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Armored Core VI: Fires Of Rubicon Review

Got a job for you, 621

Rubicon is burning. An aching plateau of open wounds perpetually made fresh by the machines that violently tear her open in search of fuel and purpose. Raven also burns. A product of experimentation with the known limits of the physical world, Augmented Human 621 exists only so far as their handlers allow, deferring both death and life. The maelstrom of conflicting corporate interests, revolutionary movements, and abstract manifestations of power that swirls between Rubicon and Raven eventually white noise to the true collision and collaboration of this story. Mass, gravity, machine, and flesh – all burning.

This is Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, a violent and compelling soft-reboot of FromSoftware’s long-running mech-combat action series. Having laid dormant for the better part of a decade while Dark Souls and its children forged genre and market dominance, Fires of Rubicon emerges as both progenitor and ancestor of FromSoftware’s behemoth series. Unmistakably still very much an Armored Core title, replete with third-person shooting and substantial machine customisation options, Fires of Rubicon also revels in its conceptual science-fiction and small but revelatory acts of kindness to the player. It feels remarkably considered, each point of tension and exhale of relief a deliberate, paced, and deserved moment. It kicked my arse more times than I can count but gave me reasons to smile as I got back up.

Rubicon is a stunning stage for the latest Armored Core war

Writ large, Fires of Rubicon achieves a masterful harmony between its mechanical implementation and thematic storytelling ambitions. This is well-trod ground for FromSoftware at this point but the specific framework (and limitations) of the Armored Core series have allowed a sharper focus than ever before. Shifting from the freeform, open-world approach of Elden Ring to Fires of Rubicon’s discreet mission-based structure and linearity marks a pivot back to less approachable gameplay from the studio though, revisiting old frustrations but revelling in a clean simplicity all the same. There is nowhere to hide in Fires of Rubicon, and while its extensive customisation options and replayable missions afford a degree of freedom to the player, you will inevitably find yourself with nowhere to go but into the fray.

Fires of Rubicon’s central loop is a tight one. Played out in dimly lit garages and sterile menus, Raven is assigned a small selection of sorties from their handler, the incorrigible Walter, and given access to All Mind, an AI supreme that handles the finer details of mercenary work on Rubicon, including the Parts Shop. Initially you’ll have access to an optional set of training missions that run you through the basics of combat and the various forms your AC can take, rewarding you with some early-game gear. The further you progress into the story, the more Arena fights you’ll unlock too; simulated battles against a variety of Armored Core units, these clashes serve as both showcase for Fires of Rubicon’s fantastic rogue’s gallery and gateway to the game’s extensive, and necessary, upgrade systems.

No matter which pathway to combat you take you’ll be rewarded with COAM, the game’s credits, which in turn feed the behemoth that is AC customisation. A series staple, the ability to breakdown your machine to its component parts and rebuild it to your any and every whim remains an absolute joy. The entirety of the unit can be retooled, from its core body components to its four weapon slots to boosters, engines, and targeting software, with a final additional slot allocated to unique expansion packs. Each choice you make will have some kind of impact on your AC’s performance, which itself is broken down by defensive performance, stability, boost speed, weight, energy load, and AP pool.

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Fires of Rubicon continues the series’ mainstays around customisation

It is both overwhelming and completely approachable, allowing you to become a total sicko over minutia or simply gravitate toward the basic pleasures of numbers go up or down. Your build will dramatically alter the flow of moment-to-moment combat too, ensuring no choice made in the garage feels superfluous. Some will be obvious; swapping out the light-weight bipedal legs for tetrapods will slow you down but boost performance, both offering equally valuable but different modes of movement. Other choices, in the core of your unit, are more subtle; targeting systems can be gently nudged to provide better aim assist, and the game’s OS Tuning unlocks a whole new slate of baseline performance enhancers. It’s here you’ll also find some essential skills, like the glorious boost kick or the ability to auto-deploy a shield when you inevitably panic in the heat of combat.

So, you tune and tinker and bolt until your new body feels like an extension of your old before throwing it into the fires of war. Fires of Rubicon’s sorties are dramatically varied affairs and will often require you to slink back to the garage to begin the process anew in the face of escalating and diverse threats. Some sorties will run you five to ten minutes, quick war dog work like clearing out enemy encampments or scouting for information in the wilds. Others will pit you against bespoke and awe-inspiring set pieces that make up the stage of Rubicon’s brutal war. These are best experienced for yourself, but some early highlights include an assault on a colossal mining machine, a faction-spanning push into enemy territory, and my personal favourite, the surprise boss encounters. The best part is you’re never quite sure which you’ll get, your handler is often just as surprised as you are that the sortie has gone tits-up.

All of this is in service of a core combat experience that feels in conversation with FromSoftware’s history. Fires of Rubicon operates on something of a sliding scale, its baseline system management and mechanics able to adapt to situations that either indulge or punish your violent proclivities. Those smaller sorties won’t push your machine; you’ll be able to effortlessly enjoy the silky movements of your AC gliding through the world, deploying your attacks with off-handed ease. The game is also kind in considered ways; if you fail mid-mission you’ll often have a recent checkpoint to bounce back to and from here you can also fully rebuild your AC, and access pre-saved configurations, to better suit the battle ahead. But this is just kindling to Fires of Rubicon, the game pivoting to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice levels of attentiveness and difficulty without a moment’s notice. “Good luck, Raven,” your handler crackles over the comms.

