It's easy to forget that From Software didn't spring fully formed into the world with Demon's Souls. Few games they've created have gotten quite so much attention. From Software has a fairly long and storied history, and one of their most overlooked specialties is giant robot games, the most obvious of which is the Armored Core franchise. Since the PS1 era, Armored Core has been a staple for those who enjoy building and customizing giant robots. Few other games on the market provide the same thrill. Armored Core V continues the series legacy, although fans may notice some changes.
First of all, Armored Core V doesn't want to explain anything to you at all. The closest thing to a tutorial is a basic overview of the controls. A large chunk of the gameplay and features go completely unexplained. From Software's Dark Souls is similarly limited in how much precious information it gives you, likely for the same reason: The game is focused on online play, and the developers expect people to help one another. The major problem is that Armored Core V is less focused on exploration and discovery than Dark Souls. The missions are short and straightforward, and the major difference between victory and defeat is how well you've built your robot. It's possible to muddle through and figure out things from context, but unlike Dark Souls, there's little thrill to discovery, just frustration.
This isn't helped by the online features also being poorly explained. You're forced to join a team when you start the game, but you're not given a clear indication of what this means, why you're joining a team, or what the gameplay requirements are. If you're lucky enough to have friends with the game, then you can join their team and figure it out together. A solitary player will join a random team or sit solo, neither of which is very fun.
Armored Core V is not a single-player experience. Yes, you can technically play it single-player and follow a story, but it is very clear that the game was intended as an online experience first. The single-player campaign, complete with an incoherent story, is useful for building up money. If you attempt to play it as a single-player game, you'll find a bunch of flaws that make it unenjoyable. One should think of the game as an MMO. It's not quite on that level, but the focus is clearly on competitive multiplayer and territory control, not on finishing a story line.
You join a team, which can have about 20 members or so. When you start a mission, your team members are informed and can jump in to help you at any time. Likewise, you can hop in and help them, or briefly contract yourself to other teams. While you can use this to finish the brief story mode or optional missions, the name of the game is territory. Every team can hold territory in the game world. If you hold territory, it belongs to you, and everyone sees your name on the big map. People can't just take away your territory. It belongs to you until you either fail a Defense mission or fail to defend it after it has been attacked so much that it no longer has defensive points. There's not really a "winning" objective here; you either hold territory or you don't.
The system is somewhat flawed. At the moment, it depends heavily on someone being willing to defend his base. If nobody defends, you can't invade, as ridiculous as that sounds. You can lower the enemy's health to zero, but that starts a six-hour timer that forces him to build a defense. Even then, he can do stronghold missions to build up the defenses without actually having to defend the base. While things are eventually in the attacker's favor, it takes an awfully long time to get there. I understand not wanting to leave the game in a situation where people have to be playing 24/7, but it can be frustrating when you have no option but to wait for the other team to decide to defend its territory. On the other hand, when the system works, it's a lot of fun. Taking and defending territories keeps the game exciting and fresh, and it means you never run out of things to do.
Of course, all this talk about territories is worthless without the gameplay to back it up. Armored Core V is surprisingly more slowly paced than its predecessors. The current generation of Core in the universe is smaller and slower than its predecessors. They're more akin to walking tanks than the Gundam-style robots you encountered in previous games. That isn't to say that you're dealing with Mechwarrior, as the Cores are still crazy. The controls are toned from the overwhelming amount of stuff in the previous games. Boosting, firing weapons, jumping, etc., are basically bound to a single button. The closest the game comes to complex controls is having to hold the Y button and pressing either RT or LT to switch your hand-mounted weapon for one in your loading bay. Since your Cores are smaller, terrain plays a bigger role; you can expect more dodging between buildings or scaling walls than you would in the previous games.
As always, the star of the show is customization. Armored Core V places a lot of emphasis on its customization, and it plays a big part in the gameplay. For the most part, your customization is built around making the kind of robot you enjoy playing. You can equip heavy quadruped legs and huge weapons and become a mobile artillery platform. You can choose light armor, heavy boosts and laser swords to get close to enemies and cut them to ribbons. There are a ton of possible weapons and equipment.
There is a big interplay between Chemical Energy, Kinetic Energy and Thermal Energy weapons. Each weapon type has advantages and disadvantages, and each must be defended differently. If you make a Core that is strong against KE weapons, you may find yourself more vulnerable to the other types. Likewise, you may find yourself unable to hurt an enemy as much as you should if you only carry TE laser blades and he's built up a hefty TE defense.
Armored Core V is a pretty dull-looking game. While it has some nice art design and your Cores look cool, the environments are various shades of muddy brown and don't feel very distinctive. I experienced some slowdown in places, but even when I didn't, it wasn't very fun to watch. From Software has shown it can do some pretty visually striking games. Dark Souls isn't a graphical powerhouse, but it makes up for it with great art design, and the strong visuals were one of the few redeeming features of Another Century's Episode R.
The audio is a bit better. The Cores sound godlike they have a lot of solid weight and impact. The soundtrack is bland but inoffensive, but the voice acting is quite bad. The actors are cheesy and rarely sound like they understand their lines. Even worse is the story, which has multiple female characters who sound identical; it took me a while to realize that there were multiple characters speaking.
Armored Core V is a weird and somewhat impenetrable game. While it is from the makers of Dark Souls, it lacks the same satisfaction for figuring out its convoluted mechanics. That isn't to say it isn't fun, but most players are likely to find themselves turned off by the repetitive missions and inexplicable design long before they can appreciate what Armored Core V has to offer. That's a shame because Armored Core V is a fun, competitive massive multiplayer game. Defending and controlling territory is fun, and the gameplay comes into its own when you're playing against other humans instead of an AI-controlled opponent. You need to be willing to work with the game long enough for that to happen, but Armored Core V isn't engaging enough for anyone but die-hard fans of giant robot customization to actually do so.
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