns. For example, if you set up your AC with laser weapons, you'll often find yourself making a compromise in maneuverability since your boosters feed off the same power source. The game offers a decent amount of strategy since you decide how to set up your AC in order to best match up with your opponents. Within a match, you can also get a feel for what weapons your opponent is using, and once you get a feel for how different weapon systems work, you can use that knowledge to take advantage of vulnerable moments for your opponent.
To change your AC's loadout, you can enter the garage area in between matches, where you have access to a boggling array of options. Your AC is completely modular, and you're allowed to swap out different body parts, chassis, weapons, and more. The customizability really is amazing. You can have hover units that allow for quick movement, or you can have actual leg units. Different targeting computers affect the efficiency of your target acquisition and range, generators supply power to all your systems, and radiators manage your heat dissipation. You can also slap in optional units that can enhance your AC in different ways, like adding countermeasures for missiles. You can even tune individual parts to slightly modify their base performance. The game boasts more than 400 different interchangeable parts, making for thousands upon thousands of different possibilities. While this is great for Armored Core veterans, you do need to worry about part compatibilities, proper energy supply, and weight capacity. Unfortunately the esoteric nature of ideal AC construction isn't explained very well in the manual, and the in-game interface is also pretty vague about what all the numbers mean. If you're new to the Armored Core series, you'll go through some trial and error before you start to figure out how everything works and what all the numbers represent.
What's odd about Nine Breaker is that you have access to a great many of these parts right from the start. While this gives the game a lot of flexibility and is convenient for head-to-head play against a human opponent, it also doesn't give you much incentive to play through the arena portion of the game. There's also no real concept of money in the game--if you want to make a change, you can just head into the garage and swap out parts without worrying about having to unlock or buy stuff.
Unfortunately, Nine Breaker doesn't include any sort of online multiplayer. Don't let the label on the back of the box that says "Network Adaptor - 4 players" fool you. This just means that you can hook multiple PS2 units into a hub and play four-player action that way. Standard iLink connections also work, or you can just play two-player split-screen on a single PS2. It's the head-to-head action where Nine Breaker shines, as you can match wits with another human player on the best way to set up your ACs and then prove it in a match. For the most part, frame rates hold up in split-screen action, but giving up half your screen is less than ideal for a game where tracking and keeping your enemy in front of you are key.
As far as presentation goes, Nine Breaker is adequate to the task but isn't all that remarkable. The heads-up display is fairly clean and uncluttered while still functional, and the ACs themselves are nicely detailed. Explosions and weapon effects are a bit bland though, and so are the explosions from newly destroyed ACs. Don't expect a whole lot of particle deformation or satisfying bits of machinery flying all over the place. The game's sound effects are passable but also lack the exceptional oomph or impact that you'd hope for from a combat game of this type. There isn't a whole lot of variety to the music either, and most of it is pretty forgettable as well
If you were a big fan of Armored Core already and wanted a game whose focus is solely arena combat, then you'll probably like Nine Breaker. It's a simple, sandbox-style combat game with a lot of AC customizability options for hardcore players and no frills or other nonsense to distract you from the main task at hand: dueling. If you weren't really familiar with the series going in, then Nine Breaker doesn't try very hard to draw you in--you're probably better off going with another, more accessible robot combat game.