Armored Core is a long running series by FROM Software, often criticized for its lack of change over the years. How accurate this criticism really is likely depends on who you're asking, but to be fair, it is true the basic premise of any AC game is the same: Build a giant robot, blow stuff up for money, use the money to further build your giant robot. Suffice to say if you're interested in an Armored Core title, you're probably interested in tinkering, and blowing things up with a giant robot, or in this case, an Armored Core NEXT.
For starters, lets talk about what's new here. Now, personally, the last Armored Core game I played was that of AC3, and I skipped over Silent Line and 4. Quite a bit is different in this incarnation of the series, but personally, I find almost every change to be a good thing. Gone are the Ravens of AC2 and 3, the mercenaries are now known as Lynx. The bizarre sci-fi plot-lines are toned down in favor of a greater emphasis on politics. Most of all, though, the slower pacing of the older AC titles has been completely altered thanks to a few select additions to how your Core controls, primarily, Quick Boosting.
Armored Core has always had a somewhat arcade feel to its missions, but it's also been a little slower in the past. With AC:FA, your Core can fly about with easy, rapidly boost across the field, and still have enough energy to launch a barrage of energy weapon fire. Your normal boosting will likely not even phase your energy bar, leaving most of your energy consumption to the newer Quick Boosting, which allows for an instant dash in a specified direction, or even a rapid turn, something which required a shoulder part in the past. Some, like myself, really like this heightened feel of speed and the depth of the system through what has come to be called "Quick Boost Chaining" or "Cancelling" allowing you to rapidly string together several boosts to avoid a lot of enemy fire, while closing in on a target. Still, there are some older fans of the series that dislike the shift, feeling that it's too action oriented and lost some of the tactical presentation of the past. It's a rather odd split, and one fans may wish to be aware of, but if you're new to the series, this likely wont bother you in the least.
What's also new here, is online Co-Op. Most missions in AC:FA allow you to co-op with others, be it friend, or complete stranger. You can set up a lobby for a select mission, invite others to join, or leave it open to whoever comes across it. Once in the mission, you'll be working together with your partner to clear the level. This does tend to make missions easier since you have two players working to clear the level, but it's also a lot of fun to team up with friends. It's a first in the AC series, but it's also a really solid addition. Though, if you're feeling more competitive, you can also take your AC into online versus to battle it out with other players. It should be noted that co-op is online only, but versus can be done locally, as well as online.
The story of the game, as with any AC title, is very fragmented. In order to get into the true depth of the plot, you'll have to explore almost every ending, and try to complete as many of the 42 missions as possible. This is one detail you may enjoy, or dislike. On the one hand, it would be nice to see a more explored plot-line, but on the other, you're a mercenary, and this style of storytelling is fitting of your role within the plot. There are plenty of missions, with a nice amount of diversity to go through, each giving a nice bit of briefing before hand, and there are several forks you can take to shift the direction of the story, or rather, the direction you take within the story adding to the replay value. If that's not quite enough for you, AC:FA does keep the classic Arena, or in this case, Order Matches, allowing you to battle against a single AC for money, and ranking. As you work up in the ranks, you'll be awarded more money, and possibly even parts from your defeated foes, allowing for further customization of your AC.
Speaking of customization, there is enough here to make you dizzy. In true AC tradition, you can fine tune almost every aspect of your Core. Legs, arms, body, head, arm weapons, shoulder weapons, back weapons, main boosters, side boosters, generators, FCS units, and even stabilizers. If there is a part of your Core that changes its performance, you can tweak it. There are some things in the older games that aren't present here, such as cooling devices as you'll no longer have to worry about overheating, but all in all there are a ton of options. You can make anything from a hover-tank with twin grenade launchers, to a lightweight, bipedal robot with dual arm blades, and everything in between. If that's not enough, the paint and decals are also heavily customizable. You can color your AC just about any way you please, create custom decals and slap them all over, and do just about anything to get a Core looking exactly how you want it too. If you're a fan of tweaking, you wont be disappointed here. If, however, you'd rather just get into the action, you can use any number of designs you'll acquire throughout the game to do the assembly for you. Still, if you're not into tweaking, there's a good chunk of this game you'll completely miss out on, because tweaking is one of the central elements of the AC series.
So what is wrong with this game? Well is carries the same flaws as most of the series. The visuals for the Cores, Arms Forts, and various mechs in the game are great, but the environments leave a lot to be desired. The various forms of destruction you can cause do look good, but when you're just blowing up a building in an otherwise empty sand field, there's certainly something missing. The difficulty is also very erratic, causing you to struggle with one mission, only to breeze through another, and this even carries over into the Arena matches. If you'd prefer a more traditional learning curve, this will definitely put a few dents in the experience. I wouldn't consider these faults to be a game breaking experience, but they are worth taking note of.
All in all this is probably my favorite out of all the Armored Core games I've played. A single play through the story will clock in around ten hours, but with multiple endings, Hard mode, and all the various parts to collect there is a lot of replay value. Not to mention the online mechanics adding to experience. Unfortunately, being such a niche title, it can sometimes be difficult to find other players online, but if you get a friend to pick it up as well, that should easily be resolved. It's not perfect, but if you're looking to cause some chaos with a giant robot that you've spent hours tweaking, and customizing to your designs, then you'll find plenty of fun with Armored Core: For Answer.