How do you like your missiles? Do you prefer ones that fire straight up and then swoop down like birds of prey, or the kind that jet off to the sides, trapping the target in a pincer formation? How about a single missile that splits into a swarm of smaller missiles? Perhaps a zig-zagger that leaves a trail of explosive charges in its wake, detonating them like dynamite dominoes once it impacts? Well, whatever your fancy, Armored Core VI has a loadout for every occasion. With as many combinations as Dolly Parton’s wardrobe, it’s almost a scandal to equip the same gear twice.
Of course, you aren’t the first lady of country music here, but a differently augmented human installed inside a 10-metre mech – the titular armored core. Christened ‘621’ by your handler, your assignment is to assume the identity of a mercenary for hire on to attract interest from a pair of rival conglomerates on the planet Rubicon. This world, once scorched by terrible fires, is also home to a highly coveted energy resource called coral, and these military industrial giants are dead set on finding its source. The corps are happy to call on your talents, not least in sabotaging each other’s efforts and possibly well aware that you’re working both sides. As long as you get the latest job done, it hardly seems to matter.
Dressing the part for each self-contained mission is as crucial as the execution itself. Your mech carries four weapons at a time: two in the hands, two perched on its shoulders like a pirate’s parrots. Your selection determines your effective range, fire rate, damage, accuracy and the type of fire – bullets, explosives, lasers, plasma and so on – while switching in different body parts, boosters and energy cores alters your speed, weight limit and more. Even early on, before you’ve dropped millions of credits in the parts store, the potential combinations are a tinkerer’s dream, as long as you can find a balance that works. Perhaps you want those springy reverse-kneed grasshopper legs, for example, but that might preclude you from heavier weapons that require sturdier support.
With all this heavy metal, once you head out to trash corporate facilities, dislodge mech squads from ruined cities, or explore great ice fields, it’s a little disappointing to find that even the beefiest set up lacks a real sense of weight. There’s no thunderous thud when you land from up high, and paddling through obstacles such as cars and security fences feels a little like setting a puppy loose on a model train set. Nor is the visual fidelity quite up to the level that FromSoftware has elsewhere achieved with the likes of Elden Ring.
You’ll likely soon forgive the shortage of believable detail, however. In part that’s because Armored Core VI performs with immense fluidity, not a chug or judder in sight, and its set design (backed by sumptuous skyboxes) is often spectacular. But also because the lightness of your machine makes is what makes it a joy to control. Your twenty-ton colossus glides like an ice-skater with its multi-directional boosters, or instantly blazes forward to close space with an opponent. With all four weapons linked to separate buttons, you can arc serenely around a surface, pop off missiles at a cluster of targets, then swerve to down a closer threat with machine gun rounds, before boosting skywards to laser sword helicopters as if swatting mosquitoes.
If your experience of FromSoftware’s games is its fantasy action RPGs, the difference in mission statement here is clear. Armored Core is a power fantasy, not a grubby underdog struggle. You’re not some ragged undead, you’re the big bully. Even when you’re beaten back, your ability to re-spec and return with even bigger, better tools is part of the power trip. In one mission, I planted a hefty cannon on my left shoulder to clear out some sniping laser turrets, using building cover to stay out of sight then popping them off from distance. But that approach didn’t help much against the slippery mini-boss that followed, so I switched the cannon for a shield (you can only change equipment mid-mission if you die and restart at a checkpoint), ditching cover to confront him in an explosive open duel.
This kind of contrast from scene to scene can make each level feel like a unique challenge, and Armored Core VI is committed to variety throughout. In one stage you have to hover under concrete bridges and overhangs to avoid the attention of satellite laser sights that pierce the sky like puppet strings. In another you’re tasked with taking down an enormous Rubicon strider, a sort of rusty AT-AT Walker, disabling its defences piece by piece. Elsewhere, you have to keep from being seen and photographed before surprise attacking your assigned target. From levels that involve dropping down into the depths of the planet to great sky battles against warships, for a game about piloting a giant wrecking machine, the versatility here is extraordinary.
Where Armored Core VI falters in balancing these myriad objectives, however, is in its boss battles. To wit, after winning my duel, I trundle into the chapter finale versus a fancy-pants mech named Balteus, who opens its account by summoning around 200 missiles. No shield is going to stop those, or the many more to come, nor is it a simple task to get out of their path – these things home more proficiently than pigeons. For me this became a plain old-fashioned difficulty spike that torpedoed the power fantasy. Now I had to hammer almost every button at once to dodge a relentless stream of rockets and bullets while keeping the pressure on. As I did, the perfectly smart strategy of staying close to the aggressor sent the camera into dizzying spins.
Sure, we know From does big, bad bosses, but Armored Core VI doesn’t lay the groundwork and they tip the game off balance. The time spent learning their patterns threatens to dominate the experience, and the more imaginative level design in between really doesn’t deserve to be upstaged. But also, for large chunks, Armored Core VI isn’t some kind of mecha-Sekiro for From boss worshippers at all. There are a couple of sticking points in the first third and another much later on that really does feel like a nuclear-assisted Elden Ring escapee, its move set seemingly designed with intent to confound your view of the action, but no comparable challenges in between.
Indeed, in the middle and later parts of the game, the majority of set-piece battles put you up against a stream of NPCs piloting their own armored cores. You’ll also be fighting these in Arena mode, a one-on-one battle simulator that rewards you with a unique currency to spend on upgrades. Yet most fights against rival ACs, whether simulated or live, follow similar patterns. You may have to adjust your loadout a little for some, but a lot of strafing and blasting can get you surprisingly far.
The number of AC fights in the second half of the game, in fact, triggers a sense that the campaign is plodding on too long (it took me some 35 hours to reach the end), even when the stages around them continue to serve up unique scenarios. In the first half, there’s every reason to repeat completed missions, to earn more cash for parts and higher ranks for better performance – the dangling carrot of S-ranks for exceptional play is hard to resist. Later, the draw weakens, as those AC fights get samey and your enhanced firepower makes experimenting with builds less essential.
Even the parts store, once a wish list of destructive potential, eventually loses its lustre, with dozens of variations on each of its brute metal themes. Now, the Christmas excitement of acquiring a new toy is replaced by the need to exchange an old bazooka for a new one with higher stats, as if bowing to the demands of planned obsolescence. True, there are still some fresh gems to unlock – a weapon that scatters explosives on the floor in front of you, for one – but little to prompt a genuinely fresh playing style. How many kinds of missiles do you really need?
I’d like to think that Armored Core VI deliberately outstays its welcome a touch. Its story does, after all, leave you to consider the obscenity of the whole endeavour on Rubicon, as you profit from the mass waste of human and technological resources in the corporate war, growing ever more powerful and destructive in the process, forcing them to expend even more. It prods at the sickening mundanity of your ‘job’ within the escalating violence and genocidal competition, and shows how the two sides learn precisely nothing even when they’re forced to work together temporarily. Once the interminable nature of the feud becomes apparent, it makes sense that the war seems to drag.
After the initial thrill of learning to control your machine and kitting it out with bolder weapons, and the bombast of the power fantasy, ultimately one pitiful casualty or sacrifice follows another. Perhaps the repetitive AC battles and the waste pile of deadly hardware you accumulate are designed to bring home a gut-wrenching nihilism. If not, Armored Core VI is a frequently brilliant action game that makes the most of its mechs, but also curiously at odds with itself and a little overstuffed.
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