It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 16 years since From Software unleashed the original Armored Core onto the Playstation and brought hardcore mech action to the masses. Since then, the series has expanded at a steady rate, with titles generally appearing every one to two years, each new release building on the one that came before it. As a result, it’s evolved slowly, with each new twist adding layers of depth and complexity to the series’ extremely solid core.
However, the methodical nature of From’s approach should not be mistaken for a lack of progress. Armored Core has changed quite a bit over the years, as each new system and gameplay element is added and built upon, and as any fan will tell you, the biggest changes always appear during the numbered entries in the series, which From then builds upon with at least one standalone expansion. This has allowed the developer to build the Armored Core franchise into multiple “series,” each based on one of the numbered entries, and each exploring different gameplay aspects of the Armored Core universe.
And so, when a numbered entry in the Armored Core series shows up, fans can be sure of two things: it will be a different take on the same formula, and From will follow it up with at least one or more (Armored Core 3 still holds the record with five) standalone expansions, which brings us to Armored Core Verdict Day, the first follow up to 2012’s Armored Core V.
Much like its predecessor, Verdict Day is primarily a multiplayer game. If your console is connected to the internet, Verdict Day will automatically connect with From Software’s servers. Once you’re online, you can team up with other mech pilots, create a team, and wage war against other pilots and their mechanical monstrosities.
Anyone who was a fan of From Software’s criminally underrated Chromehounds will feel right at home in Verdict Day. Once online, you’ll be required to create a team of mercenaries, or join an existing one. From there, you or your team will choose a faction to fight for in Verdict’s Day multiplayer mode, a persistent online conflict between three factions known as the Verdict War. At the beginning of each season, each faction controls a fraction of the fifty-six objectives that are scattered across the world map. The first faction to gain control of all of these objectives wins the war. At that point, the conflict resets, allowing you side with a different faction, should you choose to do so, and fight it out all over again.
Capturing enemy territory is simple, but how you capture will depend on the mode you play. Normal Sorties are the standard game mode, and will allow you to gradually chip away at another faction’s control of a base, while Special Sorties, which must be unlocked, allow you to take large chunks out of an area’s defenses. The game is constantly updating the world map with the status of various territories, and your faction will offer bonuses for defending areas that are under attack, or for helping to advance into a strategically important area. It’s a simple system to understand, but a complex one to master, and it adds quite a bit to the game.
Thankfully, Verdict Day’s servers aren’t region-specific, which means you can play with and against pilots from all over the world, so finding a match generally isn’t hard. However, if there aren’t any other teams looking for a fight, the game will place you in various pre-set scenarios. Some will require you to take out turrets, while others might task you with taking out computer-controlled ACs, or even fight against large bosses. The game is a lot of fun even if there aren’t other people to play against, and the perpetual nature of the online makes you stay invested. The game also allows teams to stage mock battles with one another, and there’s a Free Battle mode for players who just want to pit their mechs against one another without worrying about what faction they’re fighting for.
If you get tired of fighting for a faction, you can also hire yourself out as a mercenary. Mercenaries can’t communicate with the team that hires them, but they’re a great, and fairly inexpensive option if your team finds itself in need of a little additional firepower. Mercs only get paid if the job is done, which makes working freelance a risky proposition, since you’ll have to pay for damage to your AC and ammo cost regardless of whether the mission is successful, but the promise of easy money makes it hard to resist. You can’t go out on your own missions while you’re waiting for someone to pick up your contract, but the community is fairly active, so mercenaries shouldn’t find themselves waiting around too long.
You can also hire mercenaries to help you with the Story Mode, which returns from Armored Core V, with a few additions. There are sixty missions in total, though only ten have anything to do with the plot. As a result, the story doesn’t have a whole lot to say, and the plot doesn’t break any new ground for the series, though long-time fans will appreciate the references to older Armored Core games. Despite the story’s shortcomings, Story Mode is extremely enjoyable, and the sheer variety of the missions is impressive.
