Armored Core (Playstation, 1997)
The first thing anyone mentions when they talk about these games nowadays is the dated control scheme. It’s basically tank controls on the d-pad, shoulder buttons to strafe and look up/down on the left and right triggers. I will say that when the game first came out, these controls were not out of place. In 1997 people were only just beginning to figure out how to control a first/third person shooter with a mouse and keyboard, let alone a gamepad, and I remember playing a lot of games that controlled similarly at the time. Of course, that was then. Nowadays, these controls simply don’t hold up.
Luckily they can be remapped. The game came out before the DualShock controller, so it doesn’t support the analog sticks at all, but I randomly came across a forum post with a pretty clever workaround: bind look up/down/left/right to the face buttons. With that, you can make an approximation of modern dual analog controls. If you’ve ever played a 3rd person shooter on the PSP (eg. The Third Birthday, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker) it’s the exact same idea. It’s not ideal, but it was enough to satisfy my delicate 2017 hands, and after a short while I was able to stop thinking about it and just play the game.
I said these are “mech games” up at the top there because that seems to be what most people call them, but I think that’s actually a bullshit genre because it’s almost entirely based on the theming/fantasy elements and not the way the game plays. What I’d really call it is a hybrid between a 3rd person shooter and a simulation/vehicle game. It feels a lot like a typical 3rd person shooter in the moment to moment gameplay, but there are various aspects of the handling to make it obvious that you’re piloting a vehicle, not just a dude in a suit. The missions are also split down the middle, with half of them looking like they came from a simulation game — you’re dropped into a large-ish open plot of land and given a military style objective (destroy these AA guns, defend this transport, etc.), while the other half are more like a typical shooter — a series of rooms and hallways full of bad guys with an objective at the end.
I find this to be an interesting split, not just because as far as I can tell, it’s a unique one, but also because the simulation half is basically a dead genre at this point. There have been a couple recent revivals in extremely specific niches like hyper-realistic plane simulations. I guess that free to play tank game exists, but nobody talks about it. I certainly haven’t played anything like this since… I don’t know, Descent: Freespace? I tried to play Mechwarrior 2 just to have a point of comparison, but it was too clunky and I couldn’t deal with it. That’s another interesting thing about the genre mix — Armored Core and From Software games in general are known for being extremely complex and unapproachable, and it certainly looks that way when you put it next to other action games on consoles. When you look it to the PC simulation games that make up the other half of its lineage though, it’s remarkably streamlined and intuitive in comparison. I consider it a successful “console” take on a very PC-centric genre. You could draw the same comparison between King’s Field and Ultima Underworld, which should make a lot of sense if you’ve ever tried (and failed) to get into the latter.
All in all I enjoyed the game just as much as I thought it would. The loop of design robot -> kill stuff -> get paid -> design better robot is pretty satisfying. Once you get a feel for the controls and what you can do with them, pulling off ace maneuvers in combat can be pretty fun too, something I didn’t even get around to really talking about, but this post has already gone on way too long. I can use the other games in the series as an excuse to talk about that and other things. There are certainly enough of them to give me all the space I could possibly need.