Review | 4/5/2012 at 6:38 PM

Armored Core V - Co-op Review

This mech sim's core is anything but soft.

2008’s Armored Core: For Answer introduced cooperative gameplay to From Software’s mech simulation series, allowing two players to take on the game’s missions together. According to our co-op review, it was an enjoyable but awkward experience, brought down slightly by the series’ notoriously terrible menus. From took an extended break (perhaps to make those Souls games everyone’s crazy about) and has at last come back with Armored Core V. This time out, multiplayer has been completely overhauled and borrows many design aspects from From’s other mech game, Chromehounds. The two series were similar enough already, so why not?

From the moment it boots up, it’s clear that Armored Core V is designed as an online multiplayer experience. Your first task is to create a public profile and then either join a team (i.e. clan) or form one of your own. Teams can hold up to 20 people, each person’s mission progress contributing to the team’s overall level. There are numerous benefits to entering one of these alliances, such as access to better AC (mech) parts I the store as your team levels up. We’ll get to the rest in a bit.

From Armored Core V’s slightly confusing map screen, you’ll have access to two main kinds of missions: Story and Order. There are 10 story missions, each with numerous optional objectives to complete. These can be quite lengthy and challenging, but thankfully they do have checkpoints to continue from if you’re defeated.

As for the story itself, players take on the role of a rookie AC pilot who has just joined the Resistance. These guys are embroiled in a civil war and labeled as terrorists by the other side. Eventually an evil corporation shows up, playing both sides against each other and looking after its own interests. It sounds okay in broad strokes, but the actual story makes very little sense. It’s told entirely through the dialogue of myriad characters, jumping around to different people from mission to mission. Some facial portraits would have helped keep track of who’s who, but no such luck. The mid-mission chatter alternates between mundane and awkward, with the same unnatural pauses between every line that Sonic Adventure suffered from in 1999. Story scenes are at least skippable, which you’ll certainly want to do when revisiting missions to knock out the extra objectives and scavenge for AC parts.

Order missions are much shorter and easier than Story Missions, but there are far more of them. They mostly involve clearing groups of weak enemies from a map or dueling against one or two powerful ACs. Order missions are easily the best way to earn money. Every one of the 80 Order missions also has two secret side objectives to keep completionists busy.

All Story and Order missions support 2-player co-op, and you don’t even have to beat them by yourself before partnering up this time. When a player starts a mission, everyone on his or her team who isn’t already in a mission receives a notification, making it easy to fill the second player slot. Both players have the chance to swap out their mech parts before the mission actually begins, too. Playing together is a great way for new players to learn the ropes since the tutorials are extremely inadequate at teaching the game’s finer points. It’s also very necessary for those tough Story missions. If one player’s AC gets destroyed during a mission, he or she can fly around in a useless jet pack, hoping that the other player survives to the next checkpoint. Should both players bite the dust, they’re given the choice of restarting from the last checkpoint or quitting the mission.

Regardless of team size, there will likely be times when none of your buddies are available to play. In that case, you can either hire a mercenary to help with an individual mission or become one yourself. It’s Armored Core V’s take on matchmaking. The interface for hiring a mercenary is ungainly, but you can opt for a quick hire to make it easier. However, if no mercenaries are in the queue at that exact second, the search fails and you’ll have to manually search again. Would it have been so hard to let it search continuously until someone becomes available? That’s Japanese developers for you. Still, it usually doesn’t take too many tries to find someone. Becoming a mercenary yourself is easier, since you just sit in a lobby for a moment and someone will soon hire you.

Playing with randoms works smoothly except for one esoteric design decision: mercenaries, unlike team members, can’t voice chat with other players. You’re limited to an anemic assortment of preset text messages. I know Japanese gamers don’t like voice chat and From obviously doesn’t either if Dark Souls is any indication, but that doesn’t mean players shouldn’t have the option. On Xbox 360 at least, you can hit the Guide and message the other person through your recent players list if necessary.

While it will take a goodly number of hours to complete all of the Story and Order missions, their optional objectives, and S rank each one (for the Achievements), Armored Core V’s real long-term potential comes from Territory and Conquest gametypes. See, the world map is divided up into territories that teams can choose to take or defend. These missions support up to five players: four on the ground and one who directs things from the map. Sounds like Chromehounds, doesn’t it? Defending teams can purchase automated defenses since nobody can be around to defend their stuff all the time. Invading teams can’t tell whether any actual humans will be there or not before attacking, so for them it’s like rolling the dice between player-versus-player or co-op. Either way, Conquest should do much to keep teams playing together as time goes on.

Blasting tanks and other ACs during missions is only one part of Armored Core’s appeal. The series is also famous for its mech customization. Each part of the mech from head to toe can be swapped out for new parts that you purchase in the shop or find during missions. The variety of weapons alone is truly massive. You’ll need to balance the energy consumption and weight of whatever parts you equip in addition to considering their offensive and defensive capabilities. Personal and team emblems are also purchasable and customizable. It’s a lot to take in, and unfortunately the process hasn’t been streamlined after all these years. You can’t even autoequip newly purchased parts – they must be manually selected after wading through numerous menus. I can understand some people being scared off by the AC customization’s complexities, but after a little experimentation or consulting with team mates, anyone should get the jist of it.

Armored Core V is a deep and satisfying mech simulation. While the story is disjointed and nonsensical, there’s just so much to do that it hardly matters. The experience of dashing around ruined cities, factories, and tunnels is exactly what you’d want from a mech game. Now that every single mission can be played with a friend (or Mercenary), it’s just that much better than before. Joining a team and taking on Conquest missions together adds another addictive element to an already robust package. I won’t say solo players shouldn’t play Armored Core V – it’d just be a lot tougher due to the steep difficulty. But if you’re interested in online multiplayer and love robots (like so many of us at Co-Optimus), this game is a must-buy.