Back with Spec Ops: The Line I said I was going to try and make these more informal, but they always seem to spiral into something review-esque, which was never my intention. So this time we're going to go even further. I'm going to start to bust out the bullet point lists to try and get my thoughts out without having to worry about how one point leads into another. I'll have my paragraphs (reading this back, I have a lot of them), but I just need to dump thoughts sometimes. Also, while this is nothing new, I'm going to be talking about the story with no mind toward spoilers. Usually I get to games so late, this doesn't matter, but since AC6 just came out, let me just make it clear. This is not a review. This is a game journal.
Anyways, I liked Elden Ring a lot. Loved that game. Had lots of feelings about the game, but I played it earlier this year and never quite felt compelled to write anything about it, because what is left to be said about Fromsoft's soul-style games? Like okay sure there is a little bit to say there and I'm sure I'll say it when I do whatever year-end wrap-up I do, but AC6 is fresh and by fresh I mean an unopened PS2 game hidden at the bottom of a crate.
Like SF6's World Tour Mode we seem to be in The Great PS2 Revival.
The exact mix of polish of Armored Core VI is kinda remarkable. Parts of it are the slickest, smoothest feeling version of the series up until this point, but the structure, the missions, the general movement of the game isn't unpolished as much as it is remarkably bare, peeling up the carpets and exposing the hardwood floors that hasn't been seen for decades. You don't need doodads or a million map icons (or a map at all, it turns out), and fancy glory kill animations (a tasteful slowdown will suffice!). Maybe you can just make a mech game while never showing an actual human. It allows itself to have modern polish, without having all the modern styling and design patterns people confuse with polish.
A friend of mine said something like "Companies finally realized they could just make games like the used" and From has known this for awhile, but it's nice to see this not be isolated to a particular genre. These new games are also interesting to me, because I remember thinking at some point "We don't have a lot of retro PS2 style games because the graphics look good enough to not have a distinct style". I'm not quite sure of that anymore, but I what I definitely didn't expect that the retro thing was going to be the design philosophy.
This game seemed pretty story heavy compared to the PS2 era AC games (I can't speak for 4 and 5). Now, heavy is probably the wrong word. There is plenty of story even in AC1. Instead, AC6 is very story forward. NPCs in souls games almost feel like observing an animal enclosure sometimes, but like Sekiro, AC6 has some like... real ass characters your feel like you have a relationship with? When I first played Sekiro I assumed it was because Wolf was an actual character, but AC6 shows that was only part of the equation. As brain fried mech savant with little direct will of their own, your agency can only really be displayed through your relationships with others. I find the fact that most group have a different nickname for you to be endearing but also important. You want even the characters you don't like to have relationship with you to add weight to the few (but key) decisions you get to make.
Sophie, from the Sinclair Lore youtube channel predicted something from the trailers that turned out to be very much true. Most AC games start with you feeling like you have freedom before realizing you are being controlled. AC6 is about being controlled, but then realizing you have freedom. This works out powerfully because the early part of the game sets up these relationships you frankly don't have much say in but that you get exposed too, but then seeing them strengthen or fall apart based on your later decisions. Even the early decision you can make... you don't actually get to make it until NG+. This makes it feel more impactful than say... whether Murakumo or Chrome fall during the story of AC1.
Also this is interesting in how it worked with the arena. It was normal to see arena mechs on normal missions in older AC games, but it's another thing to coldly fight an AI simulation only to then murder someone on the battlefield, hearing their frustration, pride, fear, and disdain. Like oh these aren't just names you saw on a list, these are people you did business with, who you are now in a life or death struggle against.
Some character notes...
- I was surprised about how... not a scumbag Walter is. Like he's very scumbag coded, both in voice and presentation but I like how you slowly see that he cares and he's just... not that warm. At first it's not clear if he wants people to respect you because you're his, but as time goes on he puts more trust in you, even when he realizes it might be to his detriment.
- It's like he dehumanizes you because he feels like he has to but he's not very good at it. You can hear how tore up he is at the loss of his other hounds.
- Even if his goals were... under-informed or misguided, turning on him gave me no pleasure. Come on Walter, you don't have to carry the same burden!!
- Same with Carla and Chatty like ugh. Carla gets established so well and so fast and Chatty is so subtly likeable for a dry AI.
- lol god Michigan rules. I like how complimentary he is of people, while hassling his poor Guns. From trying to hire Rusty during the Ice Worm fight to pumping you the hell up during the mission to destroy the Red Guns.
