These days, the terms "hardcore game" and "casual game" get thrown around a lot, usually at the expensive of clarity. As core franchises simplify their mechanics in order to reach a wider audience, the difference between hardcore and casual becomes murky. However there's no ambiguity with Namco's newest mech game, because Armored Core: Verdict Day is as hardcore as you can get.
For those not keeping count, Verdict Day marks the fifteenth outing for the long-running Armored Core franchise. What started out as a straight-forward mech/action game has quickly transformed into a complicated maze of customization options and online sorties. And just when you think the series can't get any more nuanced, From Software doubles down with an even more complicated experience. With its needlessly convoluted menu and customization options, Verdict Day is no exception.
This time around we're dropped into world already dealing with the throes of war. It's a century after the events of Armored Core V and all is not well on Earth. The intro movie sets up a nightmarish future where major cities have been reduced to rubble and giant mechs battle over land and power. With some skill, a few friends, a little luck and hours of deciphering the menus, you will play a small part in winning the Verdict War.
While past iterations have featured strong storytelling, Verdict Day is entirely focused on the online multiplayer component. There is a single-player campaign, but it's hidden behind a number of menus and clearly an afterthought. Worse yet, I felt completely disconnected with what I thought was the overarching story. Most of the single-player plot points are conveyed over radio communications, which didn't do much to draw me into the action. And just when everything was starting to click, the story ends.
Thankfully there's more to do than suffer through the undercooked story. Much like last year's Armored Core installment, Verdict Day has dozens of multiplayer story sorties (missions), as well as a robust online mode (which I'll get to shortly). These online story sorties are fun with friends, but rarely put you in the middle of the action. They also aren't very interesting; often relying on simplistic goals (destroy all targets, survive waves of enemies, etc.).
The good news is that many of these missions have been streamlined. Gone are the overly long sorties found in Armored Core V. This definitely helps the game's pacing, especially when it comes to playing with friends. In the past, sorties had a tendency to drag out, often taking the form of filler. Verdict Day rarely overstays its welcome, which is certainly a step in the right direction.
On top of tightening up the levels, Verdict Day also introduces a brand new computer-controlled helper to both the single and multiplayer experience. This is the Unmanned Armored Cores, or UNAC for short. Although they are A.I controlled, it does allow the player to set up new strategies. These UNACs can also be taken into online battles, including having them go head-to-head with human-controlled vehicles. This is a great new addition that has the potential to really change the franchise going forward.
Even with the addition of UNACs, the story missions feel like little more than a warm-up for the main course. The real reason to buy this game is for the ambitious online multiplayer mode, which features a persistent world where you fight for one of three warring factions. Not only does this give the player a purpose, but it also makes them part of the ultimate outcome. No matter if you win or lose, every skirmish is important for your faction.
The idea is to capture as many of the 56 bases as you can over the course of the season. You do this by taking on series of sorties that will have you cripple the base and surrounding areas. These missions are everything you expect from a multiplayer mech war, complete with explosions on all sides, buildings crumbling and debris flying about. When everything is working right, Verdict Day's online mode is incredibly tense and rewarding.
One cannot play this Armored Core sequel casually; it will require your full attention. Even if you decide to import your Armored Core V save, Verdict Day requires hours of grinding in order to earn enough money to buy competitive parts. You'll also spend hours studying each part and figuring out how everything works. Not just the customizable parts, but also the menus, tuning and everything else that could have been streamlined. There's a learning curve just figuring out how to do simple things, like invert the aim and start a sortie.
Verdict Day rewards players who stick with it. It's impressive how much attention you can put into each part of the mech. One could make the argument that the attention to detail is a little too impressive. My eyes started to glaze over as I flipped through the pages of replacements, upgrades and alternate parts. With so many foreign names, words and numbers, I was had no idea where to begin. And with no help or instructions, I was left to bungle my way through with simple trial and error.
I'm sure there are people who have grown up with the series and know exactly what every part is supposed to do, but a little help for the newcomers would have been appreciated. Sadly, that goes for the entire game. I felt like the game purposely kept me in the dark for no reason. This is especially frustrating when playing with people who clearly understand how everything is supposed to come together.
Fans of the series will no doubt argue that From Software is known for keeping their audience in the dark, the learning curve is what people expect from their games. These people are right, as you can lodge the same complaints against Dark Souls and its sequel (if the beta is any indication). And yet I love Dark Souls for many of the same reasons I am frustrated by Verdict Day. It's unforgiving and mysterious; impenetrable in all the right ways. On the other hand, Armored Core feels more like homework.
I love that From is still able to make uncompromisingly complicated games that speak to a small (but very vocal) niche audience. What's more, I admire the ideas found in the online mode. This is one of those situations where I respect every element of the game, but nothing about it appeals to me. Even with the fast-paced action and compelling set-up, I found Verdict Day difficult to crack.
It doesn't help that the graphics are looking a little haggard. Sure the explosions look good, but the environments are lacking. Too many of the war-torn stages come off as dull and plain, while the busier stages employ far too many repeated buildings and objects. I found the whole experience to be dreary, often putting me in a bad mood after long play sessions. And don't even get me started on the convoluted (and gigantic) heads-up display.
Armored Core: Verdict Day is a game made specifically for the fans. Those who spent hundreds of hours on last year's installment will find a lot to love about the game. The truth is, I found a lot to love about the game. But I can't overlook how difficult it is to perform even the simplest tasks. The game is needlessly complicated, often at the expense of fun. Even though I like where this series is headed, there has to be a better way to get new players on board.
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