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‘Armored Core: Verdict Day’ preview: Building a better bot with a little help from your imaginary friends

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As discussed in our Dark Souls II preview, developer From Software pulled of a seemingly impossible feat in the modern game industry. It found success in making a series of games that are obtuse, difficult, and time consuming. No small task in an industry that’s become defined by big budget releases that dumb down mechanics so as to avoid alienating anyone that can’t cut the mustard. What’s strange though, is that while From Software’s Dark Souls team has stumbled upon the magic formula for drawing players into difficult titles, they haven’t been able to apply that formula to its other games.

Armored CoreArmored Core, From Software’s giant mech fighting war series, is entering its sixteenth year. Between spin-offs, mobile versions, sequels and expansions, Armored Core: Verdict Day will be the twentieth game in the series. Long before the advent of Dark Souls, the Armored Core games had a reputation for also being obtuse and difficult. Even controlling the game could be a little bizarre depending on the controller setup you used (as demonstrated by this old picture on Kotaku on the right from a preview for the last game, Armored Core V).

The games are filled with literal armies of customizable robot tanks for you to customize with an insane layer of customizability for weapons load outs and skills. But with under 500,000 sales worldwide for Armored Core V, you’d think From Software would be thinking of ways to re-imagine the series to try and bring in more players. It has, to a degree, but in the process it’s made the game more complicated.

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In addition to new weapons like “Weapon Arms,” which transforms limbs into giant swords, Verdict Day’s big new feature is the UNAC system. Like Armored Core V, Verdict Day is about building teams of Core fighters and letting the game’s three warring factions duel it out. Each playthrough is a season, with Red, Blue, and Green teams fighting in skirmishes around the world until only one controls everything. The problem in V according to the producer, is that there weren’t enough people playing the actual game for people to form teams. The UNAC system is meant to be the remedy. Rather than forming a team of fighters with other actual players, you build an AI team.

This isn’t a simple task of picking your team from a stable of types and sending them out there. Verdict Day lets you completely customize the AI, going into exact detail in how you want your private army to behave, from actions to attitude. Once in the field, you give your teammates commands. The producer and designer of the game emphasized repeatedly in the demo about how an all AI team receiving commands from a player would be a ready match for a team of live players.

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I took on the designer’s AI team. Rather than coming away impressed, I came away completely mystified, with no clear sense of what my one live teammate and three AI partners were doing in the field. The opponent AI, meanwhile, were cunning but no more so than the typical AI enemies you’d face in a regular single player game. How my human opponent the designer was adapting their behavior on the fly, was totally unknown and From Software wasn’t elaborating. These games are made for a very specific type of player, and anyone new to the series will need embrace the steep learning curve.

The Core was fun to steer though, and the game was attractive enough. If nothing else, after sixteen years, it’s impossible to mistake the steely militarism of From’s series. It has been just over year since Armored Core V was released, but Verdict Day is its own game and not an expansion. There are obvious connections though, and it feels like an attempt to try and salvage the work it did on V while finding a new way for fans to connect. (It even has the same giant “V” logo in the back of its menu screens.)

Verdict Day should excite fans of the series, but it may not do much to appeal to a new audience. If the goal is to further tailor the game to the hardcore fan base, this game should do that. And that’s a fair move for From Software, but it won’t ever see the same results that other games that share the same spiritual level of difficulty enjoy. But if you want a very difficult game with baffling controls and a flair for customization, keep an eye out for Verdict Day.