The presentation area feels like a war room. There are screens at the side of the room ticking through green-on-black feeds of battle reports and images of spinning war machines. Sat at the head of a long table wearing serious expressions are part of the Japanese delegation, here to demonstrate Armoured Core: Verdict Day to us.
Mech games have always struck me as impenetrably strange. I can’t plug into the mindset that tweaks and modifies and upgrades a hundred individual parts of a mech to wring optimal performance out of the thing, that purchases a dedicated controller the size of a coffee table, that buys into the notion that wiping your save game if you fail to hit the ejector seat button as your mech is destroyed is somehow fun. They take the exciting notion of giant robots stomping and flying around the battered cities of the future and turn it into something resembling a farming sim or a JRPG; in fact, quite possibly, this isn’t an entertainment product, but rather a sim of something that doesn’t yet exist. You never know with Japan; I reckon they’re living in the future, anyway. Look at all that neon and tell me they’re not.
But we are here to look at the game, and as publishers Namco Bandai have flown us over to New York, we can hardly refuse to see it. (And I am freelance, too, so I spend not just this show but in fact the entire three-day trip frantically thinking of someone that I could sell a story about any of it to; I didn’t do too well, obviously, as the fact that you’re reading this on my blog will testify.)
“There are a lot of things that need to be improved from the last game,” says the translator. This is the first translated presentation we’ve been part of, and there’s something a little unnerving about it. You have no idea where to look when anyone is talking, so you end up just writing down nonsense in your notebook to save face. Lots of my notes are “STOP NODDING AT HIM GRANT YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT HE’S SAYING”.
There’s not a lot to show us in terms of precisely what new kinds of floaty gunbots they’ve designed – not that we’d be able to see the difference anyway, I can’t tell one from another at the best of times – and instead they focus on the improved team modes.
Players of the prequel complained that they often had problems getting enough players together to form a proper team online. Most American publishers would have noted this and made sure to spend lots more on PR next time to encourage people to play online more, along with some sort of pre-order bollocks that let you earn extra multiplayer XP. Not the Japanese, though.
No, what they did, right, was remove the need for teams completely and instead give you a full stable of imaginary robot friends to play alongside. They developed an AI system – which you yourself must program, as apparently the preset AIs are “not that smart” – and then sort of vaguely oversee as they go into battle. There are massive webs of menus and decision trees that you must perfect and modify; reactions based on distance, on weapon type, on enemy mech behaviour, on terrain, on heat levels, on ammo levels, on positioning of friendly mechs, of bloody everything.
I say “vaguely oversee” because I didn’t have a clue what was going on at any given point during the demonstration. To control the team of robots in battle, the commander player looks at an inscrutable map of wildly flashing colours and numerical readouts, and flips perspective between all their units as shown in a tiny grainy viewpoint window on one side of the screen.
They take out the graphics. They take out all the graphics so you can play the game. Whose idea was this. Send them to my office immediately. Even the tiny shrunk-down version of the graphics looks weird because of the filter they whacked on it for no apparent reason. This is all impossibly complex and ugly and it needs to stop.
Twenty-five years ago – or maybe more – there were rules for making robots in Rogue Trader, the forerunner to Warhammer 40k. You didn’t get to control the units individually, mind, like every other character in your army; you programmed them. You printed out a set of squares with instructions written on them and, depending on points values, you arranged them in a set of nested IF functions: “IF Enemy is within 24″, GOTO Shoot!” It was needlessly, uselessly complex. It didn’t need to happen. It made the units significantly less effective, even when they weren’t malfunctioning from one of the hi-larious malfunction tables that GW fetishistically produced for every model with an engine that it produced up until around 1998.
Anyway, Armoured Core: Verdict Day is the game of that, at least in part, and that is a bad idea. “I’ve been ordered by my boss not to go into details on this [the AI ] mode,” says our demonstrator after talking about it for a full fifteen minutes, “because it would take forever.”
Is this good? Is there more satisfaction to be had from groundwork than reactions, from planning than dynamism? It all seems very old fashioned, something along the lines of the turn-based combat that so many JRPGs still rely on; a relic of an older time, an abstraction that’s survived the need to abstract it. When I imagine a giant robot game, I imagine the screech of metal, the building shattering under my feet, the air distorting around my ludicrously powerful weapons, the hunt for other stomping metal demigods around a ruined cityscape.
Not programming robots in an featureless menu. There’s a gameplay there, as I’ve said, that I can’t tie into; it seems too much like work, or project management, to be anywhere near enjoyable.
