It’s slim pickings as far as the mech genre’s concerned these days, but the Armored Core series is an old hand, and a welcome one at that.
This time around the mechs, canonically known as ACs, are leaner and meaner than ever. Standing only five metres tall on averege, the strategic focus has consequently been shifted back from button-mashing to group tactics and intelligent use of terrain.
There’s not much of a story to be found in this title, bar the traditional “Resistance versus the Man” trope, but there doesn’t need to be. Armored Core has always been all about finicky customisation, finding that perfect balance between death-dealing and survivability in the garage, before heading out to the killing fields. The in-game tutorials go some way to decrypting the intricacies of mech-mechanics for the uninitiated, but most recruits will probably resort to trial and error, picking up the finer nuances of 21st Century combat along the way.
Damage types such as kinetic or chemical have now been boosted to the point of actually mattering, and the resistance or lack thereof players encounter with their respective load outs will almost always force them to adapt their play style. Aside from the sheer number of available parts, the system is in fact quite easy to grasp, so expect to spend some time tinkering around in the shed in between sorties. Tank treads, for instance, sacrifice airborne ability for higher damage resistance and steel-shattering charges, whereas lighter bipedal or quadruped legs come with their own benefits.
On the ground, the action is deftly divided between combat and scan mode, which forces the player to pick their moments, but keeps the HUD relatively uncluttered. So long as targets are kept within combat mode’s big HUD roundel, which additionally functions as an ammo counter, they’re locked on and primed for a healthy batch of missiles, or armour-piercing rounds, as the case may be.
Scan mode takes weapons offline but contains damage information and increases the recharge rate of the AC. It’s hard to get lost on missions but waypoints and objectives also show up in this mode. The real advantage of this mode comes from in the form of recon drones that can be deployed to provide useful target information about enemies in the immediate area, even if they’re behind cover.
The intuitive combination of single player and multiplayer comes via the map screen that functions as the main menu. On reaching this screen for the first time, players will be asked to join an existing team or create their own, with which to wage mechanical war upon seven provinces. Like any clan, there are colours and emblems to be picked for a new team, but new players may be better off enlisting with one of the existing teams if they’re to appreciate the full multiplayer aspect of Armored Core V – frenetic dogfights against rival human players, with team level points and choice pieces of AC equipment up for grabs.
On top of that, players can also opt to act as a tactical ‘Operator’ during multiplayer rounds. As an operator, they’ll be viewing the battlefield from a top-down perspective in real-time. Although far removed from action on the ground, the operator is the team’s eyes and ears, and is capable of effectively orchestrating a victory through clever use of waypoints and recon drones. As a feature, operator mode fits perfectly with the tactical emphasis on show here.
In light of the above, it’s worth noting that Armored Core V’s servers are region-locked. For reasons unknown, Kiwi and Aussie pilots will find themselves shooting with or against European counterparts. Inevitably this will factor in to the game’s longevity on local shores, given the series’ popularity is mostly restricted to Japan. From Software has developed a neat system, so it's a shame to see that most local teams comprised lone wolves, though that could change should ANZAC players get their act together.
In the meantime there’s a hearty singleplayer experience to be experienced through 83 Order missions and 10 slightly longer Story missions. Would-be champions will face off against a smorgasbord of targets, from rival ACs and tanks to piecemeal such as drones and helicopters that can be annoying in their own right.
If solo missions prove too hot to handle, fellow teammates and uncouth mercenary players can also be recruited to provide assistance in return for a split of the ensuing reward. Said heat is staple Armored Core fare, and players can expect to engage their opponents over a variety of locales. Whether boost-strafing fast and furious styles around crumbling city streets, stalking mechanical prey over snow-covered plains or getting oh-so-slightly airborne over deceptive desert ridgelines, the action, and the ordinance spilling from the game’s hulking frame is bright and captivating.
Even so, some high-definition flourish wouldn’t have gone amiss, given the legacy from humble PSX origins. As it stands, the environments are suitably grey and grim, but there’s a distinct lack of the cinematic lustre associated with contemporary titles set in the far-flung future. It may only be a slight issue, and one that may not disparage most fans in reflection of what else is on offer, but nonetheless something that would have boosted the game’s visibility.
That said, this is no mere re-hash. It’s a tactical retreat to the furious combat that defined the series in the very beginning, and it stands out as an honest return to form for a veteran franchise. Having carved enough meat off the bone for AC fanatics, it’s clear From Software has also ensured that it’s tender enough for newcomers to sink their teeth into.
The novel integration of singleplayer and multiplayer is a brilliant feature in its own right, but it’s yet to be seen how region-locking of the servers will factor into this automaton’s staying power.