Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March Mecha Madness Round 2: Another Century's Episode

As I looked through my collection of mecha related games across the systems, I realized that I had an abundance of games from the SRPG genre.  I mean don't get me wrong:  I love my strategy games, and I love how next gen consoles push the graphics of said genre to the limit.  It's pretty hard to get tired of watching something like this in action:

Or even this:

But there are just some times where I want to actually be (figuratively) in the driver's seat of the massive mech of destruction, rather than moving my army of them like chess pieces.  Unfortunately, I have very few games in the action genre when it comes to mechs:  This isn't due to my dislike of them, mind you:  It's the fact that when I own them, they rarely make it to my backlog in the first place, primarily because I play them to death and finish them to completion within a short time of owning them.  Shortly after, they're either sold or given to a friend that wants them.

However, I did manage to find one game that made it to my backlog:  A.C.E.:  Another Century's Episode.  This game is a joint effort between Banpresto, maker of the popular (in Japan, at least) Super Robot Wars series and From Software, best known for the Armored Core series here in the U.S.  The result is a game with a diversity of units you would expect from an SRW game, but a combat engine similar to Armored Core.  The series has garnered some popularity in Japan, having produced four other entries across the PS2, PS3, and PSP, but the the subject of this post is the game where it all began.

So how did this meeting of the minds go in regards to the entry that started it off?

Normally, the writer in me tries to develop a clear, concise framing statement that will give the reader insight and sounds proper.  But I want to deviate from that for a moment to go into incoherent ranting.  Please indulge me for once:


That's shorthand for noting that A.C.E.'s control scheme can go burn in hell.  What could be a fast-paced clash of the titans of giant robot fame is frequently interrupted by awful controls complete with sluggish turns, frustrating targeting, and enemies that can dodge just a bit too easily.  Some mechs are able to overcome this with a pure cheese factor.  Others remedy this with attacks like homing missiles.

Yet in spite of this glaring flaw, I enjoyed Another Century's Episode.  While some aspects are downright infuriating, I have to give the game credit where it's due:  The level of attention and detail given to the variety of mechs in the game produces a gameplay experience that, while frustrating at times, is one that (particularly if you're a fan of the robots in the series) is quite enjoyable in the long run.  As a first entry into what eventually has become a long standing series, it's a step in the right direction.


To be honest, I don't have a terribly interesting story behind how I acquired A.C.E. or even came to know of it.  I just recall that at some point, a few years ago, G-Mike and I saw a promo video of it, as well as some screenshots and came to a few conclusions:

1 - Hey, they're using real sized mechs for a change.
2 - Hey, it's an action game.
3 - Hey, that's totally cool and we should pick it up sometime.

Which was the extent of the conversation.  G-Mike, I believe, promptly acquired the game, whereas I forgot about it some time.  But then a funny thing happened:  Something I like to call EBay.

Now, I'll confess:  I'm a recovering EBay junkie.  Admittedly, my problem wasn't so bad that I ended up with anything too strange:

Like an Alf alarm clock.

But I will admit I did end up with a few games that I never would have seriously considered, had I not 1) heard someone mention it in passing and 2) saw it for cheap on EBay.  This time, however, I came across A.C.E., and, having been out for some time now (and up to the second or third installment), was now ridiculously cheap.  Promptly, I snagged it.  Once it arrived, I played a few stages.  Equally quickly, it went on ye olde shelf of forgotten games.  Predictable, I know:


I know:  "We don't play these things for the story".  Now, I've admitted to the quality of writing in SRW games:  This is a necessity of course, with those games being a strategy RPG.  A.C.E.'s narrative is much more compact, being an action game, and not quite as story driven.  A story exists, but if you've watched any number of Gundam series, it's nothing new:  The game takes place in an era where space travel and colonies in space are a reality.  Your group is known as the United Community of Earth (U.C.E.) - a group comprised of unified earth governments.  Unfortunately, the U.C.E. is not universally supported, causing various groups to form their own factions and rebel against it.  Your characters are part of a special task force created to quell these rebellions.

Unfortunately, this isn't the  only problem:  The earth and space colonies are dealing with a recession and energy crisis.  To deal with this, the UCE has developed a new energy source called E2.  On the upside, it's extremely powerful and could be the potential solution to aforementioned energy crisis.  On the other hand, it's quite volatile:

They're still working out the kinks.
Which naturally means that, in addition to quelling these rebel uprisings, a great deal of your time is spent trying to prevent these baddies from securing E2 for themselves.  Since the game follows the plotlines of many of its respectives series quite faithfully, only with the added element of E2 thrown in there, you can probably figure it out from there.  The one exception to this is Gundam:  Char's Counterattack.  For those who aren't too familiar with it, let me give you a brief summary:  The titular character, Char, who in previous series was something of an anti-hero ultimately working in the interests of justice, suddenly becomes so disgusted with the way the Earth Federation handles thing that he believes the only solution to the problem is dropping a giant asteroid on earth to induce a nuclear winter equivalent and force people to migrate to space.  It's sort of a recurring theme in Gundam.

