Like all the best FromSoftware games, it wasn’t until I’d cartoonishly bumbled my way into an impossible-to-continue position and been forced to start over again before I really got the hang of Armored Core 3 Portable. Well, I say “Got the hang of” but it’d be more honest to describe my second go as “It takes a little while longer for me to fail a mission than it did the first time around”. This is another one of those games that’s really not concerned about easing anyone in gently or offering any player-friendly concessions to make people feel good about taking their first faltering steps into this post-apocalyptic world, and there’s little doubt that no matter how hard anyone tries those initial attempts will be a mechanical farce of empty weapons, time overs, and mission-critical enemies escaping into the distance before you’ve even got close enough to scratch their paintwork. It pains me to admit this, but I’ve failed contracts within a couple of seconds of taking control purely by absent-mindedly fiddling with the d-pad as the introductory radio chatter ends and the mission starts proper, causing myself to turbo-boost off whatever tiny platform the game had carefully placed me on and into the sortie-ending abyss below – yes, it’s all very Shadow Tower. Another fun way to shoot yourself in the foot is to concentrate so hard on chasing down the enemy ahead that you don’t notice you’ve scooted yourself out of the play area until it’s too late to do anything about it. Armored Core 3 doesn’t do a neat fade-to-black before plonking you back in the fight when you go out of bounds as many other games do, it simply fails the whole assignment instead. It’s a good thing I like my PSP as much as I do, because the urge to shove the poor UMD-taking handheld in a microwave after losing to that sort of technicality was almost overwhelming.
But these are small and not wholly unexpected flies (consider the series From’s most famous for these days…) in a very large pot of ointment, and apart from publicly exposing embarrassing holes in my already meagre gaming talents my time spent playing this game has been a joy, and the closest I’ve got to Steel Battalion‘s exquisite combination of serious simulation with giant mecha action since my original Xbox died (again). I can’t play this game well at all, I really can’t – and I don’t care.
You see Armored Core 3 pours as much love into its mecha as it does difficulty into its missions, and for me this is where the magic happens, this is how I can enjoy it even as I watch my mecha, Bonaparte, collapse into an exploding mess of parts one more time. This hobby is not short of titles boasting remote-controlled robots, human-piloted mecha, or any weird and wonderful mixture of the two; but while whooshing around in some Jehuty-like way or strategising your way through a Super Robot War can feel like an incredible experience there’s something really special about the heft of the mecha found in here. Remember the first time you landed a jump in Assault Suits Valken (AKA: Cybernator) and saw your suit dip under the sheer weight of itself before recovering to a standing position? That same special something’s present here: All of Armored Core 3’s mecha feel like there’s a real weight behind them, a physical presence that makes them much more than a virtual avatar to attach your chosen weaponry to. Those lumbering turning circles a mile wide, the awkward boost-assisted jumps, and that pause in your targeting reticle as you swap weapons all make it feel that much more real, like you’re right there piloting an object moving under the power of pistons and metal plating. Bursts of speed – assuming it’s safe to dash around in the first place – aren’t so much you shooting off towards the horizon in a heroic blaze of booster fire but more of a inertia-considering lurch forward (or upward) that could get you in real trouble if you aren’t able to keep it under control. Coming to Armored Core 3 from other games could make these “fuzzy” movements and response times feel like an inconvenience that exists purely to make your already short mecha-operating life harder than it needs to be, but really they’re there to make you feel through your own fingertips how your self-assembled mecha behaves – you don’t need to know how exactly heavy it is or how statistically superior your new radiator is when compared to an older, cheaper, model because it’s already apparent through the way it reacts when you’re out in the field. Eventually, when your HUD’s lit up with warning icons and there’s an uncomfortable “The next hit’s going to kill you” emergency beeping coming through the PSP’s speakers for the fiftieth time, you start to really appreciate what your current setup can and can’t do and begin to adjust your battlefield tactics to not just your own capabilities but your opponent’s speed and weapon type too – there’s no point trying to fire a long-range missile at some nippy little thing that likes to get in close, and certain enemies can swiftly make metallic mincemeat out of you if you stand still for too long. It’s never just about finding the target objective and destroying/protecting/escorting it to safety, you’ve always got to think on your feet and learn to treat your loadout as tools to be used wisely as the situation demands and not see them as damage-dealing shooty sticks.