“Now,” he says, “we would like to show the AI mode to you in a battle. Do we have any volunteers to fight on the human-controlled side?”
No-one says anything, of course, because games journalists never volunteer for anything after spending a youth getting picked last for football and a professional career trying desperately to look cool enough to fit in with peers who are all doing exactly the same thing. I break first, eventually, channeling the spirit of the 12-year-old who could be relied upon to put his hand up in class and answer if no-one else would:
“I am terrible at Armoured Core,” I say.
“Excellent!” says the translator, for some reason.
“No, I said that I’m not very-”
“Who else wants to play?”
Silence. “Has anyone else even played Armoured Core?” I ask, turning to the rest of the group. We met yesterday, at the airport. We’re not best friends just yet. No-one says a thing.
Some clarity – I played Armoured Core once, as a joke, when I was drunk. I brought it as a sort of show-and-tell thing with my friend Chris, an obsession with finding the strangest, worst games available on the second-hand market and doing our best to play them – an obsession that’s resulted in games like America’s 10 Most Wanted, Constantine, Fairytale Fights, and the superlative Air Rescue Rangers. There’s one he found about competitive train racing which is waiting for me to play it when I get back into England. I’m quite excited.
Anyway. It was called Armoured Core: Operation Answer or Armoured Core: Project Yes or Armoured Core: Positive Dalliance, or some shit, because they name these things by chucking darts at a dictionary open on a random page, and it was awful. We played it for around forty minutes before giving up. There was the option to modify your mechs, maybe, but there were so many menus and so few explanations as to what, if anything, any of the menus did that we made do with spray-painting our mechs bright pink and having done with the whole thing.
We piloted mechs. We were told that we had to destroy badly-rendered enemy forces within unusual and arbitrary time limits. There were rocket boosters that made us overheat when we used them, and… you know? It’s the same complaint. It’s a hardcore game that’s not for me, and I’m not really sure who it is for, but I don’t think I’d want to get stuck in a lift with them. It takes something that should be inherently exciting and manages to wring all the enjoyment out of it.
DON’T BE A HERO
Eventually, the guy from CVG caves. He’s played before. The translator thanks us, and after determining that really, no-one else is going to take on the other two available player slots, he sits us down in front of the screens at the side of the room.
“This is a really early build,” says the American guy in a Namco-Bandai polo shirt, “so don’t press Start, or anything, because it makes the game freeze up.”
“Thanks,” I say. “What are the buttons?”
“It’s just the same as Armoured Core 5,” he says, and walks off. I understand. It’s a game that blends needless complexity with hair-trigger reflexes and forward planning, so I might as well have sat down in a Cold War history exam and asked the bloke who handed over the question paper “What’s Russia?” He can’t help me. I figure the shoulder buttons do stuff. The shoulder buttons always do stuff.
The game starts; we’re playing against the dev demonstrating the game, who will “lose his salary” if we beat him at he AI mode. There’s a hint of seriousness in his voice when the translator makes this joke; I can almost hear the dev’s wife and child crying at home, hungry because he failed to program something correctly. We’re thrown into battle over a set of ruined buildings half-buried in sand.
I turn to the guy from CVG. “Any advice?”
“Don’t be a hero, man. Don’t be a hero.”
“Being a hero is all I know,” I say, and immediately boost hard into a wall.
The battle doesn’t go well. I last a full minute, maybe a minute and a quarter, while I jet-boost almost randomly around the battlefield which apparently makes me no harder to target. I manage to chip away at the health bar of one of the enemy mechs with my weapons – a cannon and a missile launcher – but it’s useless, and I go down hard.
I come back as a little hovering man with an SMG, which is strange, and I pootle around the battlefield guarding the wreck of my once-proud mech unit. I fire at the enemy robots and dodge out of the way of their missiles until the presenter comes up to tell me that the jetpack chap is “just for fun” and that my gun “doesn’t do anything,” which is a pretty strange definition of the word “fun,” but there you go.
We analyse the post-battle stats once the dust settles – we lost comprehensively, and at the end of the battle everyone clapped the victorious AI – and I’m shown the weapon stats for my mech. Battle info has been expanded and tweaked in the new game, for extra-keen players to pore over and improve their load outs specifically.
“You had a fifty percent accuracy rating with your main gun,” says he presenter, “and sixty with your secondary. You didn’t fire your third gun at all, which suggests that maybe you might want to change it to a different type next time.”
“I didn’t know I had a third gun,” I say.
“Excellent!” he says, for some reason.