The Armored Core franchise defined developer FromSoftware in its early years. But following breakthroughs with Demon’s Souls and the rise of the Souls-like sub-genre, the developer radically altered its design philosophies and vision, seemingly leaving the Armored Core franchise behind. Now, a new Armored Core game is arriving on 25 August 2023, a long-desired sequel from the team which has since evolved significantly – which may be what the dormant franchise has needed.
During Summer Game Fest 2023, I got to view a behind-closed-doors, developer-led playthrough of Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon and observed just how the long-awaited sequel reboots the series’ fast-paced, tactical action, as well as its gearhead-focused take on a mech game.
This is Not ‘Armored Souls’
In familiar fashion to previous games, Armored Core 6 puts you in the role of a nameless mercenary in the far future who takes on dangerous missions for the highest bidder. Following a cataclysmic disaster on the planet Rubicon 6, factions of corporations, raiders, and rebels aim to stake claim to what’s left – and they’ll call upon the services of a freelance mech pilot to help their different agendas.
During the presentation, FromSoftware producer Yoshunari Ogura stated that Armored Core 6 aims to create a more modern take on the series that ‘combined the fundamental aspects of the AC series with the design philosophies of recent FromSoftware games, that’s focused on the tactical feel of the action, map and situational design, battles designed with ingenuity and a sense of challenge.’
Let me be clear; Armored Core 6 is not a Souls-style game. The gameplay of AC6 is firmly rooted in the series’ standard mission-to-mission structure, where your unique, interchangeable mech loadouts and strategies will determine your success for each job. There are no RPG mechanics from games like Elden Ring or Bloodborne, and there’s no fierce dedication to mastering timed button presses in something like Sekiro – Armored Core 6 is a third-person action shooter focusing on fast-paced and tactical mech combat, and largely in line with other AC games.
However, I also can’t deny that FromSoftware’s recent breakthroughs on the Souls games have noticeably influenced Armored Core 6. Generally speaking, the gameplay appears much smoother and more weighty than previous entries. It’s grounded, nowhere near as floaty as AC4 and 5, but still offers a great deal of verticality and speed with your mech’s boosters. Regarding the pacing, the gameplay is in a solid-looking middle ground between the franchise’s PS2 and PS3/X360 eras, which gives your mechs a sense of agility and great power.
The mission shown during the preview focused on the mercenary mech entering a massive factory and refinery on Rubicon 6, with the primary goal of chasing down an infamous raider who’s taken it over with their militia. It was incredibly atmospheric and looked visually stunning, yet still foreboding in ways that elicit the same kind of anxiousness when entering a new area in Dark Souls or Elden Ring.
After venturing forward, using the mech’s boosters and a special jump pad to gain height, the mercenary engaged with foes using a mix of their primary ranged weapons, shoulder-mounted rockets, and their close-range laser sword. One of my favorite gadgets was a shoulder-mounted energy shield, which blocked shots and missiles. While there is free aim, lock-on combat is the way to go, which gives you a target fix on the foe and greater accuracy while boosting into the air or around your enemy. The combat looked very smooth and even a bit stylish in moments – one nice moment was the mech landing a hard kick into a smaller drone, which sent them careening off the platform’s edge.
The style of movement and controls were a common complaint from previous games in the series, and so far, I feel impressed with the revised and more traditional-style third-person movement and camera system with the new game. There’s a greater sense of precision when moving around, yet it still feels weighty and impactful when the action kicks off.
After venturing further into the facility’s deeper tunnels and lower levels, the main target speaks out to you through radio, a storytelling technique similar to previous Armored Core games. It made traveling through the facility a bit more intriguing, with the main target taunting the pilot as they went further in.
A Weapon To Surpass…Whatever
The standout moments in the preview came from the boss encounters within the refinery, where the battles got intense. During an encounter with a mini-boss, a specialized quad-legged heavy mech that wielded a heavy energy sword and a shoulder cannon, the pilot’s standard mech struggled to put a dent in the large foe.
As the pilot tried to overtake and get a bead on the enemy between swings of their melee weapon, they took too many strikes and lost the battle. From here, we saw the mission failed screen, which prompts you to reload the last checkpoint, restart the mission, quit the mission, or re-assemble your mech.
The Armored Core series has always catered to the fantasy of being a gearhead’s take on mecha action, and AC6 looks to continue that with its detailed customization. You’ll be able to upgrade and swap out parts of your mech to create an archetype that suits your playstyle. If you want to go with a heavy loadout just like the mini-boss, you can swap to more weighty parts and weapons to fit that mold, as a heavily armored mech can soak up damage and barrel through enemies. But for the preview, we saw a switch to a more speedy and ranged option, with the mech taking on agile reverse-jointed legs and precision rail guns.
According to producer Ogura, customization and assembly is one of the ‘most exciting features in the series, as it allows players to change the look and feel of their mechs. Depending on the parts and weapons chosen, the pace and flow of battles can change dramatically.’
After jumping back into the mission, the revamped mech had a much easier time engaging with the boss’s movements, easily evading its strikes and landing precision hits. AC6 also features a stagger mechanic, with some enemies able to enter a stunned state, opening them up to additional damage. While battles move quickly, these notable encounters feel similar to the one-on-one fights from Dark Souls, with you carefully reading an opponent and striking at an opportune time.
At the end of the mission, we encounter the main target, who’s stepped inside an industrial mech with twin drill arms and a magma-spewing spout on its back. It’s truly an imposing and intimidating boss that felt right out of the Souls series – but this is Armored Core, and it’s a fight that has to be engaged in an entirely different way. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see much of the fight as the demo ended just after the boss opened up with its signature attacks, which included magma being expelled from its back and spreading on the ground.
What got me really excited and intrigued by AC6 is how it offers precise and tightly paced feel for its mech combat. Recent games from developer FromSoftware have such a finely tuned and smooth control style, and I’m really pleased to see that they might have finally cracked one of the biggest issues that plagued the older games – which have only gotten worse with age.
Overall, it was an impressive showcase for Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon. I do have worries about other possible issues like sudden difficulties spikes, or a harsh focus on tuning mechs to very specific parameters, but I feel optimistic this will be a more approachable AC game.
The demo put to rest many of my questions concerned with what type of game this would be, and as it turns out, it’s a very faithful and upgraded return to classic Armored Core. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the game and diving into its world of mechs.