Rubicon 3, the setting for Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, is a far cry from the likes of Lordran and The Lands Between, immediately establishing a striking sci-fi aesthetic that's unlike anything From Software has created in the past decade. Lessons learned from the studio's most recent output are evident in Armored Core VI, but don't go in expecting this to be Dark Souls with mechs. The sixth numbered entry in the series is a decidedly Armored Core game, meshing exciting mech-on-mech action with the highly customizable assembly of your giant robot. It's a game for the die-hards but also represents the most approachable game in the series thus far--one that sees From Software return to its roots in triumphant fashion.
Though Rubicon 3 might be able to sustain human life, it's still an incredibly hostile place. Occupying corporations wage war against each other, local resistance fighters, and a governmental space force, for control of the planet and its valuable resources. Dilapidated cities, arid deserts, and frozen wastelands serve as the battlefields for mechanized warfare, as missiles, bullets, and laser cannons frequently collide with steel. Even the planet itself is imposing. Giant metallic structures stretch thousands of feet into the sky and then spread outwards like branches, each one carpeted in blinking lights that replace the stars they're obscuring. When you do catch a glimpse of the sky, you'll notice pockets of the planet's atmosphere burning red like fire.
The reason Rubicon 3 is such a hotbed of action is because it's home to Coral. This mysterious substance is immensely valuable, causing a number of extraplanetary corporations to descend upon the planet in an all-out war to harness it. You enter the fray as an independent mercenary employed by the enigmatic Handler Walter, who orders you to complete jobs on behalf of whichever faction is willing to pay. Referred to only as 621 or your callsign, Raven, the story in Armored Core VI has an oddly impersonal feel. Much of the narrative is delivered through audio on a static screen, with nary a human face in sight. Being a silent protagonist also makes it difficult to escape the feeling that you're a puppet for those pulling the strings. This is seemingly intentional, although the story never quite delves deep enough into this feeling of detachment to say anything meaningful. Most of the characters are fairly cliched, even if the voice acting is generally entertaining, and while there are interesting aspects to the lore, the story is ultimately disappointing without ever being particularly bad.
The narrative does afford you a degree of agency at times, as you're occasionally asked to choose between two missions for two different factions, thus creating a branching path that affects both future missions and the game's ending. This adds replayability to future playthroughs, although it's in new game plus where this feature comes into its own. Armored Core VI doesn't quite venture down the Nier: Automata route, but it opts for a similar vibe. New missions appear during new game plus, while familiar quests are altered, adding extra choices that can change how they play out. These surprises make the campaign worth playing again if you weren't already itching to dive back in.
Once you've settled into the cockpit of a titular Armored Core, the first thing that jumps out is how easy Armored Core VI is to pick up and play. Your mech can be equipped with up to four weapons at once, each one assigned to a different shoulder button. You can jump, perform a quick dodge both on the ground and in the air, and engage an assault boost that resembles a sprint--propelling you forward with the type of g-force that presumably makes it look like you've aged about 30 years. There's a familiarity to the controls that's comparable to other third-person shooters, but that's where most comparisons end. Much like Armored Core IV, there's a focus on speed and maneuverability, to the point where even the heaviest mechs are able to glide across the battlefield with relative ease. Movement feels fluid and responsive, and although you can't stay suspended in the air indefinitely, you can remain airborne for a good while before needing to land. Combine this with the ability to fire four weapons concurrently, and you've got the makings of an exhilarating combat style that rarely eases off.
Game director Masaru Yamamura previously served as the primary combat designer on Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, so this approach doesn't come as much of a surprise. Sekiro's brazen DNA is evident in Armored Core VI's combat ethos. There's an emphasis on adopting an aggressive combat style that's derived from your mech's mobility and firepower, but also the game's stagger mechanic. Each successful attack on an enemy combatant applies strain to their Attitude Control System (ACS). When this gauge fills up, it causes them to stagger and freeze in place, giving you a brief window with which to inflict more damage than your shots normally would. If you let up at any point, the strain on their ACS gradually declines, so you're incentivized to push the action and remain on the front foot. This creates a precarious balancing act since your mech has its own ACS that abides by the same ruleset. In some instances, it might be wise to disengage and find cover until your own strain declines, or opt to continue pushing the pace in the hopes of staggering your opponent first.
