Friday, January 2, 2009

Armored Core For Answer: Missions and Story

After some dedicated playing (and probably an excessive amount of time spent rebuilding my NEXT into new configurations), I completed my first playthrough of Armored Core For Answer earlier today. Actually, I am already a significant distance into my second playthrough already. It is surprisingly fun to play through old missions using a new NEXT configuration and different strategies, but the real fun of the second playthrough is to be found in the game's large number of missions and branching story. After all, I completed only around half of the missions available in the game and saw only the first of three different endings. This game has a fair amount of replay value.

One thing I really do like about the game is that it actually has found a good structure that combines a classic and flexible formula in which you choose your next mission from a list with a story that progresses forward and branches out. In this system, you choose from a number of missions for each of the chapters of the game, unlocking more missions as you complete earlier ones. After completing a certain number of missions, the remaining missions become unavailable, and you must choose between a small number of particularly difficult and plot-important missions as the final mission for the chapter. Completing that mission ends the chapter, progresses the timeline, and begins the next chapter. As far as I can tell, what chapter-end missions become available is determined by your starting affiliation and what missions you completed in the chapter, and which chapter-end mission you choose determines what plot branches you fall into. All told, this seems like a great system for telling a story in a structure designed to let the player have a significant choice regarding what missions he plays.

The problem with Armored Core For Answer is that it has a lot of trouble actually using missions and the chapter structure to actually tell an interesting story. As I mentioned in my last post, this game could really use a glossary of terms and organizations, and after completing the game I think it could probably use a better glossary of characters, too. To be perfectly honest, I really had no clue who I was fighting in the final battles of the game, and even less of an idea of why they were attacking the place that I was defending. I know that some organization called ORCA came out of nowhere and attacked the "Cradles" that are important in the game's story, but it is never clear why they are doing what they are doing. I know that ORCA is endangering the lives of countless people, and I know that the League that controls the Cradles seems vaguely sinister, but beyond that I don't understand the conflict at all (after I already beat the game!). It makes it hard to relate to a story and make a meaningful choice between different sides and branching plot paths if the reasons for the games central conflict, as well as the goals and personalities of the most important characters, are totally opaque to the player.

I suppose the main problem is that the game is entirely built around missions, and yet the game designers really didn't put a lot of work into telling a story in the missions themselves. About all the plot you get from the missions themselves are a few lines of dialogue, but thee game doesn't provide you enough context to make these bits of dialogue coherent. One of the best places for developing a story would be in the mission briefings, but those are a total wash. I mean, the penultimate battle of my first playthrough was against a pair of powerful NEXTs being piloted by top officers of ORCA (I think), but all the mission briefing did was tell me about the location of the mission, and didn't even mention that I would be fighting NEXTs, let alone who was piloting them. In the battle itself, the different characters participating said some things that should have been interesting, but since I had neither any idea who the enemy pilots were or what they were trying to achieve, everything they said was essentially incoherent and meaningless babble. Ultimately, the plot of the game is entirely told through the short pieces of narration that occur between every chapter, but those are so short, distant, and lacking in detail that they don't really convey the real depth of the story at all.

The most frustrating part of all of this is that I know that someone created a fairly sophisticated and entertaining story for this game. It has a detailed, unique setting and a number of characters with personality and goals, and all of this changes across a number of significant events. However, the game doesn't make a serious attempt to actually tell that story, so the player is left with a bare-bones summary of the plot and a few brief but fleeting glimpses into the story's true depth.

As one final complaint, I will say that the ending I got on my first playthrough is probably not the ending I would have chosen, and the path I may be leading towards on my second playthrough is not what I would expect given what I have chosen so far. As a whole, there is a pretty huge gap between the nature of most missions and the plot consequences of choosing between those missions, which means that it is very difficult for the player to choose his own fate unless he already understands the game and its plot very well. I would consider this to be a severe mistake on the game designers' part.

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