From Software achieved impressive critical success with the follow-up to their sadistic death-simulator Demon’s Souls, with Dark Souls appealing to niche gamers looking for a challenge. The latest in the Armored Core mech-simulator franchise has From Software’s fingerprints evident in many aspects, including an example of boundary-pushing online experimentation such as that seen in Dark Souls’ asynchronous ghosts of the dead. Armored Core, now in its fourteenth instalment, switches out some aspects but keeps a few key components as it moves toward a more rounded online experience.
The long-standing series revolves around two main principles - explosive, hectic mech combat and an expansive set of customisation options. The mech suits in each game are modular, meaning parts can be exchanged and tweaked in order to create the optimal weapon for the situation. Missions, incorporating corrupt organisations and factions, paint you as a mercenary for hire and feature battles with ground, air and rival mech forces which put your mech configuration to the test. Set in a technologically developed future, each game features bleak, dystopian environments such as factories, military compounds and cities. While previous games feature narrative similarities, Armored Core V is a reboot of the franchise aiming to reset events and overhaul some elements of gameplay such as the inclusion of ‘always-on’ multiplayer and denser, more strategically varied environments.
Newcomers to the series beware. Everything about Armored Core V eschews a hardcore sensibility – booting up the game you are immediately tasked with creating a team or joining another. This will serve as your first foray into the game’s omnipresent multiplayer wherein teams combine, communicate and compete on a world map scattered with missions, sorties and battles. By selecting or creating an online team you lay the foundations of the multiplayer experience wherein almost every mission can include other players, online battles can be fought and mech parts exchanged in the assembly section. Should you play the game offline there is not an option to use bots or hire AI players; whereas an online companion can help you through the tougher single player missions, the burden of difficulty is entirely yours offline. After choosing an emblem and team name you’ll be presented with a brief tutorial that brushes over the basics. Savour the directness of this information – from then on it’s down to bluntly written tip boxes to glean any further clues of how to play. These boxes pop-up during loading screens and don’t tend to offer more than one tip at a time - a piecemeal approach that can be frustratingly cryptic for first-time players. Once your team is ready to go (even if you’re an offline team of one) you’re ready to select from a variety of different missions presented on a menu resembling a map of the game environment.
The gameplay loop of Armored Core V revolves around mech construction and putting your mech to use in the story, order and multiplayer missions that appear on the world map in order to earn money for further mech upgrades. The ten story missions are long, multi-objective levels bookended by poorly voice-acted cutscenes. As objectives are given in these abysmally written interludes it can be somewhat hard to work out what you’re meant to be doing, although destroying every enemy on the map is often the right way to go about things. Tramping around cityscapes, industrial areas and factories, your mech will go up against different types of enemy that require different tactics and weapon loadouts. Your mech configuration is thereby fundamental to the outcome of each level. Ammo is scarce and health is finite so caution and the right approach to each enemy is vital for success, although a mobile base can be purchased mid-mission at great expense to your mission rating. Levels can often end with a boss battle or set piece - often in the form of rival mechs or chase sequences - that put these tactics to the test (although early bosses can be defeated by staying in cover and sporadically darting out to fire). Controlling your mech will often be the first task to learn with boosts, multiple weapons and targeting HUDs to be mastered for any decent progression. Ranged combat, stealth and heavy artillery are all potential tactics to employ depending on the mech you’ve built, with each mission requiring a specific type of weapon/movement combo for high scores and big earnings.
Order missions, of which there are over eighty, are shorter more casual affairs that task you with destroying enemies to earn money and XP in order to buy more parts. Again the right type of mech is key, although the simplicity inherent with the ‘destroy all robots’ mission objectives mean these sorties are a thinly veiled way to grind for more points, but the constant need to upgrade make them necessary to complete. Each story and order mission can be completed with the aid of online assistance - the always-on multiplayer offers mercenaries that can be hired (online players willing to offer help for a cut of the completion rewards) or team members able to be recruited to alleviate some of the difficulty. If you’re offline, however, the onslaught of enemies and lack of help can result in a trial-and-error form of gameplay as you fail, retool your mech and retry the mission until the right loadout is found. You might have help in the form of AI co-pilots in certain levels but bots cannot be hired in lieu of human team members, making offline play an uphill struggle.