- You're also still G13. Like that's part of your LORE, even while you're killing them. BOYS, YOU'RE FIGHTING THE G13 THAT DIDN'T DIE!!!
- Iguazu is such a perfectly shitty pissbaby of a boy. Gloriously petty. Loved blowing him up every time. How'd that dumbass even afford an assassin???
- On that note, GOD, RUSTY, what a sweetheart. What a golden boy. Calling you buddy, even when he's hurt by where things have brought the two of you. So confident, skilled and earnest. A perfect boy.
As for the actual plot...
- I like the 3 endings and where they end up, but I don't really like the Allmind Route, at least in the context of the sorta '3 play through' structure.
- Ayre asking to see what you'd choose and then having the 3rd route being the most bungling dumb nonsense choices definitely feels a little lame. I feel like it would make more sense in a scenario where all 3 endings were available from the start and it was likely written with that as the intention.
- "Surely trusting and following this creepy AI will pay off!" even if it... kinda ultimately does.
- That said, I think the 3 evolving playthroughs works great and it was, I think, the right decision, even if there are some warts.
- What the fuck is up with Branch and Raven's Operator? That felt like setup that never got payoff. Like yeah, gonna keep an eye on me I guess, Operator Lady???
- ... DLC?
- While there is a lot of soulsy 'read everything and read between the lines', I appreciate the game is also pretty direct and clear while also still having some restraint.
- Though the actual indulgence is pretty good. The Liberation ending definitely pours it on heavy, but since the game was so restrained and almost doomery, it feels really good. A real earned payoff.
- Him and Ayre contrast the rest of the game and each other very well. Where Ayre is as confused as you are, there is something great about having confidence that Rusty seems to know whats up, even if he can't really tell you exactly what's going on.
It should be important to say I played the whole game "post patch". Literally was gifted the game the day of. A lot of lore has been built up over things like Pre Nerf Balteus, how he was nerfed into the ground, etc etc etc, even though... people have pretty much confirmed they just made his missiles home a little less (which, honestly, only barely seemed like the "problem" with him to begin with). I felt engaged by all the boss fights people said were supposed to be hard. I really wasn't sitting there for any of them like "Gosh this would be better if I had to put in another 20 attempts". Nor do I think any of the three are so easy to numerically nerf. Instead they're hard because they introduce new problems.
- While I can never TRULY know how release Balteus felt, he seems like he was fine? He's definitely there to teach you shit and he took me a good hour to punch through, but by the end of it, I felt more comfortable understanding what the game wanted from me.
- A pulse gun. It wanted a pulse gun.
- And like everyone else playing Balteus with all their girl, NG+ felt like a joke.
- It's honestly kinda embarrassing how many people I've seen say "They nerfed him so bad! I fought him in NG+ and he died in like 15 seconds!!" like no shit, you're on NG+ and also a million times better that's just how videogames work!!
- Sea Spider and IB-01: CEL 240 both took some build and strategy adjustments, as a boss in these kinds of games should, but those changes made them easier.
- Yeah, I'm gonna pick 2 song birds and blow up Sea Spider.
- The nerf is probably better, because without it I just would have counterpicked him even faster.
- IB-01 got lance and pilebunkered. Which really puts the damage nerf into perspective. She killed me a lot, but when I won, she melted. Doing less damage didn't so much make her 'easier to beat'. It made her 'easier to learn' by extending each attempt.
- The damage nerf was almost certainly deserved.
In general people overvalue their experience as the 'the right/best' way, which is a problematic attitude people have with a lot of things, but ESPECIALLY Fromsoft games. Including me when DS1 came out. "If the missile pattern isn't exactly what I felt the experience is RUINED" or w/e just isn't reasonable.
- On other boss notes, Ice Worm sucks ass. Oh god so much fucking waiting.
- But Rusty is so hot in this mission.
- The perfect man for me is apparently one without a canonical form that I have to look at.
- okay sure, the fight DOES look cool though.
- Ayre probably gave me the most problems, but maybe that's because I was rushing to the finish line.
- Heal-skipping Boss AC's by pilebunkering them kicks ass.
- Okay I also fucking hated shooting into that fucking smoke stack like the boss wasn't hard but that was so annoying!!. That was one boss that was equally annoying every time I've refought him.
