Branching Path: Armored Core VI is poised to be one of the year's best games

When last I wrote about Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, I hadn’t actually had the chance to play it - as the only demo available to us at Summer Games Fest was a hands-off preview, with the game itself having been played by a member of From Software’s development team. Despite it all, what I managed to see got me excited for the chance to get hands-on with the game myself - and thankfully, now that I have I can confidently say that From Software’s latest title is shaping up to easily be one of the year's greatest hits thanks to a Preview event we were invited to attend early this month in Fullerton, California.

First things first; during our preview session we had the chance to play the entire first chapter of the game, totaling about 4 hours worth of gameplay. This included several bosses, a little over a dozen regular missions, about half a dozen arena missions, and more. We played the game on a PC setup at 1440p/60FPS at the game’s High Settings - while we weren’t able to get any information on the system’s CPU and RAM setup, we did discover that the GPU in the preview rigs was an RX 6900XT. There was no shader compilation stutter or anything of the sort, but considering these were preview rigs - that doesn’t necessarily say anything for the state of the game on the platform com launch, nor does it say anything about the game’s potential performance on console.

Now, as I said in my last article on the game - I haven’t had the chance to play any of the previous entries in the series. I’ve played all of From Software’s “Souls” titles, and 3D Dot Game Hero, but when it comes to the company’s premier mech action franchise - this was my first time playing. Thankfully, during the event I was able to discuss the game with others who have been more familiar with the franchise as a whole.

From what I can gather, Armored Core VI is a much faster-paced entry than previous games in the series, and a renewed focus on verticality and overall maneuverability makes the game feel quite different from some of the “tankier” entries in the past. From my standpoint, it was a ton of fun - but even the early-game bosses that we faced were incredibly challenging with how much the game wanted you to actively make use of the tools at your disposal. The same can be said in some story missions, too.

Scanning for enemies was purportedly a feature in previous games, but to illustrate how the game has evolved - one mission has the player facing off against enemies that will cloak themselves. While you’ll be able to trace their shots to their general location as they snipe you from across the map, to actually have a meaningful chance to take them on you’ll want to scan your surroundings to reveal the outline of their machine - and upon landing a proper blow against them, their cloaking will fail.

In a similar vein, some enemies will make use of a recharging energy shield, forcing players to sometimes play more aggressively than they might like; while caution is important, one aspect of the games boss fights that stood out was how they’ll grow more and more aggressive as you whittle down their HP. It gets to a point where sometimes you’ll have to engage even when you might not want to; and this went double for the final boss of the chapter, with its regenerating energy shield. It’s not enough that you can take pot shots here and there; Armored Core VI gradually expects more and more of the player as they come to grips with the game’s controls. While it might be a turn-off for some players, as in some ways it’s even more challenging than the company’s popular Souls formula, getting to grips with what the game asks of you is incredibly satisfying.

Visually, the game is stunning - even if the title is clearly a cross-gen release. From Software’s art design has always been their strong suit, and much like with last year’s Elden Ring, you can feel them stretching their muscles with Armored Core VI. While we played the game at 60FPS on our preview build, during a brief excursion to the game’s system settings I discovered an option for a 120FPS limiter on PC, as well as the ability to enable raytracing for the game’s “Garage” main menu. The former is great to see, and hopefully the latter means that modders might be able to enable the technology for the rest of the game if possible, too.

Mission variety for the section of the game we got to play was generally varied; while there were high-octane missions that stressed a player's knowledge of the game's controls, there were others - generally after some of the tougher encounters - that slowed things down, clearly as a means to let folks recuperate after surmounting some of the game's deadlier threats.

I’ll decline to go into the minutiae of the art of mech building, as I genuinely do not know how much has changed over time - but one thing I will note is the addition of permanent upgrades to both your stats and moveset, earnable using certificates gained by completing Arena missions. This can include new moves, straight-up stat increases for certain categories of weapons, and more; a welcome yet unexpected hint at the game adopting some more RPG elements for sure, though perhaps the other reward for completing those missions might be of more interest to series fans.

Simply put, one of the core draws of Armored Core is designing your mech to match your playstyle and aesthetic. During just the one preview session we attended, we managed to see other press decorate their mechs to match Optimus Prime, EVA Unit 02, and more; what’s new to Armored Core VI, however, is how you can not only save these loadouts for later, but even share a code online for others to integrate other player’s loadouts in their own game. There’s an example of how this works with Arenas; defeating enemy ACs will grant you a card loaded with a profile for their mech, letting you know what parts you’ll need to own in order to emulate it. If you do own all the parts necessary, you can seamlessly load their profile and decorations in a single click; the same can be accomplished with player profile cards, too.

At the end of the day - honestly, I didn’t expect to have a chance to play the game for myself so soon, but even if I was already excited for the game’s release next month, that excitement has only grown to a fever pitch after this preview. From Software has long-since cemented itself as one of the industry’s best and most consistent developers, and it seems they’re well on their way to continuing that streak.