When A Fire Starts To Burn
FromSoftware’s Armored Core VI - Fires of Rubicon is, deceptively, the thirteenth instalment in the lesser known but much beloved third-person mecha shooter series spanning three whole decades. In this outing, you are 621, an experimental augmented human pilot of one of the titular armoured cores, a towering yet agile combat mech. You are sent by your Handler to investigate the potential return of a rich but volatile resource, coral, on the surface of the planet Rubicon. Caught in a web of competing corporations, mercenaries, and resistance fighters, it’s time to choose a side.
To briefly digress, and dispel any bias: I gave up on Dark Souls 3, another FromSoftware title. I attempted it three times in as many years, creeping steadily further in my progress each time, then hitting a wall (figuratively and often literally). In the end, I reached a boss who became a veritable rampart which I just couldn’t overcome. Consequently, when I saw that the new big robot fly-around shooty game which had caught my eye was being developed by none other than FromSoftware, my excitement faltered. With both games presenting harsh difficulty and a punishing focus on player adaptability over brute force, as well as heavily featuring fire in their theming… would I be burned again?
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em
From your first thunderous launch, this game is anime as anything. There are such moments of pure adrenaline and not just visual but visceral spectacle that I was audibly squealing with excitement, while hard-won victories had me leaping from the sofa to shake my fists and roar. There’s the obvious flourish of, say, ending a fight with a blistering slash from your pulse blade, but a particular highlight which dropped my jaw to the floor came thanks to the game always slowing time upon the last hit to fell an opponent. I whipped left, weathering an artillery round straight to my chassis, and fired off a volley from my shoulder-mounted plasma launcher; my attacker burst into a rippling ball of purple flame. As I ignited my dash boosters and squeezed the trigger on my own cannons, an incoming round whistled past my contrails in glorious slow motion. It all happened in a single moment (pictured) and is explosively burned into my memory.
The sheer number of strategies and potential for epic snapshots of combat like the above are limitless. Rain fields of plasma down on your enemies from the skies; pepper them with a hail of bullets from both hands with ‘double trigger’ builds; crush them under tank treads; even shove a literal piledriver straight through their mech to destroy it with blunt force trauma. Above all, it’s freaking *fun*–more pure, unadulterated fun than I’ve had with a game in years.
I suspect that’s because the most gratifying of these moments come from surmounting the game’s outrageous boss fights. I’ve never played a game which so rapidly forced you to adapt and overcome. I could go into an end-level battle with only a vague idea of how to beat the boss from snippets I’d seen on Reddit or in the marketing, and bash my mech against it dozens of times in quick succession. But suddenly something would slot into place, some kind of instinctive augmentation chip interfacing with my mind, and I’d start to succeed. Without necessarily even needing to switch up my build, I’d make better quickfire decisions, I’d manage my ammunition and energy more efficiently, and then, finally, I’d feel the flow state wash over me. Don’t misunderstand me: without fail, a sudden rush of burning frustration would precede these triumphs, mostly fuelled by the threat of having to potentially quit out of a mission to purchase the necessary parts for success (while you can alter your setup each time you die, your new arsenal, maddeningly, must be drawn from parts you already own) then attempt the entire thing all over again.
But when it comes to fine-tuning that arsenal, customisation is amazing, right down to the colouration and brightness of the blinking lights on your mech. The best example I can give of its intricacy is that after clearing the tutorial area, I spent longer in the emblem creator than it took me to beat that first mission. It’s amazing how far something as simple as the ability to name your pilot and core goes in increasing immersion. I personally went for a literary Fahrenheit 451 theme with my pilot Montag at the helm of the black-plated ‘SALAMANDER’.
The control scheme, too, is carbon-steel solid. Not just every button but most combinations of them perform some rip-roaring attack or rapid movement. This is so far beyond ‘Press X to attack’ that you can’t even see the glow of its thrusters. It’s immersive, too; the two triggers activate your handheld weaponry, as if you’re firing the guns yourself. Beside these, the aptly named ‘shoulder’ buttons appropriately activate exactly that: your shoulder-mounted support weapons, like rocket packs, laser cannons, even energy shields.
All of this is rendered in graphics which are a marvel to behold. The life FromSoftware has injected into so much cold metal is commendable. Despite the nuclear generator hum of my poor last-gen Xbox One’s whirring fans, the visuals and performance were flawless nonetheless. This is a spotless ballistic plate of a game, fresh off the factory line, untouched and gleaming. No lag, glitches, lumbering loading times, or technical crashes (though literal crashes abound). The showers of particle effects alone are a feast for the eyes, from snow to sparks. There were countless moments where I’d whoop as a laser beam streaked past the empty space I’d occupied half a second earlier, or hear, wincing, the bristle of a stun baton swing just shy of my trajectory.
