It's amazing to me how quickly some things can turn around, for better or for worse. In life as well as games, everything can be completely fine and good one moment and absolutely wretched the next. It's something that everyone should keep in the back of their minds, but the good news is that it's just as possible to go from bad to good as it is to go from good to bad. Case in point— Armored Core.
I guess I'm what you'd call a hardcore fan of FromSoft's long-running series (see our archive for more reviews), but I fell out of love with it a few sequels ago. After the absolute disaster that was Nine Breaker I was ready to call it quits for good and pronounce the series dead. It's not that there isn't any potential left, but that in sequel after sequel the developers have failed to realize any of it. I just got tired of the comfortable rut they carved out for themselves years ago.
With that said, I was prepared to be let down all over again with the arrival of Armored Core: Formula Front—Extreme Battle at my doorstep, but I'm extremely happy to say that this game is a perfect example of how completely things can change in a hurry. Over the course of the one little UMD, I left my bitterness behind and got hopelessly addicted all over again.
This time around, FromSoft gave their high-tech third-person robot battling a much-needed shakeup in the transition from PS2 to PSP. The bulk of the game is intact with its insane amount of weaponry and parts to tinker with, the mech construction and fine-tuning still the same art form that it ever was. However, instead of controlling my intricate creations directly, the hook is that these engines of war can be programmed to run on player-directed artificial intelligence (AI) protocols. Leaving the intellectual challenges in my hands, the battles are now more like a spectator sport.
This isn't a new idea. A few other games have attempted it before, most notably Carnage Heart on the PS1. However, Formula Front absolutely nails the concept of teaching and guiding an electric brain. By streamlining and simplifying the type of input required from me, something that was formerly a logistic nightmare is now an accessible, transparent process that yields immediate results without requiring a degree in mathematics.
While some players may think that leaving combat up to the computer is a form of heresy, I would disagree. Most of Armored Core's appeal has always been in the design phase, and I hate to say it, but the artificial intelligence is a much better pilot than I ever could be in terms of technical precision. It may lack on-the-fly improvisation, but some of the shots that my Cores made would have been impossible to pull off myself, and I saw some spectacular maneuvers that simply could not have been done otherwise given the series' history of less-than-optimal control and camera schemes. Anyone who's ever played an Armored Core game and been schooled by a computer opponent flying circles around them will find an all-new appreciation for the AI when it's fighting for them instead of against.
Another reason why I found Formula Front to be a breath of fresh air is that the developers finally took the time to include detailed explanations of each mechanical part's function in straightforward language in addition to basic tutorials about how to play the game. Something like this has been necessary for years because the Armored Core series is notorious for being impenetrable to newcomers. The mystery of how to select the right booster or how to compare the stats of two different radiators has been stripped away, and this is a very good thing.
Although I feel very enthusiastic about Formula Front—Extreme Battle, the fact is that it's not going to be for everyone and the learning curve will be steep for people not already familiar with Armored Core. The difficulty of matches can spike wildly at times (battle numbers 30 and 10 come to mind), and the path to victory is found through careful observation and analysis of failure. Without the knowledge of why failures occur or even what to look for, battling can be a very frustrating experience.
Also, since the bulk of the game is a passive mental exercise in tweaking and re-tweaking AI and mech parts instead of the usual fast-hands action, people who like hits of twitchy adrenaline might be left wanting. It actually is possible to control your Cores in battle manually, but the layout for doing so on the PSP is terrible, even worse than on the Dual Shock. (It's so clunky, in fact, that the developers even make in-jokes about it via the story's e-mail system.) Direct control is not recommended, so if the thought of orchestrating victories from the drafting board instead of the cockpit does not sound like a good time, it probably won't be.
There might be some aspects of Armored Core: Formula Front—Extreme Battle that I'd like to change, but overall this game is the best thing to happen to the series in years. The AI programming system and shift to hands-off combat give Armored Core an incredible sense of freshness and renewed vigor. Putting together a champion from scratch and seeing it take down opponents through the power of solid design and mental strategy is a fantastic feeling—it's almost like watching your own child take its first steps or finally get the hang of a riding a bike. Formula Front's identity is undoubtedly going to turn some people away, but I see it as a bold, successful, and very welcome alternative to watching a franchise I spent so much time with wither away and die from stagnation. It's not perfect, but it is excellent.