The patch and difficulty discourse gets into another conversation, people talking about 'easy weapons' being 'easy mode' and... well okay that's not wrong. I definitely pick up certain combos when I'm just done with a boss. But there is a weird undercurrent to this whole conversation like "Yeah, you can do double zimms, if you don't want to REALLY play the game." but like... what is really playing the game? Circle strafing for 10 minutes while plinking an enemy with a mediocre weapon out of some weird sense of pride, like that's the intention of the game about customizing mechs? Sure, take on King, Chartreuse and Raven on at the same time with SMGs and no burst damage. That's sick as hell! But the game isn't asking you to fight 3 high-end ACs because they expect you to nobly boost dodge around. It's because the game gives you options. You'll find the one that fits you.
I just find this conversation weird. The AC community and DS community are very separate, but both have this weird hangup over this same kind of stuff, even though both series are made by a company who LOVES to design around and embrace "cheese".
What do you want to get out of a game? I like the speedrun mentality. I like big damage and I like playing fast. I don't just wanna pound and tank with a cheesy build, I wanna optimize the start, I wanna maximize my chances, I want IB-01 to lose 3/4ths of her first health bar before she even gets to make a decision. "Okay this boss is fast, but does it do anything where I can pilebunker it for free"? Which is also why I've always enjoyed watching speedruns more than "Fists only, no hit!!" runs, even though those runs are undeniably extremely skillful... They're just also boring and repetitive. To me, at least, but that's kinda the point.
Personally I don't think there are many games where I had more fun because I did less damage. Of those few games, I'm pretty sure 100% of them are fucked up combo/character action games that would give me more time to beat up and combo enemies. A game like this? Naaaah. I've had more fun taking more damage. I've had more fun having to fight stronger, smarter enemies! I've enjoyed weapons that do less damage because they're fun and mechanically different, but not because they do less damage.
Some people like the slow stable long game. They pride themselves on dying as little as possible. Some people like me want to play intensely correct and absurdly aggressively for 30 seconds, in a burst of planning and execution... and the game supports both of these things. One isn't particularly more right or intended... and honestly, I don't feel the need to prove myself to a single player game that isn't going to be impressed either way.
The game doesn't care how you get through it, so why care about anything other than what you find personally enriching?
Relatedly, the weapon balance has some issues, and some of them are intrinsically hard to solve. A big issue is, for the Single Player at least, a lot of weapons are just... not compatible with fighting strong enemies. Projectiles that are too slow, charge shots that are too punishing to miss, etc. And missing is more punishing in this game because of how the stagger system works. Now, I don't hate stagger, it feels good, but it does strongly encourage burst, reliable stagger damage. The problem with not having it is your DPS ends up getting exponentially punished and makes strategies like long range plinking much worse. There are surely ways to build around this and make more weapons work well and feel good, but the reason a lot of people move toward a lot of strong "meta" weapons is because they fit the system better. Which is likely also why weapons were buffed and not nerfed.
The problem there though is... how do you buff a lot of the less rewarding weapons... or do you worry about it? Are they maybe better in PVP, with more human fallibility? That'd be fine. But it seems the buffs a lot of stuff needs is more in the realm of projectile speed, better tracking or even maybe nerfed AI dodging. The problem with the last one though is that only makes the good stuff even better so it's not really an option. I feel like anything with a charge attack shouldn't have an overheat cooldown. Like you're giving up a weapon to try and make a precise attack that is likely to miss, double punishing you. Maybe it'd be a way to make laser rifles better than (or at least interestingly different from) laser handguns.
I also feel like the game lets you do too much on a fast build and there is very little armament reason to go super heavy. There are durability reasons but most of the heaviest gear is kinda... eh? So you kinda get to have your cake and eat it too. On the other hand... you can have your cake and eat it too? That's not always a bad thing.
In other system stuff...
- I like the free mission replay stuff a lot. It's kinda weird to farm money, especially when money in AC games is kinda weird, but whatever.
- ... I kinda like that you can't buy and sell when you restart? So having money and having parts in your inventory actually matters to some degree.
- It feels like a little weird unpolished friction point but who cares?
- OS Tuning felt kinda lame. I hated how it was just an 'upgrade card you will eventually fill out' and not another place you could do meaningful tweaks.
- I need to play with more than the pulse shield and terminal expansion cards though.
- I kinda miss unique FCS reticle/lock-on stuff. Like I'm not saying they should have brought it back, but I do mourn the loss a little.
- I wish there were more mid mission decisions. What are there, two?
- The R3/Hard Lock-on felt weird like it changed your lock-ons to be more aggressive but in the moment, the effect wasn't enough to realize (for me at least) if it was on or off.
