This, the latest in the series of fighting robot games, is like Gran Turismo. There's fun here, you just have to work really hard to find it. Even the customisation options are similar. Each mech has more statistics than an entire deck of Top Trumps and finding the perfect balance of defence and attack takes hours of obsessive tinkering. You can, of course, let the game do this for you, but then the game becomes just another third-person shoot-'em-up rather than the in-depth flying war robot sim it's meant to be. Not that 'sim' is really the right word, because flying war robots don't exist (yet), but a sim is what this is nonetheless. If Zone of the Enders is After Burner, AC4 is Microsoft Flight Simulator. But much less spoddy.
The story is nonsense - even more boring than that of a Tom Clancy game - and the script consists almost entirely of baffling acronyms and stupid futuristic names. So just ignore it completely and focus on the fighting robots. The levels are stunning, ranging from bleak cities and sandstorm-lashed deserts to moonlit coastlines and vast, mountainous valleys. Objectives are varied - destroying enemy bases and armour, fighting with other Armored Core units, protecting cities from missile attacks. It's rarely dull.
Meching it difficult
But it's hard, especially if you're an AC newbie. If your mech is ill-equipped or you have the wrong combination of weapons you'll die within minutes of entering the level, and the mission briefings are useless too and you never really know exactly what it is you're supposed to be doing. But unlike previous games in the series you can zip around the level at lightning speed using your AC's boosters, which makes it much more exciting than the likes of Gundam. You can strafe and fire with up to four weapons at once, one in each hand, one on each shoulder.
But by being so hard it teaches you that the most important thing in the game is the customisation, and that by setting everything to automatic you're ruining it for yourself. There's so much you can do to your mech. You can change its body parts - head, arms, legs, shoulders - and there are dozens of different parts to choose from. You can create some real monstrosities. But it doesn't end there. You can edit the colour of everything on your AC and apply decals, which themselves can be designed from scratch using a clever editor reminiscent of Ridge Racer's. So if you want to piece together a hot pink mech with flowers all over it and take it online, you can. But it's not just aesthetic - your mech's stats can all be fiddled with, letting you focus on defence, sniping, speed and anything else you can think of.
Armored Core 4 isn't for everyone. In fact, it's for hardly anyone. It's for people who pore over stats and instruction manuals and for the insanely patient. But it's a really great game and the best of the series so far. If you're willing to dedicate hours to it, putting up with the sharp difficulty curve and impenetrable customisation, you'll get the most out of it. Otherwise you'll probably go back to playing MotorStorm.
Customisation options make this the best AC yet, but it's not very user-friendly.