Armored Core: Verdict Day PlayStation 3 review

Namco Bandai's Armored Core series is back for it's 15th outing in Verdict Day...

As one of the longest running mech combat game series around, Armored Core has quite the fan base of loyal followers, especially in Japan, where the heavily anime-influenced mech genre is huge. The series has made quite an impact in the west too, and after the reboot of the series in Armored Core V, Verdict Day is set to continue the new direction, with a heavy emphasis on co-operative team play and, as always, massive customisability of your ACs (Armored Cores).

Set around the Verdict Day war, the game puts you in the size 100 shoes of a lone mercenary who takes all sorts of jobs from anyone with the funds to afford his services. Along with your trusty chopper pilot, who ferries you in and out of battle, you’ll fight on seven continents around the globe, taking on enemy forces ranging from simple tanks, choppers and basic mechs, to powerful ACs driven by elite pilots. As you progress, missions get tougher, with more and more foes, and more powerful enemy AC units to fight. All the while you’ll amass funds which you’ll use to upgrade and customise your mech and your very own team.

Armored back up

Luckily, the odds won’t always be against you, and as you move through the game’s story (which is the usual, badly-voiced and generic post-apocalyptic guff) you’ll be able to build UNACs (Unmanned Armored Core). These AI controlled units can follow you into battle and can greatly even the odds, attacking your foes, and at the very least diverting some enemy attention.

At first these AI units are fairly dumb, functioning as little more that a distraction, but you can invest money and resources into them, levelling them up, and increasing their effectiveness in many areas, such as movement, attack and so on. You can also program their AI behaviour, tailoring them to your own style of play, and forming your perfect team.

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As well as building your own UNAC, you can also rent pre-built models, which can be very useful for quickly building a small army to tackle a particularly tough mission, but you’ll have to pay for any ammo used and damage received afterwards.

It’s a promising set up, and the premise of stomping off into battle with your own army of mechs sounds great, but sadly, this, and many elements of the game are deeply flawed.

Repetitious rampage

I must admit, the mech genre is one of those that I’ve learned to approach with a healthy amount of caution over time. I love a good, giant mech title as much as the next guy, but often I find the presentation and the overall production quality to be severely lacking, especially when it comes to controls and mission variety. Often such games are plagued with clunky combat controls and missions that blur together into a dull series of ‘kill everything that moves’ tasks.

Despite coming from Dark Souls developer, From Software, Armored Core: Verdict Day is no different, and as well as looking pretty damn ugly for a current gen title, with some of the most barren and basic environments I’ve seen for some time, the controls are pretty messy and the missions become far too tedious very quickly.

Controlling your AC is by no means impossible, but targeting is clumsy and awkward, and the camera is irritating, especially when you’re trying to line up a left or right hand shot from around corner cover, and the game keeps switching the camera focus to the wrong side. Even something as simple as switching to reserve weapons requires a button combination, which can be tricky in battle when almost every one of your digits is trying to press a button to dash, fire jump and dodge all at the same time. Your mech may be able to move quite quickly, but the control layout certainly doesn’t help you manage it.

Then there’s the mission variety, or lack thereof. Too many missions are just simple killathons, even when some flimsy opening cut scene tries to hide it, and they’re also over within four or five minutes. The mission zones, although initially appearing as large are, in fact, fairly small and in hectic fights you can easily stray out of bounds, only to be punished as your mech self destructs.

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Missions that do involve more interesting battles, such as going up against a powerful enemy AC, usually devolve into a circle-strafing mess of missed shots and clumsy wall climbing. Easily annoyed? Just wait until you fight super-light, jumping mechs that zoom around so fast that you’ll probably get motion sickness just trying to keep up. It’s cheap, and although it adds to the challenge, such fights are more chore than enjoyable confrontation.

In fact, that’s how many of the missions feel, just like a trifling hurdle that you have overcome and chores that you have to grind away at in order to get to the next level, when instead they should be entertaining battles that fuel your love for giant, anime mechs. Zone of the Enders this certainly ain’t.

System shocked

The area where Verdict Day could truly shine is with the AI implementation that allows you to build and customise your own mechanical buddies, and to some degree this does actually make the game better on the whole. It’s far more enjoyable going into missions as a team than it is solo where the AI simply makes a beeline for you, Serious Sam-style, and leading a squad of mechs is fairly rewarding. Unfortunately, these mechs are pretty stupid by default, and as I mentioned earlier, are little more than cannon fodder for your foes.

To help alleviate this limited intelligence the game lets you program your units and upgrade their skills, but this system is massively expensive when it comes to upgrading your AI allies, and the custom AI tool is so badly designed and implemented that you’ll at first just sit there wondering what on Earth is going on. Why the interface has so be so convoluted is beyond me, but it’s clearly designed to look cool, rather than be a functional feature. Yes, with effort you can get some enhanced functionality out of it and make your AI units perform more efficiently, but I suspect only hardcore fans will put the time and effort in to learn the unwieldy system. It can be a must for online play, though.

I made this!

So, there’s a lot not to like with Verdict Day, but on the other hand, it does do some things very well, with customisation being amongst them. Although the AC Workshop menus could be designed to be more intuitive and clear, there’s no denying that the game gives you plenty of tools to craft your own, unique killing machines. You can pick every part of the mech, including legs, head, body, arms, weapons, boosters, aiming systems and so on, and mix and match them all to build your perfect robotic weapon. You can also colour each and every part of your AC using a flexible paint system, including the ability to create your own decals. The same customisation applies to UNAC units, and as well as the actual AC custom options, you can import your mech data from Armored Core V, and you an also name each mech and your team.

In fact, the other area where Verdict Day could well succeed is with this team focus. The online faction wars mode should go some way to address the core shortcomings of the game, and the ability to form your own team/clan of players for online battles gives the game a definite push in the right direction. You can feasibly end up with an army of unique, customised mechs, and can go stomping all over the opposition in a land-grabbing war of domination.

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The operator mode is an intriguing RTS-like system where one player takes the role of a commander, and directs the skirmish. This can also make good use of AI units that you program to win battles. It’s a very interesting inclusion, and although I found the AI programming to be a little badly handled, it’s a very good incentive to persevere, and winning battles with a combination of friends and your expertly programmed units should be very satisfying for armchair generals.

Sadly, I also ran into constant server issues during my review, and the online portion of the game wasn’t always available, and so time will tell how well these modes play out when more players take to the war.

Verdict Day

Armored Core: Verdict Day, like many of its predecessors, is one of those games that’s for the fans, and few others. There’s simply too much in the way of clunky controls, poor presentation and mind-numbingly repetitive missions for the game to appeal to newcomers, either of the series of the genre in general. It has some nice features, and the creation and programming options can shine with enough time ploughed in, but as the all-important core gameplay is so wanting, it’s hard to recommend this to anyone but existing fans.

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2 out of 5