Ecstatic. That’s what I was when news of a new Armored Core title reached me. Flying-fast combat in a three-dimensional playing field, paired with the methodical and precision-enhanced style of play that FromSoftware has become known for in more recent years. Two worlds would be brought together perfectly. That’s where Armored Core VI succeeds superbly, I can tell you.
It’s already the sixth installment of FromSoftware’s third-person mecha shooter. The Dark Souls developer has been working on this series since 1997, although only Armored Core 2 really managed to impress. Nevertheless, the series is known to many fans as a cult classic due to its unique, cinematic duels. Your own mech from scratch Building and testing in 1v1 against friends was an exercise that also left me glued to the screen for days.
Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon introduces a new story within its setting. You don’t need to know anything from the previous games, although this latest edition is full of references to previous storylines for the old-timers (which I’ll leave unnamed here due to spoilers). You play as a pilot of an Amored Cored (AC) who hires himself out as a henchman to corporations, who in turn explore the already destroyed planet Rubicon in a quest for the extremely valuable resource coral. Competition, political wrangling, profit-seeking; you know the drill.
As a henchman, you are assigned to missions of these corporations all the time. Handler Walter is your intermediary for this, his raw voice almost constantly audible through the crackling intercom of your AC. From the outset, it is clear that the fields of tension around you are going to erupt at some point. It does so partly as expected, although the story divided into missions has a few surprises here and there. You’ll spend roughly twenty to thirty hours on it. Of course, depending entirely on the amount of tweaks you make to your AC.
You spend about as much time playing missions and duels as you do assembling your perfect AC. This is no joke: after unlocking new parts – say, after every three missions – I dove into the garage for half an hour to an hour to test new builds. ACs consist of eleven separate parts – arms, legs, generator, boosters, etc. – with an optional twelfth and later in the campaign you also unlock OS Tuning for some unique modifications. You get the idea: the combinations are endless.
The most important parameters of an AC are its weight and energy output. You can’t make a tank on wheels without a hefty generator, and a sleek, lightning-fast mech barely moves forward if you mount an immense laser cannon on it. The amount of statistics hidden behind the parts is initially overwhelming: stability, target tracking, energy efficiency, various types of damage, reload times of boosts, etc. Feast, of course, for fans of the series.
For newcomers, there is a simplified view that does a fine job of showing what the main features of a component are. Still, sooner or later you will have to give in to the complex workings of your AC. This game series was never known for being easy and Fires of Rubicon adds to that. You control your mech in three dimensions and fight with four different weapons: two on your arms and two on your shoulders. Sideways quick boosts and assault boosts allow you to dodge at lightning speed or approach your enemy at maximum speed. All this while keeping your mech constantly moving to relax from enemy fire and to get those enemies in your sights at all.
Freedom to mechbuilds
The PS5 controller is used to its full potential in Armored Core 6. Never before have I had to press so many buttons simultaneously and separately to get my character moving. The first missions do an excellent job of explaining how to do this by throwing you right into the deep end. Tutorial pop-ups abound, but you can also test your mech in a virtual environment at any time. Either way, you are overwhelmed by countless beeps and warnings from your AC that half the time you don’t know what they mean. Then again, these are not explained.
Then you are knocked around your ears with missiles, bullets, lasers and other types of projectiles. In this bullet hell you have to survive, looking for a hole in the enemy’s defenses. It’s up to you how. Pump out your entire arsenal like a madman? Like a ninja dodging the bullets and meeting the enemy in mêlee? A mix of everything? There are countless options and so far I’ve only felt a few times that only one build was the right one. The freedom to solve situations your way, with your AC, which is wonderful.
Treacherously easy and frustrating
Missions in Armored Core 6 are relatively short, usually about fifteen minutes. Sometimes I returned to the hangar after only three minutes. This is partly refreshing and partly curious. As mentioned earlier, Fires of Rubicon is not an easy game, due to the complexity of three-dimensional combat and the ability to create inefficient builds, but at times the game is actually insidiously easy.
