Fires of Rubicon is the first Armored Core game in over a decade. This puts it in the awkward position of attempting to appeal to series fans who’ve been starved for any sign of their favourite mech shooter returning, all while FromSoftware made everyone believe that it abandoned it in favour of its more lucrative – and critically-acclaimed – Souls games.
But because it’s been so long, the FromSoftware that made Armored Core 6 is also quite different from the one that created the originals. Fires of Rubicon has to, then, feel like a reboot, which it sometimes does. Unfortunately, walking that tight rope of satisfying longtime fans while introducing the series to a new generation of players was always going to be nigh impossible.
The FromSoftware name to me doesn’t represent Armored Core, it represents Bloodborne, Dark Souls, Sekiro, and Elden Ring. Whether I want to or not, any future project that comes out of the studio is always going to be compared to those games, even if it has the Armored Core name attached.
So I am not entirely surprised that Fires of Rubicon is not really grabbing me. I expected some level of friction, knowing what I know about the original games and the way they’re perceived by those who don’t swear by them, but AC6 is a game that’s challenging for the wrong reasons.
As a big fan of mech fiction, I was always going to be interested in the game, particularly considering the fact that you spend a lot of your time in the garage; building, comparing and generally playing a different kind of game to the one that unfolds on the battlefield.
But I just can’t get over how… old… Fires of Rubicon feels.
Building something with the standards (and design limitations) of games from one or two generations ago doesn’t automatically make me appreciate a game less; I love the God of War reboot and its sequel, but if you strip away the performances, writing, visuals and general presentation, you’re left with a limited action adventure that could have existed on something as old as a PS2. Evil West is another (worse) version of that, but that was down to its budget more than the talent behind it.
Armored Core 6 sits somewhere in the middle. It gets a lot of mileage out of FromSoft’s art direction, but it lacks the presentation a game that big should flaunt in 2023. It’s also not a story worth following. In the few hours I spent with it, I got bombarded with corporation names and the merc groups affiliated with them. I have no history with the series, so I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything, especially when no other distinctions exist (such as fighting styles).
All of that ends up placing an undue burden on its combat and moment-to-moment.
The game’s combat hasn’t changed much from its classic roots. More than that, Fires of Rubicon is not a game that learns any lessons from the studio’s more recent work. Almost as if it was developed in a vacuum by a team that toiled away at it for ten years while the studio was making a name for itself elsewhere, with one of the most polished games we’ve seen in the last decade-plus.
It’s a difficult experience, sure, but it feels gimmicky. Every boss I fought seems to be designed for players to fail at it on their first run. Depending on your build, you’re likely to want to back out and try a different approach to even stand a chance. I’m happy altering my style to fit the occasion – FromSoft’s non-AC work certainly has trained me for that. But in Fires of Rubicon, it always feels like you’re looking for a shape that matches the hole you’re presented with.
The game makes you feel like you’re being railroaded into speccing a certain way, almost like there’s one solution to that particular puzzle. It doesn’t help that much of the game’s environments are as bland as they get. Obviously, you can’t exactly let your imagination run wild with a post-apocalyptic setting as you would in Elden Ring’s fantasy land, but I have to yet to be left in awe traversing the world.
The structure of AC6’s mission-based design makes that feeling worse. Before FromSoft went open world with Eldern Ring, I never felt like level design from its earlier games limited discoverability, quite the opposite. Here, it feels like you can immediately grasp the scale and scope of the environment two minutes into it. If you try to look for an alternate approach or venture off the beating path hoping for any secret, the out-of-bounds barrier will be quick to remind you that you’re playing a video game.
I imagine longtime fans are screaming ‘this is how AC has always been!’ right now, but I just refuse to believe that, after over a decade, all we got was a somewhat better-looking game that sands down a few of the rougher edges, but casually ignores FromSoft’s design revolutions elsewhere. It just feels like a game any studio could’ve made.