I was quite surprised to recieve a package from Agetec the other day.  Opening it up I was even more surprised to find a copy of Armored Core: Formula Front – Extreme Battle.  This surprise is mainly because I don’t even own a PSP.  My general rule of thumb would have been to send it to a fellow reviewer who had it, but in this case I was lucky enough to have a family member visit for a day and loan me their PSP. 

With loaner PSP in hand, I settled down to try out the first installment of the Armored Core series on the PSP.  Obviously, without having had anything similar to experience in the past, I was in for an entirely new experience, and hopefully a fun one. 

The graphics in Armored Core: Formula Front – Extreme Battle are generally quite good, using the entire area of the PSP’s wide screen.  The colors are bright, the details on the ACs themselves are quite good and lens flares are found to help with lighting when appropriate.  When playing in AI mode, the details on the ACs, especially when close up, are quite nice indeed to the point where you can see the differences between various weapons and even some decals on the armor. 

The problem is generally one of scale.  When things are close up to the screen, they look fine.  When they get farther away, the graphical detail tends to suffer quite considerably, especially when it comes to buildings and the ground.  Buildings tend to fade in and out of view and can make it rather hard to pinpoint the enemy at times.  There were some times also where the camera would get stuck behind a building or bit of the landscape or completely lose the target while in active view.

Outside of battle, though, the graphics are quite nice with the colors and shading being very nice on the menus and in the garage.  The in-game movies are also quite nice with quality being nearly as good as the gameplay itself. 

The music and sound in Armored Core: Formula Front – Extreme Battle isn’t the main draw of the game, and this is a good thing as both are strictly average.  The music makes good use of the stereo speakers of the PSP and is suitably martial, yet does little to increase the sense of urgency to the game or cause any emotional connection to the game.  It’s more that the music is merely there rather than helping to make the game a fuller experience.

The sounds in general, both in and out of battle sounded decent, but there was almost a slight tinny sound to the weapons, perhaps caused by the hardware itself as opposed to the game.  It was mildly distracting, but again, without the emotional connection to the music in the game, it was much easier to tune it out completely.

When Armored Core: Formula Front – Extreme Battle came out in Japan, it was pretty heavily panned partially due to its complete lack of manual control in battles.  The game was designed around the creation and tuning of AI-controlled ACs, to the point where you could configure the AI in different fashions.  When the game was brought to North America, a manual battle mode was added to allow people to control the ACs more directly, giving them more control over the battle.  Unfortunately, the controls seem almost too much for the PSP, causing more trouble than anything else.

Basically, the controls are quite similar to any of the PS2 Armored Core games, with the X button jumping and activating the booster, triangle switching between weapons on the right arm or shoulder, square firing the weapon on the right side, and circle firing the weapon on the left side.  The L and R shoulder buttons strafe left and right respectively while the analog stick moves the AC.  The buttons also have different features within the menus which are all clearly defined in each case.  The lack of the secondary shoulder buttons and the right analog stick means that it’s more difficult to look up and down (handled by R2 and L2 on the PS2 games in the series) and making it harder to aim in general (as the movement was handled by the right analog stick in later versions of the series while the left stick handled aiming). 

What this means in actual gameplay is that it’s generally harder to move and aim the AC, which leads to frustration as the AI opponent can generally run rings around you.  In ten battles, I lost nine of them due to the fact that I couldn’t keep a target lock on my opponent.  In comparison, switching over to AI-control and tuning my AC lead to winning the first five battles without really breaking a sweat.

While it’s a good thing that From Software and Agetec listened to the critics of AC:FF in Japan, the PSP really isn’t designed for the same level of control that the PS2 offers, and unfortunately the game suffers because of that.

Armored Core: Formula Front – Extreme Battle is almost like the Gran Turismo version of the Armored Core series, in that most of the action seems to involve creating your team of ACs, tuning them for specific situations, working with the AI and tweaking it when it doesn’t work until everything runs smoothly and your opponents are mown under you like a state of the art wheat thresher taking over a field. 

The game itself is set in the future, and this time the sport of Formula Front has taken the front stage of public perception.  In the sport, teams of five ACs (generally computer-controlled), fight for the league title and to be the best in the world.  As the head of a new team, it is your role to tweak and fine tune five different ACs using over 440 different parts and numerous AI settings to help control them. 

There are two different leagues and you start in the Bottom League which has groups of six teams.  Once you’re able to defeat each of the teams in your group, you move up to the next group and so on until you defeat the league itself, when you move up to the Regular League.  In the Regular League there are more teams but the task remains the same, defeat all the teams to become the League Champion. 

Seriously though, the goal in AC:FF – EB is less defeating opponents and more a series of “what if?” scenarios as you’ll find yourself spending hours tweaking your AC and tuning the AI to try to more efficiently mow down the competition.  The game is more designed around the creation and configuring of the ACs than it is about the battles, although the game adds in the nice counterpoint of having news reports and instant replays of other notable battles that you can watch if you choose to.

When it comes down to it though, it almost feels as though the battles were secondary to the action that takes place in the garage, which is why it’s almost the “Gran Turismo” of the Armored Core series.

At $40, Armored Core: Formula Front – Extreme Battle is not really a bad price….if you truly enjoy the customization and tweaking and configuring of ACs and don’t really care about spending a lot of time in battle.  If you’re expecting an arcade robot battle game, however, you should probably be better served by playing one of the PS2 titles. 

It’s not that the game is bad, per se, it’s more that it really isn’t aimed at the same people necessarily as the other games are.  While the PS2 versions of the series had some serious tuning and tweaking involved, it’s amped up to eleven in this title, making it the main focus. 

The tacked-on manual controls feel clunky, which just pushes the player back towards the tuning and configuring of the AI to get through the battles, but when the day is done, more time is going to be spent in the garage than on the battlefield.  If that’s what you’re into, then great, we’ve found the game for you.  If you want the battles, though, my suggestion is to pass on this title, or perhaps give it a rental first to make your decision.

I’m not sure if the problem with Armored Core: Formula Front – Extreme Battle is more with the controls of the PSP itself or with the fact that the game is nearly impossible to play in manual mode.  I do know that if you like the nuts and bolts of building and tuning an AC and the AI as well, then this game is liable to be loads of fun.  It’s quite reminiscent to an old game I recall where all you did was program the AI for a tank to face another tank. 

Of course, this dosen’t mean that it’s a bad game, more that it’s aimed at a very distinct gamer profile, and it honestly just didn’t mesh well with my particular playing ability and style.  However, if you like Armored Core in general, and love the ability in games such as Gran Turismo 4 to tune a car from the wheels up, then this may just be the mech-combat game for you.