For many fans of mech games, the last truly great game in the genre was Chromehounds. There was a time when great mech games were common; Chromehounds, MechWarrior, and Steel Battalion made up a thriving sub-genre. Sadly, Armored Core has been slow to move with the times, and for many Armored Core 4 and Armored Core: For Answer were very disappointing. Armored Core V makes some big changes for the series, but not all of them are positive.
When you boot up Armored Core V you'll be asked to create or join a team. These are essential to the game's multiplayer, and unless you've got a group of friends already ready to go you're better off joining another, already active team. There is a campaign for Armored Core V following a rebellion against an oppressive totalitarian government, but it's not really what you came for. The story is forgettable and generic, and it's presented poorly through confusingly disjointed cutscenes and mission dialog. Luckily it's not a necessity for enjoying the game, but a more focused coherent narrative would have been appreciated.
If you haven't played Armored Core before... good luck. One of the toughest things for new players is just figuring out what the heck is going on. Armored Core, as a franchise, is massive in its level of detail, and it's never really managed to make a tutorial to explain all of these functions to new players. There are an unbelievable number of mech parts in the game in various categories, and figuring out how each piece works and the advantages and disadvantages of certain combinations practically takes a college course. You'll be given no instruction on how to use the vast majority of features.
Luckily the controls in combat are easy enough to figure out. The game plays out like a third person shooter, with your mech's energy levels determining how much and how often you can boost and use energy weapons. Boosting lets you dash forward, travel quickly, and dodge attacks with speed. You can also jump to get on top of buildings and move between buildings. This can be very helpful for fast travel and movement about the map. Right weapons are fired with R2 and left weapons with L2. You can also fire out recon darts and use the mech's scan mode to scout for enemies around the field.
All of this sounds like it would work out to be the ultimate mech game: tons of strategic customization, fast and varied gameplay, and a variety of tactics based around your equipment. In practice, there are some problems. The first one you'll notice is the brightness. The game is ridiculously dark. While I'm sure this was a stylistic decision, it makes it very difficult to discern enemies and parts of the environment, and there's no way to change this. The constricted and often underground environments only compound the issue. On the control side, the game isn't as tight as you'd want it to be. In particular, when jumping from buildings it can be difficult to get the mech to move where you want it. In the chaos of combat, the overly dark palette combines with an overly busy amount of indicators and effects and it becomes frustrating to pick, attack, and keep track of a target.
The real problems come in the game's design. The missions are repetitive, and this is compounded by the fact that they are very long. Even the story missions aren't much more varied, and they often last well over 30 minutes. The checkpoints are irregular and oddly placed, and there are massive difficulty spikes between missions, and even sometimes mid-mission. If you want to bring in some help you can play the mission in co-op with your team members or by hiring "mercenaries" who are other players. They will take a share of the income. This is a cool system in theory, but the implementation is awful. You can only have 20 members per team, so finding one online when you need them is rare, and if a co-op player drops out of a mission you are booted out as well.
Luckily the shoddiness of the campaign isn't all the game has to offer. The real draw of the game is its persistent territory controlling metagame. The world map is laid out for you as soon as you boot up. Teams fight to take control of these territories through the 5-on-5 Conquest mode. You must spend Team Points to enter these matches, which you acquire through playing the other game modes. Sadly the 20 person team limit comes up as a problem again here. If no one on your team is online to defend your territory the game ropes in AI to do so... and they inevitably lose. The world-controlling meta-game is still quite fun, but the requirement to have people online all the time to really make any progress is frustrating, and there's no way to play Conquest matches outside of the metagame. Still, when you're in a 5 human on 5 human fight, the speed and skill is exhilarating.
While Armored Core V is far from the ugliest game on the HD platforms, it's also not an attractive one. The mechs themselves have great detail, but everything else from the environments to the weapon effects fails to impress. The bad art direction and overly dark design add to the presentational problems. The voice acting isn't bad, but it's not particularly effective either. The music is actually very good, but repeats too often.
How much value you get out of the game really depends on how much you put into the metagame. The campaign is only 10 missions long, and can be completed in about 5 hours, but the multiplayer is potentially playable forever. There are also a huge variety of ways to play, with various mech parts totally changing your performance and combat strategy and tactics. You can also play an unlimited number of randomly generated side missions on the game's maps, though these aren't as good as the game's main missions. That said, more game modes and options would be nice, and the terrible co-op really brings things down.
The metagame concept of Armored Core V is really brilliant, and through that great concept and a strong core of good gameplay there are some people who will really enjoy it. The problem is that this group of people is a niche group in an already niche subgenre of mech games. Various major design issues like the team size limitations, bad visual and level design, and poorly implemented co-op vastly hamper the experience for any player, and new players face an enormous barrier of entry. There are great ideas at play here, but this just isn't the mech game we've been waiting for.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of Armored Core V, provided by the publisher.