Of course it wouldn’t be Armored Core if your pre-mission preparations didn’t matter as much as your in-the-thick-of-it arcade-like reactions, and for all my babble above about real-time feedback and the pleasure of that stompy mecha “gamefeel” you’re unlikely to win a mission that requires a hefty hit-absorbing frame with a spindly speed-demon or be able to pick off nimble distant targets with an unwieldy bazooka. So a lot of time is spent in the garage, optionally checking through page after page of detailed statistics for each body part and accessory, trying to come up with the most context-appropriate combination your budget will allow. The game will not stop you from selling your only set of legs from under you or making any other number of similar poor decisions (you can’t however take an incomplete mecha out on a mission), but on the other hand this freedom also means every crazy idea you have can be assembled and piloted into battle, no matter how impractical it may seem on paper. You can make good all rounders and hyper-specialised mission-winners, or simply try out something you always wanted to just to see what would happen. There really is no such thing as one “best” setup, and I appreciated the way the various win conditions regularly forced me outside of my comfort zone even when I didn’t even come close to emerging victorious. There’s a beautiful balance here between the exciting noise and explosions when you’re out on a sortie and taking your time to tweak things in the garage to run more efficiently: The game never feels so action-focused that your preparations don’t matter, but it is never so concerned with stats that it feels like there’s nothing you can personally contribute to the mission that will positively affect the final outcome. Being forced to play a game that sits so precisely between these two extremes makes you notice the interplay between various mechanical components and your mecha’s real-time behaviour without turning you into a note-taking stat-hound who has to spend more time theorising than playing the game. A straightforward example would be the experience of switching out a standard bullet-firing weapon for an energy-consuming equivalent for the first time: These armaments draw from the same energy reserve as your speed and jump boosts so you have to learn to balance that guns-blazing approach that served you so well before with a more conservative gauge-aware mindset if you want to avoid getting caught short while waiting for your supplies to recharge – or you can choose mitigate the energy drain with components that boost your reserves as well as or instead of being a little more careful, or swap back to an older (unsold) weapon if you prefer.
If you can afford to keep a range of alternatives lying around your garage in the first place, that is. Even if you win Armored Core 3 still has a surprise final sting in the tail: Your earnings for the sortie (which may be absolutely nothing if you lose) have your repair and ammunition replenishment costs automatically deducted from them before you’re handed your final total – and there’s nothing to stop these costs running up a negative balance either. This adds yet another layer of tactical thinking to a game that’s already heaving under the weight of its complex systems: In this game it’s not enough to win, you have to win well enough to make sure you aren’t caught celebrating a Pyrrhic victory – one where the reward money isn’t immediately wiped out by the massive costs incurred from the mission itself. On my first disastrous run I took these frequent losses on the chin – the game lets you continue regardless (up to a point), so why not squeak through with barely enough credits to my name to buy a cup of coffee? Apart from the obvious problems that come from a complete lack of money to upgrade my mecha with, playing in this way denies you another interesting tactical twist – having to weigh up whether quickly emptying your most powerful weaponry into an opponent is going to work out better for you than playing more carefully and restraining yourself, but potentially suffering more damage. I realise this all sounds rather boring – who wants to equip huge shoulder rockets and not use them?! – but once I started thinking of missions in this way I actually found myself taking greater risks and changing how I approached battles based on how costly it might be if I won – and it worked. Not only did I end up with more parts-buying currency in my virtual wallet, I had more fun when I was playing the game too.
There’s a worry that cobbling together a bundle of parts to take into battle in a in a game that feels noticeably impersonal at times – filled as it is with faceless helpers and an endless supply of company-branded emails – might make your mecha feel a little generic and your personal investment in these skirmishes hollow – by definition there’s no overall style in here of the sort you’d find in Virtual On‘s gorgeous Virtuaroids or Gundam’s timeless designs, and if From had left the parts you could buy as identical heaps of grey metal that would have been true. Luckily the game features an in-depth but approachable colour edit option, allowing you to alter the colour of all body parts and attachments, right down to the joints, to any colour of your choice with a simple set of RGB sliders. It’s quick, easy, and ultimately superficial – but being able to leave your own mark on what would have otherwise been anybody’s collection of mass-made parts does help bring it all together and cement your carefully-considered assemblage as your own. More fiddly is the emblem editor, which to its credit gives you free reign to pixel yourself any design you can be bothered to create should you have the patience and the talent to do so, even if the interface and control method never stop feeling like a match made in Hades (my emblem? Oh! It’s, uh, it’s… I… I prefer an emblem-less look). The customisation’s one of those things that doesn’t matter but makes the world of difference all at once, allowing you to carve out your own personal space in the mercenary life and on the combative arena ladder.
Armored Core 3 is an unwelcoming yet incredibly satisfying blend of contradictory concepts filled with enough stats to make even the most detailed of RPGs feel lacking, but somehow still remaining accessible and customisable enough for anyone to glean some chunky mecha action enjoyment from. This demanding mix of tactical reflex gaming might not sound like the most natural fit for on-the-go play but the game’s rigid garage/mission select > mission > garage/mission select loop coupled with the ability to save any time you’re not out on an assignment is perfect for portable play, suiting not just the PSP itself but those brief stolen moments that define handheld gaming in general well – this is the sort of game you could easily throw into your work bag and casually play through a mission or two on your lunch break, no problem (whether you’ll win is another matter…). Armored Core 3 shouldn’t work – but it does. Unless it doesn’t. Whether you find the game’s curious stat-heavy action thrilling or utterly impenetrable, there’s no doubt that they perfectly captured the feeling of sitting in the cockpit of your very own imaginary mecha, and for me that more than makes up for my own struggles with everything else.