Armored Core Nexus is the eighth game in a franchise that has lasted over seven years and survived two generations of console warfare. Moreover, it is a franchise that has endured purely on its own contextual merit. Nexus is, in many ways, a celebration of this series’ success.
Split over two discs, Nexus is a vast undertaking. With the “Evolution” disc containing a plethora of missions and arena opponents, this would historically be an Armored Core game in its own right. Yet, the Powers That Be decided that a “Revolution” disc - containing remade missions from the original PSone games - also be packaged with Nexus. What ensues is a gaming experience that evokes both the satisfying feeling of “hot off the presses” innovation successfully achieved, followed by the warm glow of revitalised nostalgia.
For those new to the series, Armored Core is a three-dimensional mecha action game played in the third-person perspective. The player undertakes the role of a ‘Raven’, a hired mercenary that pilots huge, customisable mecha called ’Armored Cores’, or ACs for short. Taking dangerous missions from ruthless corporations for cold hard cash, you then buy parts and build up your AC. Building an AC isn’t necessarily a slapdash affair however; it is a cerebral act of pre-meditated artisanship.
Historically AC customisation meant merely balancing energy consumption, maximum weight and defence statistics, whilst also packing enough firepower to lay waste to an army of robotic enemies. Admittedly the older games had more subtlety but, the main tenets of AC customisation were a little distanced from the nitty-gritty hands-on wonders of the visceral mecha combat. Nexus has changed all this with a few simple but ultimately profound modifications.
Radiators were introduced in Armored Core 2 and they curbed a new problem, which was that of the player’s AC overheating. Take too many hits from high heat ordnance would cause your radiator to buckle under the strain and your armour would melt away. All this meant was that you had to avoid certain types of weapons fire. Nexus has re-written the rules on heat by simply following real-world physics: your AC now runs hot. Every chassis part produces heat, as does the generator and, most important of all, the boosters. Boosters now have a heat value, meaning that if you equip hot boosters and decide to fly all over the place your radiator will have a hissy fit. This is not all either - the radiators have been modified to now take energy from your generator rather than just let armour melt off.
This translates into a delicious little conundrum. Your AC needs to move quickly in order to evade weapons fire, which is also pretty damn hot as well, but you can’t overuse you boosters for fear of pushing the limits on your radiator. Do that and your radiator sucks energy from your generator leaving you with no power to propel yourself away from danger. It is such a simple and obvious modification, but incredibly important in how it directly affects the gameplay. Having to juggle all these mutually opposing forces leaves an onus on the part of the player. An onus of ever-increasing skill.
Many may notice that the game appears similar to previous incarnations, despite all the new motion blurring effects, but it plays in a radically different manner. It’s akin to having the handling in a car game provide the sensation that you are skidding across asphalt rather than just manipulating polygonal variables. Gameplay in Nexus is now equally as gritty a hands-on experience. To top it all off, the re-working of heat in Nexus is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of gameplay evolution. Many chassis parts can now be tuned to improve certain attributes, this makes what was already a huge customisation aspect, which is now made up of a garage of 426 distinct AC parts, and takes it to another level of subtle intricacy.
This analogue sensibility has also crossed over into the effects of enemy electronic counter measures (or ECM for short). Instead of merely suffering enemy radar and lock-on window jamming, ECM effects have varying values of effectiveness. This means that your AC configuration needs to have a higher ECM level than that of your opponents. This means that one ECM solution for one AC may not work against another opponent or environment. Couple all this with a whole new set of parts (most notably that of hangar cores which allow the player to store extra weapons for later use in a mission), and you have a game that offers a vast and tantalisingly inclusive platter of gameplay customisation.
All this gameplay intricacy may sound utterly terrifying to the uninitiated, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The game eases the player in very gently, with the first set of missions on the Evolution disc gauged fairly to not only the player’s burgeoning skill but also their initial AC configuration. Moreover, Nexus has a fully-customisable dual analogue control setup that will make a huge difference to newer players (after all, the original control layout was something of an acquired taste). In short, those that have held back on investigating Armored Core thus far shouldn’t fear this mechanical magnum opus any longer.
For those that are returning to the Armored Core fold, you may be wondering how it stacks up to the previous incarnations. In all honesty, it is very difficult to directly compare Nexus to previous games in the series. Whilst it fundamentally looks the same, the overall play mechanics have been radically modified and taken the gameplay sensibilities in a completely new direction. So, whilst Nexus doesn’t have Silent Line’s AI training option it does have part tuning and a new implementation of heat. It is clear that Nexus is an outstanding game but, because the game really has forged a vanguard into previously uncharted territory, it is too early to say whether this endeavour has been a long term contextual success.
Following on from this is the fact that anyone who poured blood, sweat and tears to unlocking all the parts in Silent Line will have to start all over again in Nexus. Nexus is an utterly standalone title and as such has no capacity for the transfer of money or acquired parts from the previous games (although AC emblems can be imported).
Many may also wonder how the long term success of a franchise based game can be gauged. In the case of Armored Core, it is utterly down to its versus mode. Nexus is very strong in this department, not only due to the balanced parts list but also because the handling of your AC is that much more responsive and, therefore, immersive. Couple this with four-player linked up versus, via either iLink or the network adapter, and you have a pretty comprehensive versus experience.
There are problems with the versus modes though, but they are purely down to the developers pushing the hardware beyond its capable limits. In short, slowdown is back. Admittedly the conditions for this are pretty extreme, as in having a link-up game with four players all using missiles at once, but it’s still there and in such a recent game it is really rather disappointing. That being said, on the NTSC hardware we tested the slowdown was almost non-existent, but we have no reason as to why this is the case. Hopefully, whoever chooses to distribute Nexus abroad will take this problem into account and localise the software accordingly.
Moreover, many were expecting Nexus to finally showcase online versus functionality. Sadly, this is not the case and it is a noticeable and unfortunate omission. There are workarounds, through various tunnelling software packages, but the result is far from ideal. Importers need to bear in mind that all the statistical descriptions are written in kanji, and demand fluency in the Japanese language in order to understand their meaning. Ideally, wait for the American release if you can.
In summation, Armored Core has been stomping about for seven years and, whilst some entries into the series were a tad lacklustre (and we are casting a jaded glance at Armored Core 2 et al here), the original PSOne games and the recent releases have been nothing short of superb. Whilst Nexus is most certainly an Armored Core game, and very good with it, a lot has changed on how the game fundamentally plays. Is it the best in the series? Well, it comes stunningly close.
Text by: Olly Barder