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‘Armored Core 6’: the outline of a masterpiece

“Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon” was released by FromSoftware on Aug. 25, 2023. It is the newest title from the famous creators of the “Dark Souls” series, “Bloodborne” and many other games. But what is it? How does it measure up to their previous titles? And most importantly, is it any good?

As the title implies, “Armored Core 6” (AC6) is the sixth game in the series (not counting spin-offs, of which there are many)—but it’s by no means a sequel or continuation of the previous games. The last Armored Core game came out in 2013, and AC6 not only represents a massive jump in technology compared to its previous entry, but also a massive jump in story—the newest Armored Core is a complete reboot, meaning that while much of the world’s outline remains the same, none of the events of the previous games are canonical. In short, you don’t need to have played any of the previous entries to enjoy AC6.

So what is the game actually about? Mech combat. In the game, you pilot a giant robot called an Armored Core, or an AC for short, working as a mercenary on the planet of Rubicon 3. Despite the sci-fi setting, don’t expect much in the way of aliens or spaceships. AC6 keeps a quite down-to-earth approach to its galaxy. Humans are the only race, and much of the game keeps to a dingy, industrial feel—all concrete blocks and rusting metal, with very few of the sleek lines or glowy bits we have come to expect from our science fantasy.

The gameplay itself is divided into two major parts. The first part is missions, where you actually put your piloting skills to the test. Each mission begins with a briefing, in which you learn a bit about the story, and are introduced to what exactly you are supposed to be doing in this mission. Then, you are released into a semi-open world and the gameplay actually starts.

Although each mission has different objectives and story associated with it, ninety percent of them just boil down to “progress through the level and kill everything that moves,” which, to be honest, I’m fine with. Missions usually take five to 10 minutes and are fairly easy—despite piloting a giant robot, you are actually quite agile compared to most enemies, and the foes you encounter will go down in only a few hits, while you can generally take quite a lot of damage. Your mech itself is equipped with four weapons—one for each hand, and one for each shoulder. However, the left hand and left shoulder slots are a bit special. While you can equip regular guns or missiles there, you are also allowed a melee weapon in your left hand and a shield on your left shoulder. All of these weapons require some sort of reloading. Even the swords need to cool down after use, as all of them rely on some sort of laser or plasma technology to actually cut things. While many games have clunky or flow-breaking reloads, I find Armored Core does them well. Because you are constantly wielding four weapons, the reloads encourage you to switch often and avoid relying exclusively on whatever gun or sword you like best.

Some missions, however, are capped off with bosses, which is where the combat really starts to shine. While normal enemies can be taken down with little thought, the bosses clearly have some “Dark Souls” DNA in them. They are tough, complicated and difficulty spikes will push the player to truly understand and master the combat system. Some of these fights aren’t just with giant monsters, either—many of them will pit the player against other Armored Cores, wielding the same weapons and abilities the player has access to. Both of these types of fights are incredible, and are by far the most fun parts of the game.

The other half of the gameplay occurs in the “garage,” where the player goes between missions. While there are many things that can be done from the garage, including participating in player-versus-player and replaying missions, the most important activity is buying parts and customizing your mech. Money to buy parts is earned from completing missions, with some missions having extra objectives that will net you extra rewards. You can farm a potentially infinite amount of money by replaying missions, meaning you don’t ever have to worry about running out at a critical moment.

Each part has a variety of stats associated with it, including weight and energy consumption, with a weight tolerance for the leg parts and an energy generation for the generator part. Exceeding the weight tolerance will incur increasing penalties to your mech’s speed, while a mech simply can’t be deployed if its energy consumption outweighs the generation your generator provides. This balance forms the basics of mech customization, with much of the early game spent piling on as much firepower as you can for the legs and generator you have chosen. While bigger legs may have more weight tolerance, they are also slower, and generators with high energy output tend to have their own drawbacks.

At a more advanced level, there are a variety of other stats to every weapon or piece of your mech, allowing you to fine tune something that works perfectly for you. However, it is always a game of give and take—gaining in one stat always means losing out in another, and there are no parts that are simply better than another. While the entire customization system may sound like a side attraction compared to the combat, I can confidently say I spent more time in the garage, customizing and testing my mech, than I did in the missions. It is both incredibly engaging, and incredibly rewarding when you finally get something that works just right.

Now that I am done explaining (and praising) the game, it’s time to talk about what it does wrong. The first and most obvious thing are the difficulty spikes. Now, make no mistake, I have no issue with hard games. What I do have an issue with is inconsistently hard games, which AC6 absolutely is. As previously mentioned, many of the bosses are huge difficulty spikes, especially compared to the generally easy missions, and it can feel very jarring to go from blasting your way through robots to getting smacked around by an even bigger robot in the span of a minute or so. What makes this even worse is the extensive customization. If you happen to go into a boss with the wrong setup, it can seem insurmountably hard, while with the right setup, it can become laughably easy, making for a confusing experience as the game gets much harder or easier with little rhyme or reason. Now, I do have to give FromSoftware some credit on this, as it seems like the inevitable result of a game with so much customization, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

Another thing I dislike about the customization is how many weapons feel useless. Sure, most of the standard missiles and rifles are well balanced, but many of the stranger weapons feel more like gimmicks. One example is a shoulder mounted rocket launcher you can get fairly early in the game which creates a chain of explosions behind it when it explodes—detonating not just its target, but everything in the path it took to get to its target as well. It’s a really cool concept that is, unfortunately, completely useless. The chance of you actually hitting anything with its secondary explosions are astronomically low, and not worth the reduced damage and speed it has compared to the other rockets. The game is full of stuff like this: cool concepts for weapons that weren’t worked on long enough to become something actually viable. Considering how much of the game is customization, that feels like a shame.

One final major problem I have with this game is its length. In AC6, there are about 40 missions, give or take. Most missions take five to 10 minutes. Now, the time you actually spend playing the game is likely to be greater than it may first appear to be. Bosses can take many attempts to complete, and hours can be spent on customization. But even with all that, this is a roughly 20-hour game—not very much when the asking price is $60. The game tries to combat this by including exclusive missions to New Game Plus and Plus Plus, but it feels more than anything like a cheap attempt to extend the playtime by forcing you to go through the entire game again. Now, I will qualify this by saying that I would prefer a short, high quality game to a long, low quality one, but still. You’re not getting very much game for the money you actually put in.

In this final part of the review, I would like to touch on the game’s story. The story of this game is delivered almost exclusively through mission briefings and phone calls between characters—you never actually see anyone’s face, and there are only a few brief cutscenes in the entire game. Regardless of the subdued nature of the story, I found myself engaged with it. The voice acting is excellent, and, as is classic for FromSoftware, the story has a lot of stuff going on beneath the surface. However, the story is very easy to miss—briefings are completely skippable, and if you don’t take an interest in the story, you are free to play through the game without ever worrying about it. The story is very much in line with FromSoftware’s previous works, and fans of those will probably like the story here too.

Overall, “Armored Core 6” is a fun but short game with several prominent, but ignorable, flaws. I would recommend it to anyone with a fan of difficult boss fights and in depth customization.

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