The one-on-one AC battles will no doubt remind series veterans of the Arena from previous games, while others will task you with destroying transport convoys, taking out enemy bases, and even fighting against boss mechs. Each mission features secondary objectives, which might task you with finding special AC parts hidden on various maps, taking a limited amount of damage, destroying a certain number of enemies, or simply completing the objectives within a time limit. The game will rank you on how well you did, and there’s a lot of replay value to be had in returning to older missions to get a better score or complete all the sub-objectives.
Completing the campaign unlocks Hardcore mode, which features ten variations. One, of them, aptly titled Money is Everything, will triple your repair costs after missions, and charge fifty times as much to restock your ammunition, and another, One-Shot Kill, includes all of the aforementioned penalties, in addition to making you deal and take ten and five times more damage, respectively. Should you happen to die on Hardcore mode, you’ll have to restart the entire campaign from the beginning. And you thought Dark Souls was hard.
Despite the sheer number of modes present in Verdict Day, the real appeal of the Armored Core series is still building your mech, and From Software knows it. Armored Core V owners can import their mechs and parts right off the bat, but that’s just the beginning. Verdict Day adds over 100 parts to Armored Core V’s vast library, so you’ve got your work cut out for you, even if you’re a veteran of the previous game. Weapons Arms make a welcome return, as well, adding an extra layer of complexity for bipedal and reserve-joint AC pilots, who can use them to add powerful weapons to their arsenal without having to worry about entering a stationary stance to fire them. The game also allows you to tune weapons once you buy them, adding to either power, accuracy, or fire rate.
Verdict Day also introduces UNACs, or Unmanned ACs that are piloted by the AI. Players can build these just like regular ACs, but they can also customize the AI piloting them. There are three separate logic trees for you to choose from, each of which is governed by seven different categories and numerous subcategories, which will allow you to alter how your UNACs move, when they fire their weapons, how they use their recon drones, and even how they approach their targets.
You can use your UNACs in Story Mode and online, and even they’re quite helpful even if you don’t delve deeply into customize them. I often found myself calling on a large, tank-legged UNAC that was armed to the teeth with heavy weapons. While this behemoth would wade into the enemy, and draw as much fire as possible, I would sit back and use my AC to slowly chip away at the larger enemies with my sniper rifles and long-range missiles. It’s moments like this, when everything comes together, from the design of your mech, to the strategy that you’re using, the quality of your team, and even the design of the map, that make Armored Core incredible, and Verdict Day nails the balance perfectly.
Unfortunately, the game still has flaws that have plagued the series for a long time. The menu system is poorly laid out, which makes finding the things you want either difficult or time consuming. The learning curve is still extremely steep for new players, and mech customization is still obtuse in places it shouldn’t be. For example, there’s no way to retune a weapon once you’ve purchased it, meaning you’ll have to buy the same thing again if you want to tinker. In addition, From has made the bizarre decision to make weapons arm specific, meaning that if you purchase a laser rifle under the Right Arm Weapon tab in the shop, you won’t be able to quip it to your mech’s left arm. As usual, while the mechs themselves are lovingly rendered, the arenas you’ll fight in vary significantly in terms of visual quality. It’s a minor complaint, given the sheer variety of areas you can fight in, but it can be jarring considering how good the mechs look, and how good the sound design is.
As always, then, Armored Core is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s still a hardcore title that makes no apologies for its eccentricities. It’s still got a high learning curve. It’s still got a wonky menu system, and there are still quite a few minor problems with the way you build and tweak ACs that will undoubtedly drive some players up the wall.
However, it’s still an extremely solid series, whose core design has endured for nearly twenty years. The mech customization on display is still unrivaled, and the core gameplay is absolutely brilliant. Make no mistake: Armored Core isn’t for everyone. Like building and piloting and AC, Armored Core requires patience, dedication, and commitment, and like any AC you build, it’s both deeply flawed and wonderfully refined. It’s a game that promotes creativity and refinement over flash or an engaging narrative, and what you get out of it is directly proportional to what you put into it. Like its predecessors, Verdict Day is not perfect, but there is greatness here, perhaps the most to be seen in the series since Armored Core 3. You just have to be committed to building it.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.