I’ve been playing a wide variety of games this year and, after a number of high profile releases, thinking critically about games has been on my mind more than it has in years. I saw someone talk about how one of the interesting things in gaming is that sometimes you can see the designer’s vision, sometimes it doesn’t seem like there was a cohesive one, sometimes it lines up with yours for what the game is, sometimes it doesn’t. Reviewing
games media is hard, but the interactivity of games adds layers to art critique and “accessibility” that aren’t there in other formats, and, well, one of the things that’s come with having (minorly) injured myself this year is wanting to write about those games and their experiences more.
There are a number of games I’ve really enjoyed that are new (at least to me) this year – Inscryption, Cassette Beasts, Tunic, Tears of the Kingdom, Slay the Spire, Jedi Survivor – that have all been games I’d recommend with some reservations. With caveats. Incredible quality in a lot of these games, some genuine masterpieces that I will absolutely think fondly of for years to come. There’s been some things that… I didn’t mesh with at all, such as Hi-Fi Rush (completely recognizing this is a personal issue), Diablo 4 (I refuse to call this a personal issue), or Monster Hunter Rise (they absolutely had part of a vision). I suppose that at least I’ve felt strongly enough to have a negative opinion, even, compared to just writing them off as bad games.
Armored Core 6, though…
I don’t know that I have any realistic criticism of this game. Maybe there’s some numbers you can tweak to improve it, but that’s it. I suppose I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t enjoy challenges in video games, but I don’t know the last time I played a game that I had no complaints with, nothing that I would see as a place where I could tell what the game’s vision was and that I didn’t think they met it. I don’t think it’s a perfect game, I’m certain there’s something you could do, but hell if I know what it is. Master of Arena DLC where we get tens of new AC fights, in a variety of new areas? Really, that’s all that comes to mind.
Armored Core has been one of my favorite series for a long, long time. I played the original game not long after it came out, my sibling and I devoured the actual Master of Arena game not long after and spent countless hours doing PVP in it. I’ve intermittently checked in on the series since, though I didn’t have the consoles to keep up with the newest entries prior to this one and tragically they’ve been hard to still find and play. Armored Core is a mecha series, sure, but to me, it’s The mecha series (at least since Earthsiege ended). Sorry MechWarrior fan friends.
Mecha games with the appropriate amount of weight and customization to your mech are hard to come by. The genre is at its best when there aren’t clear answers to “what is the best mech” – the answer depends on your playstyle, fundamentally, because while you may unlock weapons that hit harder, or mechs that can take more hits, they’re usually heavier, slower, more draining on your energy, have more limited ammo, or some other factor that means it really isn’t a straightforward question. Maybe you prioritize missile lock speed, maybe you get shields, maybe you want to run circles around your enemies.. It’s easy to get lost customizing your mech and making it really feel like your own in the genre, and AC6 makes this easier than… every other game I can think of, with the ability to change your mech while in the Test mode. The customization options are also outstanding, with more colors, decals, and finish options than ever before.
Armored Core 6 is not a subtle game about its political stances, though the series never really has been. War is hell, corporations can’t be trusted. I think it might be the least subtle story of all of From Software’s titles, and in the right endings, one of the most hopeful. Their atmospheric worldbuilding is still present, but the conflicts are character-driven and personal. The events aren’t only long past, not only echoes of former greatness.
The world itself has been ruined in the past, but there is still brilliant and vibrant color throughout. Diablo 4 had mud, mud, and more mud – and while there sure is a lot of snow, the skies are gorgeous, lights are shiny, and everything feels like it has the appropriate level of “crunchiness” to it. Buildings vary in scope and detail, signs and lights dot the roads of cities. Cars are small and beneath you–a Core stands at about 10 meters tall in this entry, and in classic fashion, things will be trampled underfoot when it makes sense. Cars probaby could be more detailed, other destructibles perhaps could have had higher resolution textures. That probably wouldn’t have been a good use of time, and it’s not that they look horrible, but this isn’t a game where untold hours were visibly spent adding detail to every surface to call the game some nebulous standard of AAA. Rubicon looks like somewhere you could want to fight for. The soundtrack is form-fit to the game – the series has been built on incredible synthwave and techno from Kota Hoshino, and there’s traces of it here, but it breaks out of the muted world at the right times to add to the appropriate story beats. “Contact With You” and “Steel Haze (Rusted Pride)” are standout tracks.
FromSoft stuck to the menu-driven mission system, which feels bold in a decade when seemingly everything has gone open world. Areas are expansive, and while there are only so many regions, they feel memorable as you see them from different angles, with different missions focusing on different sections of the levels. Load times are snappy, and there’s actual loading screens. Modern games have tended towards long elevators or crawl sequences, ways to hide the loading that will never improve as hardware moves on, making you traverse more space just so that things line up in some realistic plot of the map. Many games have put in repetitive little animations to some of their core systems, small forms of waiting that you could argue don’t need to exist – Monster Hunter’s rituals of eating before a hunt, TotK’s upgrade animations, most delays in crafting where you have to hold a button to make the item. Those just aren’t present, the shop is snappy, loadout changes are instant. It’s not completely devoid of ritual–Armored Core 6 has the moments of departing and returning from your missions, the COM announcing your switch to combat or normal mode, but they don’t overstay their welcome with reuse of the exact same clips over and over.
FromSoft has actually put in more HUD than prior entries, when menus and UI have become sanded down to be as minimal as possible in the name of immersion. It’s probably the easiest HUD to read in the series since the first generation. Hard-lock had me concerned, as giving a mech the appropriate weight and turning performance to its movements can be the difference in something feeling like any other shooter or a mecha game. I’m happy to say that the hard-lock system helps but does not replace needing to keep up – Armored Core has never done much for “fully manual” aiming, you have a targeting computer that you rely on.
The tutorials don’t overstay their usefulness. You get basic controls as the game starts, no “the game constantly pauses as you press every button for the first time” like most recent examples. After the first boss, you unlock training missions that explain more about mech customization and options. Some equipment is locked behind doing them, with some incentive for experienced players to do so, but the gameplay isn’t forced within them. You might be using a prebuilt mech, but you won’t find every enemy to be invincible until you press the “right” button, or use the right timing.
Sometimes I worry that just my nostalgia is kicking in on a game, covering up for some issues (Tunic, oddly enough). Maybe the promise of the game is carrying it higher than the actual limitations of the game can (Tears of the Kingdom, which convinced me that maybe I shouldn’t quite give up on the Zelda series yet). Hell, in the other direction, sometimes I know that comparisons to previous iterations are actively holding back my enjoyment (Diablo 4, Monster Hunter: Rise) because it feels like the development team was fighting themselves in how they redesigned game systems.
If any of that is in play here, I don’t care. I’m not sure something will, or can, come out that I will consider to be my favorite release more. This is a year that is getting a remake of Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars, had a follow-up to one of the better Star Wars games in ages, contained the sequel to Breath of the Wild, spiritual successors (of some fashion) to Pokemon and Chrono Trigger, saw some of the best patches for FFXIV… and none of it really stacks up.
Game’s good. Damn I hope I don’t need to wait a decade for another one.