The game’s sound design, though, is a completely double-edged laser sword. Aside from the ‘low energy’ alert sounding suspiciously like a cabin crew announcement ding, the missile lock warnings are intuitive, not distracting. In combat, while the reverberating crash of mechanised destruction - the thunder of detonations broken only by the screams of bending metal - is perfectly executed, the weaponry which brings about these demolitions is often drowned out. I tried in vain to hear anything more than a light smack from my beefy twin shotguns over the rush of my own jets and piercing proximity alarms, despite adjusting the levels in the settings. The soundtrack, too, though occasionally haunting during your rare breaks from the fury of combat, your enemy briefly watching you like some pawing beast from the other side of the arena while mournful strings purr, leaves something to be desired. The overall tone is disarmingly melancholy, and some pulsating retrowave beats wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Tell me to “git gud” if you want, but I’m no scrub; in the interest of posterity, the game’s difficulty spikes just can’t be ignored. When it compares to Ace Combat 7, however, where I spent hours across multiple days trying to summit each steep learning curve as it loomed, mountainous, in front of my progress, here it took an hour, tops, to scale each peak. Nevertheless, the game has taken me months to actually finish. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it (far from it!) but because each decisive encounter left me a jittering bag of jumbled nerves, and I had to take regular breaks for days at a time. My hands ached, as if they’d actually been clutching the various joysticks and guidance controls in the cockpit; my throat burned from commands I didn’t even realise I was shouting out; and my eyes streamed, the various laser-lines of the heads up display still playing across my retinas. I was genuinely scared to come back to this game for each session, anticipating what unforeseen challenge would rear its head next. Whilst this was a significant barrier to entry, if true art is supposed to make you feel something then Armored Core VI is exactly that.
I’ve seen many people level the criticism that there’s only one viable strategy for each of the game’s bosses, stunting customisation as you have to fight in a particular way. However, beyond building lighter mechs for faster adversaries, and switching to pulse weaponry to negate shields, I found this to be patently untrue. No, you can’t expect to use a powerful but unwieldy tank build to defeat a boss whose weak point is an opening in the top of its towering smokestack; but switch to the quadlegs, allowing you to hover above it, and boom (quite literally): smoking crater where the boss used to be.
Though it was likely intentional so as not to detract from the visual spectacle and on-screen jumble of kinetic rounds, billowing plasma clouds, and fiery explosions, the environments are a definite shortfall. Apart from a few standouts like a showdown with invisible sharpshooters in a pit of coral reservoirs, glowing crimson, the grey bulwarks and expanses of snow and sand all blend together into one uninspiring monochrome blur. Ice fields do create some gorgeous reflections of superheated lasers and white-hot bullets, though.
A minor gripe is the fact that the Arena, offering one-on-one simulated battles with individual named pilots, often completely divulges the nature of unique encounters you’ll find later in the campaign. This is a shame as I was dipping into them for some extra income - instead of grinding previously completed missions, which I still didn’t find as much of a slog as people are claiming - or as a break from the story, but quickly found I didn’t like spoiling unique pilots, if only for how it diminished the cool factor of the eventual narrative reveals.
Perhaps the objectively worst offender, and the reason I’ve referred to Ace Combat so much, is that the thin filaments of plot are told in a very similar way to that series: through short cutscenes of your core being booted up or dropped into combat, and purely in radio chatter outside of this. Faceless, practically nameless characters spout exposition at you. The only real throughline is “a bunch of factions are competing for dominance”, and even this manifests itself most tangibly in the isolated boss fights. Due to the sci-fi setting, there isn’t even really the same folkloric appeal offered by the Souls series’ fantasy roots, either. Armored Core’s lore (Armored Lore? Sorry…) is less subversive myth and legend, and more technobabble. That said, the characterisation, on the other hand, is marvellous, if corny, but that’s part of the charm. At one point, a pair of security mechs attacking in tandem overwhelmed me on my first attempt. As my core belched flames and toppled over, the lieutenant - sent by superiors to take out the significant threat of the player-character - whipped out the smack-talk as my screen faded to black: “Requesting intelligence review. Observations found to contradict briefing.”
Maybe, like the augmented pilots of Armored Core VI, my brain has been fused (by the likes of combat flight simulators) with the necessary skills to play these twitchy arcade combat games somewhat effectively, rather than roll around the feet of dragons and demons in FromSoftware’s high fantasy Souls series. Playing Armored Core, something just clicked, like the retracting bolt of a gatling gun. I can’t help but feel a pang of pride seeing many Souls veterans, who claim to have beaten every game in that series, write in their negative reviews that they struggled to even make it past the tutorial boss of Armored Core VI. I can certainly understand aspects of their perspective–not unlike the mechs featured, the game can be a bit of an oddity; at times a fusion of competing elements, some bolted on more securely than others. But in my view, the game is much more akin to the coral your character and their legions of mechanised adversaries all fight for: nothing short of a hidden reservoir of riches.