In most missions, you destroy other mechs, execute an objective and return. Three repair kits allow you to repair your mech in between missions. If you lose, you restart the mission or return to a recent checkpoint. Now it is remarkable how often you encounter checkpoints. After most lost confrontations you can return to the scene of the crime in no time, often even with a new supply of repair kits as well as the ability to customize your build. Compared to Dark Souls, then, Armored Core 6 is particularly forgiving.
Full of courage you race through these missions without losing even once and suddenly you are faced with a seemingly impossible mission. This happens mainly with the few final bosses the game features. These battles are nail-bitingly exciting, comparable to the most difficult Dark Souls bosses, and, compared to the rest of the game, are surprisingly rigid in how you should tackle them. This creates a peculiar, slightly frustrating barrier in Armored Core 6’s otherwise excellent experience. Similar are the missions where you’re simply overwhelmed by what’s happening on screen, sometimes making it impossible to even understand the many conversations between Walter or your enemies. Challenge by now is almost synonymous with FromSoftware games, but in the case of Armored Core 6 it lacks a certain flow that should prepare you for such challenges.
Armored Core traditionally excels in mecha duels. These can be found in the Arena (AI-simulated duels) and in the Nest, a multiplayer mode that unfortunately you only unlock after hours of missions. The same goes for the many mech elements, by the way. If you want to be on the same playing field as your online opponents, completing the campaign is a must. If you want to buy the game purely for the versus mode, you will be disappointed, but resign yourself to the fact that FromSoftware brings back the magic of duels in the narrative missions. Sometimes somewhat forced.
In the missions of Fires of Rubicon, you fight hordes of inferior mechs and turrets on the one hand and other ACs on the other. Sometimes you even have to crash entire warships. This is genuinely fantastic, especially if you have found a favorite mechbuild that is prepared for anything. In the unlikely event that one doesn’t work, you can always switch saved mechbuilds at a checkpoint. The latter, however, introduces a certain ludonarrative dissonance.
The structure of separate missions is partly to blame for this. In one of the five chapters, for example, you undergo a lengthy expedition in an underground facility that is divided into multiple missions. Even though your mech remains in that facility, as a pilot you return to the hangar in between to, for example, play out a duel or experiment with builds. Don’t get me wrong, that variety is more than welcome, but the charm of the silent henchman who only has contact with the outside world via intercom connection while braving the deep is quickly lost due to the forced mission structure.
Tastes like more
If you want to see everything from Armored Core, replay missions to find the last hidden crates of parts and get the most out of Arena mode, you’ll spend dozens of hours with it. Let alone building your mechs. While some parts of the mech assembly are a bit disappointing – I had expected more of the mostly passive bonuses of OS Tuning, for example – I can already see wacky builds in front of me that shouldn’t work but still dominate the leaderboards.
A final downside, by the way, is the graphics. I have to admit that half the time I wasn’t paying attention to it due to the rain of bullets I had to dodge, but if you pay attention, the setting is a bit disappointing. At first, you’re amazed by the dystopian vistas: ruined refineries and long-abandoned, immense loading docks full of steel and composites, each visible in the background. These vistas just never change. After a while, the gray environments full of steel behemoths are nothing more than that: hard surfaces and empty shells. Fortunately, you always have the Assault Boost: the engine ignites, blue light spews forth from your boosters and the edges of your screen blur due to the unprecedented speed. How wonderful it is to be a mech.
With Fires of Rubicon, FromSoftware gives birth to a heir apparent to the cult classic Armored Core. This sixth installment in a beloved series of mecha shooters is a feast for veterans and newcomers alike. Both will be surprised with a combination of inventive mech mechanics full of statistical calculations and rock-solid three-dimensional combat that blends the lightning-fast duels of previous Armored Core games and the methodical play style of Dark Souls with excellence. The approximately 20-hour campaign, divided into missions, is fairly linear and both insidiously easy and frustrating, but that matters little. The feeling as you speed through a bullet hell, taking out enemies with rifles, laser swords and everything in between is unparalleled. As such, Armored Core 6’s multiplayer mode is rightfully going to be played for years to come.