Everybody should have known that the combat in Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon was going to be good. This isn't FromSoftware's first rodeo. And it is good; it's real good. But as a newcomer to the Armored Core series, I was still surprised by how quickly and deeply I was hooked by the sheer kinetic thrill of it alone. It's a type of character action I've never experienced and I'm left wanting more even after beating it twice.
This is the first time since Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice that I've immediately replayed a game specifically to flex the skill set I've painstakingly built up. To hammer home the difference that practice makes, I was able to beat Armored Core 6 again in half the time – 20 hours for my first clear, 10 hours for my second, and that was with a number of different bosses and missions. I liked Armored Core 6 a lot the first time through and loved it the second.
Release date: August 24, 2023
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PC
Publisher: FromSoftware, Bandai Namco
What I didn't expect going in was for this to be my favorite FromSoftware narrative. Armored Core 6 takes the studio's famously hands-off approach to storytelling to a new extreme by all but removing the main character from the stage. You get to know the whole cast through voice comms alone – and I still got inadvisably attached to a few characters despite this – but the protagonist, a freelance mercenary and fourth-gen augmented human now named Raven, doesn't even have a voice, let alone a face. Raven is embodied only by the mech that you assemble and what you do with it.
The man in the machine is invisible and silent, but still the most important character in this war story, this tale of corporate greed at the expense of a planet and its inhabitants. The events that unfold around and because of Raven hit me in a way that FromSoftware's usual dark fantasy soup rarely does. It has the most tangible story of any modern FromSoftware game, and it grabs me because it's a story about people in a world on the verge of ruination, not demigods in a world already beyond repair.
Build a better mech
It feels unnatural to play through a voiced and well-guided tutorial in a FromSoft game, but Armored Core 6 deserves it. There's a lot to learn here, from what the parts of your mech do to how to use and combine them effectively. Will your legs support the weight of your build? Does your generator have enough juice, your jets enough thrust? Are your helm and chest durable enough? Do your weapons complement each other? Can your mech deal with a variety of engagements, or will you need to rejig a few things mid-mission after inevitably dying?
Answering these questions and balancing your mech's parameters is engrossing. One of the reasons my second playthrough was much faster is that I didn't spend much time in the garage. I'd already found a build that works for me, and I certainly wasn't going to change my blacked-out-with-pink-lights look that the good people of Rubicon have now come to associate with Raven. Yes, I am that basic, but I did play with the mech fashion for the heck of it. It goes without saying that I recreated the Aerial Gundam from The Witch From Mercury, and perusing the robot boutique took me right back to my days of Need for Speed Underground 2. Tribal flames? Zebra paint? A skull with a rose in its mouth? This is horribly tacky, and I love it. Ultimately, I settled for a clean look with one custom decal inspired by that classic Destiny 2 raid callout, "dragon breathing fire to the left."
The whole combat system is impressively modular. A few components can totally change the feel of the game, and the compelling part is learning how to make it work for you. Being the Souls-head that I am, I went with a lightweight build with the fastest dodge possible, sacrificing shields and armor for breakneck speed and all-out offense. I could drop my bipedal legs and instead drift around on heavy tank treads, for example, or alternatively sub in a sturdy tetrapod base or perhaps double-jointed bipedal legs built for jumping. I tried basically everything, and I see the potential of tanky builds with massive firepower. But between my Souls instincts and the Gundam imagery in my head, I kept coming back to a fast mech with an energy sword, a full-auto rifle, and two types of missiles. Just call me Mechiro.
Once more, with feeling
The opening hours of the game focus on what stuff does, which feels wise because the only reliable teachers for how to actually play Armored Core 6 are experience and failure. Like a new band at early gigs, you're just gonna have to get out there and get booed until you stop sucking. The biggest hurdle for me was adjusting to the intense speed. After 10 years of Souls games, this feels like trading in a bicycle cruiser and going straight to a motorbike. 300 meters can vanish in an instant. The first major boss, who I've lovingly named Mr. Missiles on account of his 10 billion fucking missiles, was a crucial learning experience for me, which is a nice way of saying it made me shout things at my TV that can't be printed here.
Due to the pre-release server situation, and despite my best efforts hosting and searching, I was only able to play two matches of PvP before review time. It ran well and I won both matches, but I don't think it's an online mode I want to sink a lot of time into. I'd rather replay the campaign again.