Most of the rank-and-file enemy types you encounter are literal cannon fodder and explode after one or two hits, so the stagger mechanic only comes into play against particularly menacing foes. Armored Core VI maintains the mission structure of previous games in the series, with each chapter containing a mixture of story and side quests within self-contained levels. These missions are wonderfully varied, whether you're fighting mechs on a frozen lake or climbing up the side of a weaponized mining ship that dwarfs your Armored Core with its monumental scale.
[Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon is] a game for the die-hards but also represents the most approachable game in the series thus far--one that sees From Software return to its roots in triumphant fashion.
The bulk of the fighting takes place against regular enemies, while mini-bosses regularly appear and boss fights punctuate certain missions by bumping up the difficulty with a memorable clash. Much of the game acts as a power fantasy that sees you lay waste to dozens of enemies without breaking a sweat before a boss shows up and knocks you down a peg or two. These battles present a challenge consistent with From Software's previous work, but these erratic difficulty spikes create an odd juxtaposition with the rest of the game, even if it makes sense within the game's lore--since the Armored Cores are much more advanced than the standard, mass-produced mechs populating the battlefield. It never feels like the game adequately prepares you for facing a genuine threat, which can make the opening hours frustrating at times when you suddenly hit a boss-shaped roadblock.
Fortunately, Armored Core VI is still more approachable than the series has been in the past. For one, there are numerous training missions to partake in that explain everything from the basic controls and combat fundamentals to the differences between a tetrapod AC and a reverse-jointed AC. Crucially, it does this by giving you the opportunity to try out various loadouts and get a feel for how each one functions and differentiates itself from the others.
Assembling your Armored Core is as crucial to success as mastering the game's combat mechanics. Rather than leveling up, progression is tied to acquiring new parts and using them to create a distinct mech that's wholly your own. From Software wisely holds off on immediately paralyzing you with too much choice as new parts are unlocked gradually, and you can sell parts back for the same price you bought them, encouraging you to frequently experiment and try new builds. Eventually, your options increase tenfold and you can create Armored Cores that feel significantly different from one another. You might opt for dual-wielding machine guns or mini-guns, equip a plasma rifle in one hand and a shotgun in the other, or forgo guns completely in favor of a pulse shield and laser sword combo. When it comes to body parts, there are fluctuations in weight and armor between the multitude of heads, arms, torsos, and legs you can equip. Boosters have tangible effects on dodge speed and leap ability, while chipsets alter how effective your missile lock-on is at different ranges. You can't just slap anything together and hope it works either. Each loadout must adhere to weight and energy restrictions so you can't, say, rock up with a lightweight mech equipped with four bulky cannons.
This establishes a balance and forces you to consider the pros and cons of each build, and it's here where the marriage between assembly and combat really shines. The first time you fight a boss is typically a learning experience. I defeated a couple of bosses on the first attempt, but most of the time I had to re-assess and experiment with different builds to counteract their unique properties. The Juggernaut, for instance, is one of the game's early bosses--a massive tank that's impervious to damage from the front thanks to its armor plating. Circling around to attack it from the back and sides is the only way to inflict damage, but it's surprisingly nimble for its size, frequently deploying its huge thrusters to outmaneuver you. It's entirely possible to beat the Juggernaut by constantly positioning yourself behind its impenetrable armor, but I expedited the process by also equipping a vertical rocket launcher. Rather than firing a barrage of missiles in a straight line, this variant launches each armament upwards so they would come hurtling out of the sky and impact behind the Juggernaut's defenses. Beating a boss is incredibly satisfying on its own, but especially after you've found a way to adapt and alter your build to do so.
You can't summon another player to help you take down a troublesome boss like many of the Souls games either, yet this doesn't prevent Armored Core VI from maintaining a semblance of community. Anyone can save a loadout and then share it for other players to equip. That said, it's not the most convenient system to use since you can't simply view a list of every shared loadout. Instead, you need a person's in-game ID in order to download their creations. I can't imagine it will be difficult to find those willing to share their boss-specific builds, though. The only other online component of Armored Core VI is versus matches where you can battle other players in either 1v1 or 3v3 matches. The netcode holds up and these bouts are hectic but fun in short bursts. Without any game modes beyond a simple deathmatch, however, they're unlikely to achieve much longevity.
Armored Core VI represents a new beginning for the long-running series. It still remains true to From Software's original vision, but the whole experience has been refined to welcome an audience that cut its teeth on the studio's most recent work. Its story is a letdown and there may be some early growing pains due to its lopsided approach, but these shortcomings quickly scurry to the back of your mind once you start weaving your fully customized mech between incoming attacks while unleashing a salvo of rocket fire, sword swipes, and plasma rounds.