Genre: Adapt-em-up | Developer: From Software | Year: 2023 | Platform: pc

One reason that there are so many bloody Souls clones is that FromSoft have ways of doing things that so effortlessly make the player wonder why other games don’t work in a similar way.

AC6 has a very traditional structure – a list of missions. Missions come from different contractors, with varying scope and payout. Missions have varied objectives and challenges wherein. Some missions have decisions to make inside them – other missions are paired, only allowing the player to take one. The world factions acknowledge such decisions. Successive NG+ cycles add a few extra missions, and a few murphy’s-law shakeups to existing missions. Missions change up frequently half-way through with unexpected curveballs, and more crucially: sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a mission to go blow up an enemy installation is just that. But sometimes it becomes an ambush, or a furious duel in a shoebox with another mercenary’s AC, or a race to escape.

Most AC games have done things this way. Indeed, other AC games like Last Raven have done this with yet more depth and variance. And on the face of things, it seems like a simple, flexible, modular way to do things – some particularly neat areas are even reused for a few missions, as well they should be. Yet, like Souls came along and made everyone wonder why every big game isn’t set in a dense, interconnected and mysterious world – we now have to wonder why we’ve had to wait so very long for another game where we can buy a few parts, build a cool mech and go get an utterly catastrophic mission with an innocuous, unassuming name like “Destroy Floating Mines”.

The mouse and keyboard is a terrifying implement. We give up, what, analog control of movement – a totally overrated notion in itself – in exchange for infinitely easier tracking and aiming, an input method that can effortlessly whip the player around 180 degrees while also tracking the minutae of movements at the outer limits of effective range.

AC6 controls beautifully with mouse and keyboard, and I have to wonder if that might not be some sort of problem. Classic AC was clunky – it took multiple generations of games for even the right analog stick to get a look-in, and it wasn’t a whole lot better once it got involved. Having to track extremely mobile and aerial foes has always required some prediction, some ability to see “beyond” the screen, the right FCS, the right build and the correct use of more advanced movement mechanics. Being able to use my £15 Logitech mouse certainly makes the game comfortable to play – and makes for a hell of a power fantasy, but it feels like we’re whittling away one of the main reasons AC was satisfyingly tricky – the fact that piloting this mass of metal took some amount of refined skill and practice, as opposed to controlling like every game we’ve ever played.

“Clunky” controls had a way of demanding adaptation in AC builds, too. Awkward aiming might make you think very carefully about what weapons you bring to, say, a mission filled with expensive machinery which you are financially liable for damaging. Awkward movement might necessitate you get tankier, or bring more countermeasures, or bring weapons better-suited for long distance engagement. When your hammer controls with such fluidity, precision and speed – everything passes for a nail.

I genuinely don’t know what there is to be done about this problem – how to put the genie back in the bottle. This game is the smoothest, most fluid AC has ever been, the movement is utterly beautiful, melee and overboost are more effortlessly usable than they’ve ever been – to the point of making most combat with rank-and-files a total breeze – and yet still some mainstream reviews are complaining of clunky controls. A complaint which made a hundred thousand Ravens immediately preorder, mind – AC ought to be clunky, hostile, dry.

So how is the game allowed to be challenging? Well, there are bosses. As in – bosses, not other ACs or othersuch units. Big ole’ bosses with multiple phases, climactic music and cutscenes.

One problem with these bosses is that in AC games, the equation of defense often includes the environment. Many of the missions, even in this game, are about using the environment for cover from some nightmare machine or enfilade of artillery while you advance – the type of “FromSoft” thing that seems so simple, yet big games rarely do in such a natural and unguided way. Many of the spicier “duel”-type fights against other ACs take it for granted that you can probably handle a duel against one opponent – then throw another one into the mix, forcing you to use environment to keep them separated or limit your exposure. Many of my struggles with such fights were solved as soon as I took a second to think, and made the decision to take the fight in a slightly different part of the map with more favourable cover or splash opportunity.

But many of the bosses take place in Rubicon’s equivalent of gm_flatgrass – large, broadly featureless planes, albeit with some insane and spectacular background visuals. For a moment, you might roll your eyes and think the Soulsbrain disease is terminal, and we’re going to be stuck here learning dodge timings against a discount Qubeley for hours.

But graciously, the solution is simple – go in totally loaded for bear1 and overpower the boss before it can do much of anything. I’m frankly not going to sit and try to be slavishly defense-oriented when the most interesting part of defense has been removed. Indeed, the game would agree to some point – the “respawn from checkpoint” menu rather crucially has a section for customizing your AC on the spot. Adapt or die – par for the course in AC, really. Find some way to abuse2 the boss or else be abused by it.

No big deal – but I think it would be more interesting to pair such big, bombastic fights with unique environments to take advantage of. This was something in the Souls series that slowly got put to one side – Iron Golem having a unique “ring out” kill strategy, Ornstein & Smough being about using pillars to separate the two chums, etc. AC should be the place to rediscover this way of doing things, lest a grand series be similarly reduced over time to getting arms-length with a boss and repeatedly pressing the dodge button at the correct time.

I worry that I’ve spent too long picking at this particular complaint. At the end of the day, this is a mainline Armored Core game, roughly comparable to the better games in the series. You can play it simply with mouse and keyboard, at high refresh rates, with at least the potential of user mods. After ten long years of not being a raven, this feels like a miracle. This is a series I’ve always loved, and I eagerly hope for more in the future – perhaps, hopefully, building on the new baseline of AC6 rather than trying to whittle it down to a point.

  1. One build, HR-03 ASYMPTOTE. Dual gatlings, dual electric railguns. Tank legs, maximise posture, pulse armor. The best close-range FCS going. Every gamer who’s cleared this game is nodding along to this tune. 

  2. My “main” build is named INVERSE. I went into this game looking at the posture system and thinking “ah, so I’ll have to slowly whittle down enemy posture with light weapons and then deliver a big burst of damage”. It turned out that this was an incorrect reading, and instead the exact inverse was most effective – start with, and constantly use, your big bursty weapons to keep enemies staggered, while you land whatever easy damage you can in between. Hence, MB-02 INVERSE.