Publisher Agetec may want to get away from the "same-old, same-old" reviews the Armored Core series usually receives, but it's going to take more than a little switcheroo in the title to get the job done. Silent Line is the seventh entry in developer Fromsoft's long-running cult series, but there's really very little to differentiate it from the others previously released. This can be viewed as either a good or bad thing depending on your experience with (and love of) the games, but as a seasoned veteran of all seven, I'm more than ready for this franchise to receive a complete and total overhaul.
Debuting on the PlayStation back in 1997, the Armored Core games have always followed the same standard formula: pilot infinitely customizable robots (referred to as "Cores") through an array of freelance combat missions, then collect the reward money and upgrade your ride. It's a solid, proven formula that genuinely works. Unfortunately, the people at Fromsoft seem to think that it works so well that it never needs to be changed or improved. There have been tweaks and modifications to the content over the course of its history, but nothing drastic enough to alter its well-worn persona. I have to respect the developer in a way, since it's common to see a great game's sequel ruined by over-zealousness at the design table, but being too cautious (for years!) can be just as damaging.
For example, the first thing I noticed is that the game looks identical to its predecessor, Armored Core 3. That game looked like a carbon copy of Armored Core 2: Another Age, which looked exactly like Armored Core 2. See a pattern here? I personally pride myself on not being a slave to high-end graphics, but even going by my lenient standards the visuals in Silent Line are well past their expiration date. The Cores themselves look good, but everything else about the game is straight out of the 32-bit generation in terms of design complexity and level of detail. I didn't mind overlooking this when the series first made the leap to PlayStation 2, but that was three games ago! Even taking into account that Fromsoft is not a multimedia powerhouse with unlimited resources, I don't get the impression that they're trying to take steps in this area.
Moving away from the visuals, Silent Line's new additions are little more than minor distractions, not adding substantial content beyond what's long been established. For example, the new first-person viewpoint in addition to the standard third-person is nice for those who want it, but it's hardly something to crow about. Due to the fast-paced chaotic combat, the loss of external perspective is ineffective and highly impractical to use. The back of the box mentions another new feature—the ability to target and knock out specific weapons on enemy Cores (each Core can have up to six). I didn't notice this come into play even once during the entire game. Finally, there's a mode that enables you to train your own A.I. Core, and even team up with it in a 2-on-2 combat arena. It sounds wonderful, but in practice it falls spectacularly flat. I suppose you can blame the teacher (me) for the A.I. student's lack of progress, but I doubt many will have the patience or interest to put much time into such a minor part of the game.
The rest of the disc is stuck in the same overly-familiar rut it's been in for years. (Please see the Armored Core 2, Armored Core 2: Another Age, and Armored Core 3 reviews in our archives for further details.) As I was progressing through the story mode, I found myself becoming more and more disappointed for two reasons, each feeding off the other.
Primarily, the game's difficulty curve is totally thrown off balance. I can only assume the intent was to provide a greater challenge than player-friendly Armored Core 3, and not outright sadism. By heavily upping the damage inflicted by enemies and drastically stacking the odds against you, anyone without extensive experience is going to be in for a very bumpy ride, even on the Normal setting. I've completed all six of the previous Armored Core games, but despite my experience I still found certain parts of Silent Line to be utterly merciless. Attempting to get 100% completion is downright ludicrous. I enjoy a good challenge as much as the next gamer, but there's a certain line of difficulty that can't be crossed without risking the loss of your audience. What's the point of playing a game if it feels more like baleful oppression than an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon?
This leads directly into my second cause for concern—a deadly lack of accessibility. Although Fromsoft's creation has a very dedicated fan base of longtime players, I shudder to imagine what the game must be like to someone walking into the series for the first time. My feeling is that by easing away from their extreme hardcore focus and making a few concessions to Armored Core newcomers, their current audience could be greatly expanded. Forgoing all niceties like a meaty story, cutscenes to encourage progress or bigger rewards for successful missions, Silent Line is strictly business. Problem is the only people who are going to succeed at this business are those who've already mastered it. Fromsoft isn't doing their game any great service by preaching to the choir and leaving everyone else standing outside the door.
It pains me to feel this way about a series that I've enjoyed so sincerely over the years, but with the completion of Silent Line: Armored Core I think the great love affair is finally over. That's not to say that it's over forever, though. There's a lot of room for the franchise to grow and improve, because it certainly haven't reached its ultimate potential yet. I will gladly welcome a true elevation of the game with open arms. I just hope that the people at Fromsoft will be bold enough to break out of their complacency and realize that the only confining limits on Armored Core's success are the ones they've created for themselves.