- WAIT HARD LOCK GIVES YOU A WORSE LOCK-ON TOO????
- I love that this game can actually show me Playstation Button prompts.
- I WISH THE GAME WOULD STOP DEFAULTING TO SHOWING ME KEYBOARD PROMPTS FOR SOME REASON
Most of these issues aren't that big a deal. Far less than what I'd expect in the older AC games. Fun to think about, fun to think about how they could do things differently, but if they never change another thing, the game still rules.
Okay now for the dumb stuff you're allowed to skip.
These aren't heavy roleplay games, but I almost never make myself "Kayin" in a game. So far in every Fromsoft Souls game I make Naomi for my first play through. Cool knight girl, usually sword sword of claymoreish sword on the first run and maybe a bigger one and some magic in NG+. Perfect fit. But she felt weird to in mech games. She kiiinda worked in Battletech, but I ended up using the Brave Earth Succubus, Vayn, for later playthroughs of that and the earlier Armored Core. Kinda just needed someone a little bit more... morally ambiguous.
Also it helps that she too spent years an a brain fried fog, used as a tool with little agency
This less informs my gameplay and route choices and more aesthetics.
(I mean... I have my own head canon stuff but I'll spare you)'
I wanted a cool ass emblem. I wanted something that you'd see in an old AC game in the arena and be like 'damn what's their deal??'. The roses, exploding out the back of the head beautifully like an exploded brain??? I'm pretty proud of it, okay!!
I messed with a lot of variants with the text. From vertical instead of rotated, to arched, on a circular emblem, whatever, but found that simpler was better. Helped that I gave up on using it with the text on the ACs. I'm honestly loving how the emblem system works. Doing stuff on the the blood splatter on the skull with masks is so fun and powerful, and the ability to nest these things together is incredible. As far as Emblems go, this is a very simple one, using assets as they're intended without a whole lot of fancy tricks going on, but I'm super happy with how it came out. I might use similar iconography for Vayn with something else at some point.
ACs and Aesthetic
White and Black is like the key colors for Vayn and most of her costumes, so went with that and very gundamy wear patterns. I ended up with the pale pink to make it undeniably also femme. I tried doing the seriffed text on the mech but it never worked so I went more 'racer' and added the checkers and more sleek font. The seriffed "Vanity" does sneak in sometimes. The V on one shoulder and Raven on the other kinda is embracing the dual identity of 621.
I also have ended up using 3 AC styles for her across all these games. LILITH, usually my go to mech and middleweight, DRIDER, usually a heavy quad but sometimes hover or tank bodies, and BANSHEE, something light and fast.
LILITH got me through most of the game. You can see serial labels around in the pics too. This is actually between the first model early in chapter 1 and the NG++ model, LILITH 03. There is also LILITH DD which was my favorite build to use when I can get away with it which basically was built on lancing into pilebunker. Occasionally I'd work in plasma stuff or missile pods or whatever. Early on, with LILITH 01 I was running the RANSETSU-RF and the Curtis. 02 also has badges from all the factions she got along with. Sadly after the last redguns mission, that logo had bullet holes put in it.
DRIDER first showed up to kill Sea Spider. Hovering over things to rain songbird shots. This is basically also also the "fuck this" build, especially the special DRIDER W which used wheels. I'd basically throw whatever a boss seemed weak to it on it and just go nuts. DRIDER W showed up to kill Ayre. The original DRIDER 01 basically was the same idea but with the lighter quad legs, and 02 just had a different torso. One annoying thing is it's really hard to place nice decals on quad legs! Or legs in general!. Loved the headpiece on this one, giving kinda a spider look.
BANSHEE Was definitely the fun build. Also where the serif text shows up. I love the huge shoulder skull. Mostly used this for double laser handguns. Usually built with the weird generators that recover fully from redlining and a good booster for infinite flight. Surprisingly a variant of this, BANSHEE BOLD, which was a little heavier and with a songbird and a stun needle cannon, is what I used to get through Destroy the Redguns due to having great ammo. Alternative versions used reversed legs too but the mostly ended up feeling unnecessary, but did give a nice insect look.
It was fun to mess with all this stuff and save old builds. While I mostly ended up on fairly typical weapons, the difference in mobility between the different builds was a lot of fun. Honestly, armament could just change with the mission like yeah sure lets try double BADCOOKS or whatever. While I tried to pay attention to stats somewhat, in the end, I was playing Fashion Souls. Compared to the PS1 and 2 games, these are aesthetically my favorite set of ACs.