Combat is brutal, satisfying, and demanding 

High-end combat is a supremely delicate balancing act that will require you to calculate and manage several competing priorities for lengthy periods of time. Your AC has up to eight pressure points – your AP gauge (health), your EN output (stamina, effectively), your ACS Strain (a stagger bar), up to four different weapon cooldowns and ammo pools, and your limited supply of Repair Kits. These are an intrinsically connected series of vital systems that must be kept in equilibrium for effective play. All of these systems will be under constant pressure from enemy units, the larger ones having their own versions of these systems to consider as well as specialised attack patterns and move sets. Fires of Rubicon manages to communicate all this information to you with its stellar UI and sound design, a marriage of cleanly expressed information and sonic trigger points to indicate danger and safety.

It can be impossibly stressful at times, an exhilarating but exhausting rush. The only time I felt genuine frustration with the game were the few instances where a boss enemy would move out of the playable bounds of an arena, rendering my close-range options useless in mildly unfair ways. Still, this balancing also bleeds into the game’s potential for player-driven storytelling, with the choices you made in assembling your AC having a direct impact on your gameplay and vice versa. An early sortie pitted me against a young hotshot pilot for the Rubicon Liberation Front, a collective of displaced Rubiconians seeking to liberate their land from corporate forces. We circled each other for a while, the comms channel ablaze with his taunts and declarations of independence, but eventually and inevitably his metal buckled under mine and as he burst into flame he cried out in fear. Mission complete, good job, 621.

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Back in the garage, I sat for a while thinking about that pilot, about his mission and his handlers. Fires of Rubicon is explicitly about many things, but in this instance, I wanted to use its systems to tell my story. So, I took to the assembly station and scarred the left side of my AC with scorch marks and dulled paint. I wanted to take that battle with me, and I did, thanks to a simple cosmetic option menu. If this sounds silly to you, I’m not sure Fires of Rubicon’s narrative devices will connect, those same sterile menus of the garage being your primary storytelling point, your mind needing to do the rest. To say nothing of the small stories told through things like the Decals, fully customisable icons you can slap on your unit to tell their own micro story. One of my many foes sported a ravenous looking wolf, trapped by a muzzle – I thought about it for days after.

Rubicon is often imposing and cold, trapping you in mega structures

It’s a game with a lot to say and while it does deploy some choice (and stunning cutscenes), the bulk of its best writing and tone work is found in unpretentious comm calls, static images, and raw gameplay. Of all things for its mission structure to remind me of, Starfox 64 was not what I expected; often during a Sortie, you’ll come across optional conflicts that can turn the direction of the overarching experience in fascinating ways. There are several endings to Fires of Rubicon, one of which is only available on a New Game+ run, but all of which hinge on the choices you make during your time on Rubicon. There is a flurry of conflicting interests surrounding the game’s core idea, a metaphysical fuel source called the Coral, and the escalation of ideas and plotting around it form a compelling thread to follow. Hidden notes in levels, hushed tones on overheard comm calls, and a pervasive sense of dread define the game’s humble storytelling and while these touches may be light, their impact is undeniable for a certain kind of player.

This isn’t to say that Fires of Rubicon doesn’t know how to show off though. The game is remarkably polished and smooth, performance on the PS5 maintaining its crucial framerate amid a storm of visual effects, all rendered in 4K. Literal technicalities in the face of the game’s art direction and mood-setting, FromSoftware imbues the Armored Core mech aesthetic with vibrant sci-fantasy imagery and renewed understandings of scale in level design. Rubicon is an endlessly compelling playground thanks to its primordial natural landscapes and towering, man-made structures that cleave the sky and leave the sun to bleed around their edges. A confidently forged world is given magic through its score though, with series composer Kota Hoshino cooking up a soundtrack that manages to balance the game’s sombre mood, bombastic moment-to-moment, and still be absolute bangers.

Final Thoughts

Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon can be hard to love, especially if you’re coming off of FromSoftware’s slow but inevitable march toward more approachable design philosophies. This is a game not entirely divorced from its studio’s recent context but is unwavering in its sortie to be holistically true to the core themes, mechanics, and nature of the Armored Core franchise. It is not unkind in its brutality, often giving you an overwhelming set of tools to achieve any given goal but neither is it all that concerned with ensuring you keep up with its cold, detached world. Rubicon will in turn make you cold to its violence, revelling in refined mechanics and considered systems that remove you from your actions until the game is ready to bring all of that weight to bear with gravity, mass, and fire-red blood.

Reviewed on PlayStation 5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Armored Core VI: Fires Of Rubicon Review
Machine yearning
Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon emerges ablaze with FromSoftware’s best impulses. Demanding and rewarding combat is bolstered by series signature customisation and player-driven storytelling to form a masterclass in design philosophy and raw fun.
The Good
Tight, compelling, and fun combat
Comprehensive and rewarding customisation
Fascinating storytelling and narrative choices
Gorgeous to look at and listen to
Exceptional performance on console
The Bad
Some boss fights misuse play spaces
Linear nature leads to hard roadblocks
9.5
bloody ripper
  • FromSoftware
  • Bandai Namco
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
  • August 25, 2023

Armored Core VI: Fires Of Rubicon Review
Machine yearning
Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon emerges ablaze with FromSoftware’s best impulses. Demanding and rewarding combat is bolstered by series signature customisation and player-driven storytelling to form a masterclass in design philosophy and raw fun.
The Good
Tight, compelling, and fun combat
Comprehensive and rewarding customisation
Fascinating storytelling and narrative choices
Gorgeous to look at and listen to
Exceptional performance on console
The Bad
Some boss fights misuse play spaces
Linear nature leads to hard roadblocks
9.5
bloody ripper
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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