Mr. Missiles crushed me several times before I figured out how to play to the strengths of my mech, and it's no coincidence that my final, successful attempt was my fastest by some distance. Once I learned how to bait out and weave through his missile tsunami and follow up with a heavy sword attack chained into the AoE assault armor that stayed in my mech's Expansion slot for the entire game, it was over. I barely changed the core of my build at all, to be honest, apart from incremental upgrades of the same type. On rare occasions I'd break out an energy gun just to strip a boss's shield, but that was about it. There's lots of fun to be had chopping and changing, but I savored dialing in my build and mastering it. That said, I can see myself playing through several more times with totally different mechs.
It's all a big dance, a game of chicken clad in steel. I was a devout mid-range all-rounder, floating in and out of my optimal distance based on the enemy's kit and movements. Retreat to 250 meters to dodge their heavy artillery. While they're reloading, let my missiles fly in staggered volleys as a distraction while closing in with the energy sword, burning my stamina-esque fuel on dash after dash but leaving enough in the tank to back out. Combo the stagger into a kick and an assault armor explosion, then unload with the rifle while they're staggered for direct damage. Dodge left for this attack, fly straight up to avoid this, dodge back then right for that. Dance, dance, dance. Faster, faster, faster.
Once you get over the learning curve, Armored Core 6 becomes an irresistible metal-on-metal beatdown. I played it again not just because I wanted to experience a different ending and final boss, but because I wanted to see and hear and feel my mech kick some more ass. It is white-knuckle stuff. There is some minor fussiness with the camera, which at times feels poorly equipped for this kind of speed. You also have to accept that you are going to take some chip damage in this game and there's nothing you can do about it, and it can be frustrating to burn out on low health without taking a meaningful hit.
Mr. Missiles was the point where the game truly started to click for me, but I had to relearn the basics and acclimate to escalating tests of speed as the campaign progressed. I struggled at the beginning but breezed through the middle portions, including all the optional arena boss fights which reward special chips that unlock powerful upgrades. Then the last two chapters, as well as several alternate missions I only found on my second playthrough, threw out some of the harshest difficulty spikes in FromSoftware history. I'm talking about duo bosses, trio bosses, and literally 50 dudes and a boss at the same time. Armored Core 6 also has its own Malenia, except the fight's not optional this time, and I'm ashamed to admit I fell for the phase two trap all over again.
The fires of Raven
Armored Core 6 is at its best when you're fighting one strong mech or a zillion baby mechs, and the campaign generally does a good job alternating between these modes of engagement with missions that often end in just a few minutes. It also has the best multi-boss encounters FromSoftware's ever devised. Where the likes of Elden Ring's Godskin Duo are rightly despised, Armored Core 6 gives you so much mobility and burst damage that it's actually fun to figure out how to pick off the squishier of two bosses to simplify a fight. However, the game stumbles during a few missions that drag on far too long, jettison everything fun about piloting your mech, and frankly have no place in the game. A few gimmicks just do not land. I dreaded them on my second playthrough, and clearing those missions again did not improve my opinion.
What struck me most the second time around, however, is how much of an impact a few small decisions can have on the story, and how my mental image of Raven changed over time. Raven is a tiny sailboat caught in the currents of the massive forces that dominate Rubicon, from the corporations to the freedom fighters. There's a scrappiness to Raven's vague mercenary origins, and a bit of underdog revenge in the way they and their handler Walter butt heads with military figures high on their own supply. The 'prove yourself to the highest bidder' plotline not dissimilar to racing games is enlivened by a grander plot dredging up Rubicon's past and charting its future. The truth and ethics of Coral, the resource at the center of this war, gives it another dimension beyond the very apparent Gundam ethos of building a mech so cool that it can kill the military-industrial complex.
Armored Core 6 is a bit cheesy, more than a bit ham-handed with the dogs of war talk, and unavoidably dissonant in the way it assigns people pitiable personalities in the same breath it orders you to kill them, though I guess that's the point there. It does not have FromSoftware's best world-building, but I think it might have my favorite of the studio's protagonists. Raven's story is told by the people around them, and the pilot's quiet compliance before ceaseless, merciless orders conveys a weary helplessness. I've seen two endings now and they both make me miserable in different ways, which feels like a good summary of this and maybe all war.
Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon was reviewed on PS5 with code provided by the publisher.