Platforms: PS3 (reviewed) | Xbox 360
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Before causing RPG fans to gnaw their fingers off in frustration at the devilishly difficult Souls series, From Software were busy making games filled with massive, customisable machines of war, amongst other things. There have been a number of criticism of the Armored Core series over the years, with the perhaps the two most notable, recurring gripes being the lack of evolution between games, and the series' staple obtuseness.
In many ways, Armored Core V is exactly what series fans (and everyone else for that matter) would have been expecting: a game that once again provides thrills and spills with ten-ton war machines, offers up innumerable customisation options in an all-too-fiddly and unintuitive interface, and provides immediate barriers to entry by doing very little to explain anything to anyone.
But that doesn't mean it's not an incredibly compelling experience, part of which is down to the social features that dominate everything in this game.
Rather than separating and segregating online and offline play, ACV has you start the game by either joining a team (of up to 20 players) or starting a new one. Everything you do from that moment onwards is then fed back to the team. Finish a mission, and you earn new parts and funds for your team. Help take over a new territory in Conquest mode online, and the accolades and rewards go back to the team. You're constantly helping to fuel the Team Squad Points meter, which then unlocks new parts, new armaments, new missions, and new opportunities. Additionally, you can trade items, parts, and money with your teammates, and it's not long before a genuine sense of co-operation develops. If you can grab a few friends to hold the line and go conquer some lands online, it gets even better.
Those looking for a finely crafted singleplayer experience with some sort of narrative justification for the existence of these enormous mechanical leviathans will be sorely disappointed. But then, story has never exactly taken pole position in this series. There's some guff about resistance fighting against the big, bad Corporation, but it's instantly forgettable, and that's not really what you came here for, now, is it? The ten Story missions are longer than those in previous instalments, with checkpoints helping to break things up a bit (and saving bacon when things get hairy...which they will), and the ability to play through them with a friend locally or online...just like every other mission in the game.
The Order missions, however, are very much a stock affair, clocking in at under five minutes apiece for the most part, with their numerous nature (there are 83) failing to compensate for a complete lack of diversity. Mercifully brief, at least, these are only really there to help you grind for more gold and upgrades.
Taking control of a mech is actually fairly intuitive, although newcomers might do well to rummage around in the options menus looking for controller layouts, and there is a slight tutorial. The mechs are significantly smaller this time around, so using the topography, not to mention nearby buildings, as cover is essential. Battles of higher difficulty frequently require more tactical planning and strategic consideration than perhaps they did in the past.
The new Scan Mode is pretty useful, particularly considering that energy replenishes at double rate, but the pathfinding could be much better. Instead of just solid and energy-based weapons, there are three divisions of armaments: Kinetic, Chemical, and Thermal. It can pay to specialise on occasion, but it's impossible to create a mech that kicks bottom in all departments, so shaking things up is key.
Of course, before leaping into the fray, customisation is a must. And this is where ACV will both please the small section of the gaming community who had this pre-ordered as soon as it was first announced, and alienate pretty much everyone else. To begin with, there's the simple choice between building a humanoid AC, or a tank-like mech on caterpillar tracks. The former allows for TPS-esque pogo-ing as you bring the rain, but Tanks can pack more punch, and pivot far quicker when stationary.
Getting into the nitty-gritty stuff can prove overwhelming too, with a dazzling number of parts, weapon types, augments, upgrades, and more. On top of that, constructing a mech is a careful balancing act as weight distribution and mobility count for a lot in the heat of battle, particularly when it comes to your energy levels.
Whilst this will no doubt prove to be golden news to series fans, there will no doubt be fans of massive robots who aren't inspired by the obscenely clunky interface. Nor will those people be particularly pleased with the fact that - as a number of the Order missions clock in at just a few minutes - it's possible to spend more time tweaking your mech than actually playing the game. This would be fine if the game gave you well-integrated feedback, or if the UI was at least pleasantly functional, but sadly not.
That does change somewhat when you're joined by a friend. It's easy to jump into the action with a friend as soon as they come online, and the multiplayer features beyond simply playing through the missions with a chum are worthy indeed. Online turf wars will provide the focus for most of your time in ACV, with Conquest splitting the world map into a host of Territories, giving teams the opportunity to fight it out over land for new upgrade unlocks, a higher Team Level, and greater bragging rights.
Capture missions take the form of 5v5 battles, with defenders protecting their land, and attackers...well, you get the idea. Four player from each side fight on foot, with the fifth in each team presiding over the battlefield like a strategic commander, offering tactical advice, and flagging up enemy units. These take place in real-time, so if your opponent is online, you'll face human foes...if not, you'll be fighting AI-controlled bots, which can greatly range in difficulty.
But really, it's all about the co-operative experience, and ACV absolutely nails it where it counts. This is a game that's far from perfect, and its framerate issues and murky aesthetics won't help to convert sceptics. But this is certainly a step forward for the series, even if there's still work to be done. It's still very much a niche title, but thanks to the new online features, it'll help mech fans bond like never before, and kick some metal butt on the way.
- Mechs handle very nicely indeed - good simulation balance
- Cracking online features
- Deep level of customisation
- Awful interface
- Mission design could be a lot better
- Still not as satisfying as it should be
The Short Version: Armored Core V is probably the best game in the series to date, but it still suffers from age-old issues. It's no looker, customising your mech is as much of a chore as a delight, and the designed missions themselves are fairly lacklustre. But the new online features, particularly Conquest, make this a must-have title for series fans, and well worth a look if you just want to blow things up with a giant, badass mech.