His backup plan is just to play this for Earth on endless loop.
Now, imagine an alternative storyline where Char's plot to crash a giant space rock on earth is met with a minor setback.  Sounds like a good thing, right?  Now imagine a world where, a resourceful guy like Char gets ahold of E2, which is much more compact than a giant space rock, and can be easily disguised in passenger shuttles headed on a crash course for earth.

While TSA is prioritizing this domestic terrorist, Char's plan comes to fruition.
Well.  Shit.


There truly is a lot to enjoy about A.C.E.'s gameplay, but talking about the controls, and how it affects the missions, deserves a section all on its own, so let's begin there first:

Control scheme

I don't remember hating how the game felt when I initially played it.  The game gives you two options in regards to controls:  semi-automatic and manual.  Initially I picked semi-automatic, but I switched over to manual.   See, with semi-automatic, locking on is done for you automatically, and your weapons are only mapped to two buttons:  Square for the main or melee attack (depending on your range) and circle for the special attacks or sub weapons:  The one utilized depends on range in this option as well. 

Let me tell you why life is a lot more miserable if you stick with semi-automatic.  Not only does it severely limit the control over your mech in terms of weaponry, but it leaves what weapon you use purely up to chance.  I'll admit, manual did take me some getting used to.  I had times where, with a mech that has a huge arsenal, I pressed the wrong button and fired off my giant laser cannon of death instead of my beam rifle.  In that case, the worst thing was overkill.  In the case of semi-automatic, however, misjudging the distance between you and your enemy can be the difference in mech like the Nu Gundam, from Char's Counterattack', firing off something like this:

To using its utterly useless decoy attack.  A picture of this attack wouldn't really get the explanation across, so I'm providing a more suitable example.

The real problems aren't so much on the control scheme, however, as they are on the pacing of the game.  A.C.E. tries to incorporate variety in its missions.  While "eliminate all enemies" tends to be the standard mission fare, you're also tasked with things like protecting an NPC from enemy fire, securing a  safe route for a shuttle traveling through space, and a few creative spins on the 'kill 'em all' deal.  In addition to this, each stage has an additional secret condition tacked onto the mission requirements, which adds some variety to the missions.

Here's an example of how the mechanics work against you, though.  There's one stage where you have to protect a parliament building from enemy fire.  The units that attack aren't especially difficult, but they move fast, and most importantly, they fly just high enough to make seeing them on camera a royal pain.  For some reason, when you try to tilt the camera up in the game, it does not stay fixed on that position.  Since you need the enemy to be in the line of the camera's sight to make a lock on, it's a frustrating game of 'now you see me, now you don't'.  Sure, all of your mechs have airborne capabilities, but when you try to fly upwards (which for any mech, is PAINFULLY slow, even with the boost command), you're likely to be shot out of the sky.

Then there's a mission where I had to kill the enemies indirectly.  Your dudes will do you the favor of dropping a slew of bombs in the level.  Your job is to detonate the bombs near the enemies so that they're caught in the blast radius and die.  Look, on paper, this is a cool idea.  The issue again, comes with the damn camera and the speed of the enemies:  These are some quick buggers, and ideally, to kill them off, you need a quick unit (I picked one from Aura Battler Dunbine) that can catch their attention, speed away, then quickly turn and detonate the bomb.  Strategic and fast paced, right?

Only not, because while you can pick a speedy unit that can boost fast, the quickest way to turn is to use the targeting command.  You CAN'T target the enemies you're trying to kill in that level, so you'll lock onto a bomb.  Only most of the time in that level, you'll lock onto the wrong damn bomb, and by the time you've locked onto the right one, the enemy is out of its radius.  There's more than a few levels like this, and as David can tell you, more than once, I was ready to put the game down in frustration.

However, it's a good thing I didn't, because there was much fun to be had


If you read my Super Robot Wars MX post, you may recall that one of the things that I praised Banpresto for was how they managed to balance each mech out as best they could in a massive crossover like Super Robot Wars.  While A.C.E. doesn't have quite the variety that a Super Robot Wars game has, there are mechs of all shapes and sizes in the game.   Let me put the emphasis on mecha size here first:  The sprites in Super Robot Wars games are super deformed.  So yes, while it's clear there's some variance there, you don't get the full sense of the difference there:  If you're a true nerd and look at mech stats, you'll know that a mech from a series like Aura Battler Dunbine stands just shy of 7 meters tall.  Mechs from the various Gundam series range from 20-30 meters in height.