Within the grander framework of Armored Core’s online factions lies the main competitive multiplayer option - Conquest. If you can rally a group of friends to purchase the game, or develop enough of a bond with your team, then you’ll have the option to co-ordinate five vs. five territory battles that soon develop into chaotic pyrotechnic displays with little lag. The European servers are still sparsely populated but should you leave your team set to ‘free’ then you’ll more often than not accrue surprise followers willing to help out on story and order missions. Should nobody join your team you’re also given the option to hire mercenaries – essentially a quickmatch way of finding players – for a price, including the division of any credits earned. Each successful mission earns cash and team points to spend on upgrades and the presence of human mentors can act as a natural form of tutorial as you learn techniques and more through their experience. The main problem surrounding multiplayer rests on the hardcore nature of the game – there are simply not enough people playing at the moment, unless you recruit friends. One benefit of this small fanbase is that the servers are full with people who genuinely love the game, as opposed to griefing trolls. It is with the inclusion of multiplayer that Armored Core rises above drab mediocrity to become a title worth consideration. While single-player can become tedious, over-challenging and repetitive, the ability to play each mission with a partner adds a layer of tactical depth to each sortie. Once you are in a team, the sense of belonging and comradeship can instil a much needed human element in Armored Core’s sterile, metallic heart; the team you created or joined at the beginning of the game suddenly gains relevance beyond an emblem and call sign as you earn XP together. Team levelling opens up better parts to buy in the Assembly store, benefiting all members within the group and continuing the cycle of customisation, upgrading and mission completion.
The customisation on offer remains a standout feature of the franchise, with hundreds of different parts available to buy or trade within the in-game store using your earned currency. More often than not you’ll end up spending more time customising and tweaking your mech than actually deploying it to the battlefield – a testament to the sheer wealth of parts and options available. Having the right mech for the job is fundamental to each mission and playstyle - heavy mechs move slowly but have superior firepower, lighter mechs are speedy but unable to carry certain weapons. With the addition of three different weapon categories (Kinetic, Chemical and Thermal Energy) finding the right combination of parts can result in battlefield domination or powerless impotence as enemies are immune to certain weapons. However, the store menu interface proves a barrier to newcomers – there’s nothing in the way of guidance, leading to a lot of experimentation to perform the most basic of upgrades. The menu is cluttered and cumbersome to use, with lists of numbers proving to be overwhelming when first encountered. A help menu can be toggled to explain the stats for each part but there is barely any assistance when it comes to buying the upgrade you want. Couple that with the Assembly menu - where parts can only be combined if you have the right mech body and weight limits must be taken into account - and it all begs a little guidance in what to do unless you want to fail miserably in each mission.
Graphically the game appears, like the mechs you pilot, rather pragmatic. The HUD can be a complicated mess of numbers and targeting sensors that disrupts the framerate occasionally, but it conveys all the necessary information. While there are some spectacular particle effects and filters it’s a shame that the environments tend to consist of blocky textures and boxy models. The detail is better than in previous instalments but is still under par in comparison to current titles, including From Software’s own stunning art direction in Dark Souls.
Like Dark Souls, Armored Core V doesn’t have a learning curve – it’s more like a learning ladder, requiring you to figure out all the technical jargon and awkward controls at each rung. Missions get steadily harder with more powerful enemies in greater numbers to defeat. The trial-and-error loop of mech creation can see hours spent grinding to raise currency for a specific part, only for a certain enemy in the level to be immune to that weapon. Move beyond that and you’ll feel a sense of achievement, whenever your mech comes together as a force to be reckoned with, or your team triumphs over a rival thanks to tactics and communication.
Unfortunately, if you can’t access the multiplayer portion of the game then Armored Core stays a very sterile and cold experience. Gamers will either walk away, frustrated with the challenge and lack of payoff or persist and discover that, without teammates, it can still be unrewarding thanks to a lacklustre campaign, underwhelming graphics and dry presentation. The addition of multiplayer transforms the game in numerous ways and gives the Armored Core franchise something it’s been missing for a while - human interaction, personality and purpose. If you become ensnared in the loop of construction and mobilisation then you’ll be rewarded with an extremely balanced and rewarding combat game - the ultimate Meccano set that, if played online, can be enjoyed with like minded gamers. A little more care in the single player campaign or a more accessible interface would give the franchise greater mainstream appeal and an extensive user base it’s multiplayer deserves. Unfortunately, there could be one too many design choices that dissuade you from persisting - the muddy graphics, mediocre missions and a menu system that requires its own manual tempt you to shutdown your mech for good.
The fourteenth installment in the franchise reboots the system and turns the focus towards multiplayer. How does it fare?