Armored Core: Verdict Day goes a long way toward addressing one of Armored Core V's most pressing issues: the fact that it was an online game with virtually no online community. That alone ought to make it intriguing to both newcomers and returning fans alike. But, of course, players will have to contend with the fact that it's still Armored Core, which makes it one of the most unforgiving mech sims around.
Being a standalone expansion for Armored Core V, Verdict Day is functionally much the same as the game from which it's derived. There's still a world map to be conquered, though this time it's divided up between three pre-existing factions, and it's still possible to head out with a group of friends to attack an opposing team's base. A 60 mission story mode rounds out the package, and it too can be tackled alone or with a few buddies.
This is all pretty enjoyable, especially when you're able to actually round up a group of friends for a few sorties. Get another team on the board, and the action can get pretty wild as ACs zip through the air and between buildings, ordinance exploding everywhere. The problem with Armored Core V though was that no one was ever online--a problem exacerbated by regional servers, which is where Verdict Day comes in.
The expansion introduces "UNACs"--computer-controlled mechs that can be customized to your needs and taken along on missions. They are a huge help, able to effectively draw enemy fire and strike back. As with all things Armored Core, of course, the UNAC AI can be customized with a huge number of instructions, which will thrill the hardcore as much as it will bewilder newcomers. Thankfully, it's not mandatory, though more advanced players will want to at least dip a toe into the system, because a properly configured UNAC can be monstrously powerful.
Meanwhile, those simply looking for an AI buddy to cover their tail will find that the generic UNACs are plenty capable as well, which is good, because they're definitely needed during the campaign. Missions are clearly balanced with co-op in mind, and while soloing can be rewarding due to the extra income it generates, it becomes exceptionally difficult by Mission 30 or so.
All told, it's hard to understate the impact of the UNACs on Verdict Day. They affect pretty much every phase of the game, including the mech customization, making the overall experience much more enjoyable for solo players. It's even possible to take a squad of four UNACs along with you on a sortie against an enemy faction's base, which will probably happen at some point, because human mercenaries can hard to come by on the Xbox 360 version, where we tested Verdict Day. They open up the online portion of the game in a way that makes it much more accessible to those who don't have a ready group of friends to play with, and thus help to correct one of Armored Core V's biggest failings.
The rest of the game, admittedly, still has its issues. Being so intricate, Armored Core's menu interface really doesn't do it any favors, especially with the UNACs to worry about. The font is tiny, the workshop options aren't particularly well-organized, and the world map reads as a smear of color with no particular rhyme or reason. It's functional once you get used to it, but it would be hard to blame a new player for looking at the menu interface and saying, "Nope."
The same could be said for the in-game visuals, which remain exactly the same as they were in Armored Core V. Obviously, it's a lot to ask for a studio to come in and completely the redo the graphics for an expansion pack, but that doesn't change the fact that Verdict Day's visuals could do with some sprucing up. Many of the missions take place at night, making it hard to discern enemy units at a distance, the weapon particle effects are average, and the environmental textures look low-res and ugly. It's not as if it needs to be beautiful--most of Armored Core's charm is wrapped up in its deep mechanics--but neither does it need to be an eyesore. And unfortunately, Verdict Day is an eyesore, especially for a game coming out this late in the generation.
Granted, these are all legacy issues, and Armored Core arguably has bigger fish to fry. But there are ways in which Verdict Day regresses as well. The campaign, expansive as it is, is also much less ambitious than the one found in vanilla Armored Core V. By and large, the missions are shorter, simpler, and smaller, the bulk of them relying on objectives like "Kill the AC" or "Destroy All Targets". There's a story in there somewhere, but it's even simpler than the one found in Armored Core V, which wasn't exactly Shakespeare.
Mostly, the missions are there to be hard, which is fine for those who simply want to test the might of their ACs, but they stop being interesting after a while. The much-touted Hardcore Mode, which lets you customize which parts of the game you want to be more difficult, is a meat grinder. Some people will love it--most likely Armored Core's target audience--but it's hard to say why. Isn't Armored Core already pretty difficult?
If Verdict Day is simply out to build on the original's online game, then it certainly accomplishes its objective. The UNACs are terrific, and the large number of new parts, weapons (weapon arms are back!), and maps are all great expansion fodder. Hardcore fans, as usual, ought to be satisfied, especially by the extra dimension afforded by tuning up and customizing their AI partners. Everyone else will probably be bewildered and a little turned off--even some mech fans.
In short, it's your prototypical Armored Core experience, which remains as flawed and fascinating a series as you're ever going to find.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360.