Laying the heavy-mech groundwork
I may not know every Armored Core fan, but I at least know where the franchise's appeal starts and ends for the laymen. Namco Bandai has cranked out 19 Armored Core games since 1997, and the series hasn't exactly ever hit a high point from outside its most dedicated fans.
Still, with Dark Souls under its belt, From Software has an opportunity to buck this trend with Armored Core V. To this end, they've created a game that straddles the line between "streamlined for new audiences" and "more of the same for the fans."
When you first boot up AC V, you'll be asked to join an online team (or create your own) for which to contribute your efforts. Don't stress over the choice you make here, because you've always got the option to realign your allegiances. And while you may never play with the other members on your team, it's comforting to know you're not playing the game alone.
In creating your own team you can set a color scheme, create a new emblem, and even choose how new members can join. Within your team you can trade parts, which is Armored Core heaven for long-time fans of the series. The series has always had a large focus on an ever-expanding garage, but swapping parts with friends makes the volume of components worth it. What's more, if you make a friend in trading among your team, you can both join together to take on story missions in cooperative play.
Right off the bat, you can hop into the single-player story or pick up a multiplayer match. There are only 10 core story missions, but AC has never been about what's happening in the dystopian, destruction-oppressed future. It's about leaving a trail of burning, smoking heaps behind you.
To that end, single-player delivers in spades. While past AC games have allowed smart players to spec out a mech with high armor and tons of firepower, the missions in V actually play better when you add a little nuance to your rig. Some missions can be Dark Souls-difficult if you're not mobile enough or you don't have enough missiles.
Using Boost Drive to climb a skyscraper for its vantage point or bouncing between two buildings make for grasshopper-like agility that a tank-tread mobility system just won't compensate for. You'll have to slow down for heavy weapon use and your rotation speed will suffer, but the movement speed is worth it in many situations.
Using Scan Mode provides two bonuses to players willing to switch away from combat mode. In Scan Mode you can deploy recon drones that detect enemies through buildings and you'll recharge your energy twice as fast. This gives players a choice previous AC games neglected. It might sound silly to play a giant-destructive-mech game stealthily, but somehow getting the drop on an enemy by climbing the skyscraper separating you two works. It works really, really well. That nuance in strategy has been missing from previous AC games, making V a noticeable step up.
Even the abundance of weapons and modifications have gotten an extra edge in differentiating kinectic, chemical, and thermal weapons. These make for a delicious rock-paper-scissors style balancing act, forcing users who want to guard against all three to take a significant hit in over all defensive points.
These kinds of choices extend into multiplayer at a fever pitch. Single-player missions allow you to learn and make changes to your mech when you have to try again. Multiplayer requires on-the-fly customization, creating a fervor of activity in the garage in between matches.
Five-on-five multiplayer matches include Conquest Missions that require teams to defend or attack objectives and compete in outright deathmatches. These focused team battles combine with the Kinetic/Chemical/Thermal balance to make a very real necessity to work with your team.
As amazing as all of this sounds, I still have to temper my opinion of the game with an outsider's viewpoint. The density of the game's systems can be a huge turn off, and while the aesthetics are admittedly fantastic, the menu systems can be unintelligible.
If you've ever played and enjoyed an Armored Core game before, you have to buy V now. No questions asked. It's the best the series has ever seen and the online mode is balanced and deep, providing legs it desperately needs to contain a community. Even if you've never played an AC game before, now is the time to try. We're entering the golden age of mechs trying to blow each other up.