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Armored Core 6 review: Wading in the Rubicon

Armored Core 6 shines in its tough, brilliant boss battles, but feels bland and underdeveloped everywhere else.

Sci-fi, giant robots, and dystopian futures that shine a light on the worst excesses of human nature as a cautionary tale light up my brain like few other things can. If you throw in the prospect of hours spent fine-tuning one of those giant sci-fi mechs until it’s a misshapen wreck capable of bringing down entire planets, I basically turn into a living version of a mind blown gif. In theory, Armored Core 6 should’ve had the same effect on me. It ticks all those boxes, and has the framework of a deep, rewarding action-RPG – but the mech inside that frame isn’t quite up to the task.

Permission to launch.Watch on YouTube

Armored Core 6 initially follows a similar narrative path as some of its predecessors, though that’s unsurprising given it is a (From)Soft reboot. Ravenous corporations tear the galaxy apart in search of lucrative resources, destroying anyone who gets in their way, and you’re the perfect tool to help them get what they want. You play as 621, a mercenary with exceptional piloting skills gained at the expense of, well, pretty much everything else. Emotions and normal human behavior just don’t apply to your compromised brain anymore, so when your handler says “go kill these innocent people to make us money,” you comply without protest.

Granted, you probably can’t form enough coherent thoughts to actually protest, but that’s beside the point. Your role as a heartless antagonist lends a pervasive air of bleakness to Armored Core 6 that’s unique to Armored Core, and while the concept of a merc serving greedy corpos might be familiar to series fans, Armored Core 6 adds enough extra layers of intrigue and subterfuge that it never feels overly familiar.

There’s certainly room for more and deeper storytelling here, though. Narrative segments and conversations with your handler or rival factions bookend each mission. They’re short and definitely not the main focus, which is a shame, as there’s a substantial amount of narrative potential in the world that FromSoft created for AC6. Your sly handler weaves a network of lies and intrigue to get what he wants, and with so many factions and that much double-crossing going on, it’s a story ripe for letting you choose sides or influence the outcome in some way – except you can’t.

If there’s another Armored Core game, I hope FromSoftware decides to branch out with the story and give you a more significant role in it. For now, though, you’re just along for the ride, and with shoulder-mounted weapons, rocket boosters, and ultra-powerful weapons in each hand, it can be quite the ride – sometimes.

Flying around is CORE to the experience. | Image credit: FromSoftware

Armored Core 6 shares more in common with Musou games than you might think. Most missions, especially early ones, have dozens of standard enemies in garbage-quality mechs that you can wipe out with a few blasts from even weak handgun weapons. They can gang up on you and cause trouble, but they aren’t especially difficult or fun to get rid of.

It may be sci-fi, but it still has that FromSoft aesthetic.

The real challenge and the best parts of Armored Core 6 come from the boss battles. Whether you’re fighting another Armored Core, a distressingly agile jumping tank, or a laser-shooting eyeball mounted on a carrier the size of a small city, Armored Core 6’s boss battles make you think carefully about every move – or else. It’s brutal in the way you’d expect of a FromSoftware game, but you eventually get into a pattern of timing your reloads, figuring out the best cover, and combining movement with the right attacks to cause maximum damage.

I just wish it actually felt good to play. I never felt comfortable in my Armored Core, which might be fine (and even a bit meta if I were a brain-fried mercenary pulling levers and following orders like our hero 621 is), but as a functioning human trying to get a handle on AC6, it wasn’t that great. Movement is imprecise and floaty, something I initially put down to poorly-balanced weight on my mech. Even after loading it up with bulky weapons and nearing my capacity, though, I didn’t notice a substantial change in my mobility. More heft and friction would have helped make AC6 feel more grounded and substantial, and even opened the way for more nuanced builds and ways to approach challenging situations.

Looks cool, feels naff.

Speaking of builds, Armored Core 6 is happy to let you put together some impressively stupid weapon combinations and trundle out onto the battlefield with seemingly no hope of success. But with patience and good understanding of the level, you can actually pull off some sweet victories with the most unlikely setups. I started setting myself challenges to get through certain missions with improbable weapon combinations just to see if I could and was pleasantly surprised how often the answer was yes, even if the road to victory was a rough one.

The thing is, you don’t have to actually experiment or think terribly hard about your build. Coming up with challenges to test yourself is all well and good, but it’s easy to get through most of the game with the parts you find or buy early on. I experimented with a lot, but always went back to my trusty charge rifle and beam sword combination, with a missile launcher for each shoulder.

You’re also kind of locked into using a heavy or melee weapon in one hand. Most missions have at least one set of shielded enemies or high-powered targets to destroy, and your rifles, pistols, and launchers just bounce right off these foes. Artillery weapons work, but why opt for something unwieldy with low ammo when you have a powerful default weapon right there?

So, the short version of all that? Armored Core 6’s customization is impressive, but outside the usual upgrades to your defense and health, it’s not really essential.

Like it or not, you need both melee and ranged options.

Neither are some of Armored Core 6’s other big, new features. It touts its verticality and “omni-directional battles” as core pillars of the experience, though they’re not as impressive as they sound. “Omni-directional combat” just means enemies moving all around you – something that makes for fantastically tense boss battles – but adds little to most of a mission’s standard encounters.

The verticality is weaker. Armored Core 6 doesn’t tie mobility to your bot’s parts, like AC5 does, so gaining height is just a matter of finding footholds to wait on while your energy recharges before you fly again. Vertically designed stages end up just having obstacles for the sake of making you fly, and rarely do they put them to good or interesting use. That’s a shame, as the potential for something stronger, for more focused stage design that leans into your Armored Core’s ability, is definitely there. It’s just untapped for now.

Armored Core 6 is the essence of a soft reboot. It has the unenviable task of drawing newcomers to a niche, sometimes overly challenging series without changing too much of what made fans like it to begin with. The result is a mixed experience that, while it has some shining moments of brilliance, feels a bit loose and never plays to its strengths.

Reviewed on PC. Code provided by Bandai Namco.

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