Armored Core 4 is the latest mech game to land on next-gen systems, and after the mixed fortunes of stable mates Chrome Hounds and Gundam Target in Sight we're in need of a good one. Mechs, for the uninitiated, are in essence huge robots. Usually taking a vaguely human form and operated by a pilot in their head or at the centre of their body, they are mostly bipedal, and always covered in huge armoured plates and enough firepower to make an Apache attack helicopter look like a crop duster.
In-game, Armored Core 4 is an action title, far closer to the likes of Zone of the Enders than Front Mission 3. Consisting of a linear series of missions that mostly fall into the 'kill everything that moves' category, an easily learnt control system means most levels start with you in the thick of the action, unleashing weapons from your shoulders and hands as you lose yourself in a blizzard of dust and explosions.
As well as your lumbering, hydraulic-powered walk, you are equipped with a standard of fantastical mech technology: the jetpack. This allows you to skate over land and water like the robot in the infamous Citron adverts, hover and turn through the air - where you'll spend around half of your time, raining down hell on the mechanical fiends below.
The missions are rather short, but their brevity means you can jump from location to location quickly, even if this only makes for an aesthetic change. The learning curve is a fairly steep one, but Armored Core 4 is rarely punishing, and is nowhere near as difficult or fiddly as Steel Battalion.
In general the action is enjoyable and lively, if a little repetitive, but is nicely broken up by the strategic sections between missions, which see you spending your payment for completing a level on customising your mechs for the next battle. A huge range of parts become available as you progress, from an array of bulky weapons, legs, arms, heads, and circuitry, all of which affect your armour strength, agility, speed and a host of other specs.
It must be said that this is a fairly number-heavy tool, but it is still simple enough to use at a level that will get you through the game with a sense that you have created and adapted your selection of mechs off your own back.
However, for the mech obsessive, the customisation options have a great deal of depth, which easily rivals the intricacy of Gran Turismo 4's engine tinkering fanaticism. From minute adjustments to the stability of each limb of your hulking robot to the intimate tuning of each weapon, everything can be fiddled with almost infinitely. Thankfully, auto-tune options exist for the more casual player.
Even the most slap-dash mech pilot, though, will find it hard to resist the aesthetic meddling that is available. From giving your robot a neon pink and green camouflaged coating with bright blue mechanisms and yellow joints, to placing logos carefully over your Wii-white war walker, a plethora of skin customisation is on offer. There are also dozens of limbs and body parts available, from slender, futuristic arms, through to steam-punk, Victoriana torsos.
Of course, different body parts affect the functionality of your mech, but you soon gather enough pieces to allow plenty of scope for diehard mech fans to sit creating their own mechanical flights of fantasy to toy with in the game's testing mode.
Over and above all the options available, what is really important is that any in-game garage adds something to the gameplay experience, and in Armored Core 4 this is certainly the case. Simply choosing a weighty pair of legs for an air-bound mission, or an ill choice of bazooka over sniper rifle, can dramatically alter the way your mech behaves, meaning you really must build the robot you need for each mission.
A cursory multiplayer mode is included, with a focus on death matches and online battles, meaning you can test the worth of your hand-built mech against international pilots. There is little exciting or new here, but there is the option to trade match data, emblems, and even entire motorised monstrosities, which adds some longevity to the game.
Though far from revolutionary or innovative, Armored Core 4 is without doubt a playable title, but it isn't without its faults. Though the animation and detail on the mechs themselves is beautiful, each level is as barren and soulless as it is jagged and rough. The story too, is a let down, and despite some hilariously well-spoken English accents in the vein of Patrick Stewart performing Shakespeare, the convoluted plot is both badly written and uninteresting, and filled with stereotypical tales of capitalism, terrorism and politics.
The game's biggest fault though, is the way it cancels any missions instantly if you veer too far from the marked battlefield. On the ground this is easy to avoid, but high in the air, amidst a colossal dogfight, it is too easy to slip from a level without noticing until the moment the screen fades to black.
Ultimately, Armored Core 4 offers nothing we haven't seen in Mech Warrior or Zone of the Enders, aside from a little next-gen polish that is of mixed success. However, it is still a very enjoyable action romp, which also contains plenty of accessible customisation and strategy, and has a feel about it that screams hardcore, without demanding players trade in their social life for Achievement points and a monitor-kissed, pale skin tone.