A.C.E. translates this very well, which is to be expected from Banpresto.  Aura Battler units are -tiny- next to Gundams, which can make a stage full of them again to trying to swat at insects. They're noticeably faster, harder to target, and specialize more in hit and run tactics.  They're also much more fragile, meaning that when you actually do land a shot or a barrage of missiles, with the exception of boss units, you're likely going to one shot them.  This brings me to my next point:  Your mech matters.

What I found especially impressive about A.C.E., which goes for both enemy and player units, is that each mech is a remarkably accurate representation of how it operated in its series, which means that controlling each mech actually -feels- like a different experience.  This is no small feat.  When you add in to the fact that you don't have seishin commands like SRW to give you 100% hit rate, 100% dodge rate, or a sudden boost in attack power, this becomes noticeable.  Furthermore, it makes cheesing through the stages because you're a huge fan of the particular series a little more difficult.

The best example of this is Gundam Wing, since the main mechs of that series are remarkably different.  While the Wing Units are good, you can't expect to cheap it through every stage because you really like Heero.  Sure, the Wing Gundam's buster rifle is hands down, one of the most (if not THE most) powerful weapons in the game.  However, if you do take the aforementioned camera/targetting issues into play, you have to make every shot count.  Furthermore, said weapon only has 3 shots and is on quite a long cool down.  So if you misuse those shots, you're stuck with melee attacks, which, while powerful on this particular mech, aren't always ideal for your objectives.

So let's shift to something like the Heavyarms:  For those of you unaware, the Heavyarms is pretty much the polar opposite of Heero's mech, the Wing Gundam.  Whereas the Wing relies on one single weapon to wreck most of its havoc, the Heavyarms is a walking artillery:  It's equipped with a beam gatling, a slew of machine cannon, and numerous missiles.  Really, it's one of the more solid units in the game.  However, in addition to being a little slower, there's also another problem.  Remember that I said enemies are represented accurately too, right?  Well, some mechs have passive or active abilities that throw off the tracking systems for missiles.  Others have beam barrier that, while useless before something with the firepower of a buster rifle, can shrug off the Beam Gatling of the Heavyarms.  In cases like this, you're forced to rely on the melee capabilities of the Heavyarms:  Which, considering that its melee weapon is an army knife, makes things a little more difficult.

Imagine yourself as the swordsman.  Now imagine Indy with a bazooka instead of a pistol. 
For a skilled player, being in these less than ideal situations doesn't make the stage -completely- impossible, but it does make you have to -think- about which mechs you're going to select for a stage.  Admittedly, fans of the series have a leg up on what mechs are good for what, but personally, it's easy enough to figure them out as you play that it's not totally inaccessible.

In addition to the difference in mechs, you do get the option to upgrade them, though the game tries to balance it out some.  You're allowed to upgrade base mech stats, such as speed, armor, generator output, and and mobility.  However, upgrading armor lowers the mech's speed, and vice versa.  You can also upgrade individual weapon power, or their reload rate.  But the same applies:  If you upgrade a mech's weapon, you lower its reload rate.  Fortunately, this isn't a complete 1:1 ratio, meaning that the system isn't completely futile.

How do you get the currency to upgrade these?  Through "Ace Points", which you receive from completing a stage:  A better performance (less damage taken, time to complete the level, etc.) earns you higher points and corresponding ranks to go with it (Pilot, Rookie, Leader, Veteran, and Ace).  Therefore, you do have incentives to do well.

Really, the game does many things quite well in spite of its flaws.  With a variety of mechs to choose from, the ability to do a 'free mission' mode once you've finished the game and replay stages, as well as plenty of unlockable mechs, the replay value is quite high.

Closing thoughts

While A.C.E. has quite a few stages to play through (about 45 total), they're fairly short:  The highest time I can remember clocking on a mission was about 9 minutes.  Really, much of your time might be spent replaying some of the more annoying missions.

I have to give Banpresto and From Software some credit.  For a first attempt at a crossover in this genre, it was a pretty solid attempt with some frustrations.  From what my friends G-Mike and Nick told me, however, the later entries to this series (possibly excluding the PS3 entry), corrected just about everything that was wrong with the first game in terms of gameplay.  At some point I'll probably acquire the second game.  I'm sure history will repeat itself, too:  I'll play a few stages, enjoy it, then put it on ye olde shelf of forgotten games.  At a later point, I'll probably write about it here.

I promise you all, though, it won't take another century to do it.

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