Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Armored Core For Answer: Learning the Game

One of the new games I got as a Christmas present to accompany my brother and I's new Xbox 360 was Armored Core For Answer, a mech action game. This is the first game in that series that I have ever owned, and only the second I have ever played for more than a moment (the previous one being Armored Core 2 Another Age). I was a bit nervous about the game, really, since I disliked the controls and clunkiness of Armored Core 2, but after getting used to For Answer, I am really beginning to like it. However, my original concerns were not completely without merit, since it has taken me several hours with the game to even begin to feel like I have a grasp on it, and there are still things that occasionally crop up and give me difficulties. This game has an awful learning curve.

Controlling your NEXT (the powerful humanoid war machines in the game) can be an incredibly daunting task at first. I suppose someone more familiar with FPS games would be a bit more comfortable with the movement/aiming/turning controls, but added on top of that is the unusual combination of the jump/flight button and the boost button, so that the same button can either make you move over the ground more quickly than usual or make you fly into the air, which takes some practice to master. The real trick, though, is adapting to managing the slow turn speed, the lack of a reliable lock-on function, the easily misled camera, and the differing walking, boosting, flying, and quick boosting speeds in order to use a relatively clunky machine to fight incredibly high speed battles. Enemy NEXT units are important foes, and they can move incredibly fast. Unless you can move just a fast and still retain a high degree of control, the game can be brutally difficult and frustrating. This difficulty made earlier Armored Core games fairly unapproachable for me, and it took me hours to really get the hang of this one, even though I think it is a bit easier to manage the NEXTs of For Answer than the Armored Cores of older games.

The reason that the game controls have such a high learning curve is because the game designers probably wanted to give the player a number of tactical options and wanted to make the experience seem a bit more realistic, but this method does have downsides. I mean, having a difference between a NEXT's walking speed and ground-boosting speed creates an important choice for the sake of walking in order to resupply energy more quickly or boosting in order to move more quickly and avoid shots, but since walking is suicidally slow, you pretty much need to be at least boosting at all times in order to get anywhere and avoid fire. This means that, in anything other than the limited "simple" control set-up, you pretty much need to be holding down the boost button at all times, which seems a bit redundant, creates the annoying dual role of the boost/flight button, and gets in the way of using my index finger to switch my active left weapon. The need to switch between arm weapons and shoulder weapons, and the associated time delay, seems to be another oddity of the game controls. Other features, like the ability to disengage lock-on by depressing the left control stick or the ability to purge weapons by hitting three buttons at the same time, just seem more like traps designed to occasionally interfere with the player than useful control options. Trying to add more features and controls than the console's controller can actually easily support is never a good idea.

Beyond the learning curve of the combat control scheme, there is also a steep learning curve built into the game's NEXT customization system. This system is an incredibly important part of the game, and by its nature is going to have some kind of learning curve, but the game designers really didn't do anything at all to address that issue. Most importantly, my eternal nemesis of poor documentation has risen its head again... The game really doesn't even try to explain what the dozens and dozens of stats given to the weapons and parts in the game are for. Sure, some of them are reasonably obvious, like "Blast Radius" or "Ballistic Defense", but countless others can take a bit of work and effort to figure out. Fortunately, the game designers implemented a color coded part comparison system so you at least know if increasing a number is good or bad, since without that it would have been impossible for me to figure out as much as I have. I still don't have a clue what the "Parallel Processing" stat does, though. Still, even though I am beginning to understand what each of the individual stats means, I don't really get how they all add together to affect gameplay.

For example, look at the Stabilizer customization option. You can add all kinds of stabilizer parts to adjust the stability of your NEXT along with two different axes, which also adds to your Control Calibration stat, but I don't really know how these attributes affect actual battles. It seems like it should be important, given that affixing stabilizers might be even more complicated than assembling the body of a NEXT, but I don't have a clue what having a top-heavy mech or one with a heavier right side than left side even does. Does it affect the NEXT's mobility? Does it throw your aim off? I don't know, and I have even less of an idea what Control Calibration does. The manual seems to imply that you might want to adjust stability to something other than a zero-zero center of balance, but it doesn't say why you might want to, which defeats the entire purpose. I would say that it is nice that they at least gave you the choice to automatically set stabilizers, but that function doesn't ask for input and can't even figure out how to get the NEXT to a zero-zero center of balance, so it seems useless. The whole thing presents itself as being incredibly important, and it can take a lot of time to get a NEXT tuned "right" (which must be redone every time you configure a new set of weapons or parts), but I really don't know why I am doing it, which makes it a chore rather than something interesting. At least it occasionally helps add to the aesthetics of the NEXT...

Finally, even the plot of the game could use a bit more explanation. A glossary or something would be nice, since the game likes throwing out terms like "Lynx", "AMS compatibility", and the like with surprising frequency, but it never really explains them. Even more annoyingly, the only place where game describes some of the important factions that are central to the plot in detail is in a burst of text that appears if a mission takes an unusual amount of time to load, and those fade too quickly to read. I know there is quite a bit of world detail and plot in this game, but the game doesn't do much to really present it to the player properly.

Overall, this game really doesn't do anything to make it approachable to new players, even though there is a very sophisticated and fun game behind the high learning curve. It really is a shame.

No comments: