You should be excited about Ace Combat 7
The announcement trailer for the next installment of Ace Combat franchise was presented last month, bringing me great rejoices. Not only because of the eye-candy sci-fi visuals with futuristic aircraft, but more importantly because of the title: Ace Combat 7.
Long time fans of this series, like me, have certainly grasped what this number at the end of the line represents: the return to the roots in a franchise that have been overlooked for far too long. Along with Shadow of The Colossus, Metal Gear Solid, Okami and others, Ace Combat should also be put amongst the best that the PlayStation 2 era had to offer, and my objective with this article is explain to you the reason why.
Why Ace Combat is awesome
Fans of aircraft warfare are always arguing that Ace Combat is a “kid’s game”, erroneously dubbed as a simulator; they’re absolutely right about the simulation part, but anyone that has actually taken this game seriously will have noticed that the creation from Project Aces can be much more than a simplistic dog fighting arcade with some shallow plot here and there. In fact, Aces 4, 5 and Zero actually have some of the most well driven stories I’ve experienced. But to start with those would be nothing but unfair with their predecessors.
Many people have become to know Ace Combat by its second appearance, but very few have actually seen the first one. The reason is that a game called simply as “Ace Combat” is nonexistent in the western world because Bandai Namco only released it in Japan using the arcade machines format back in the day the company was known only as “Namco”. Renamed, “Air Combat” was eventually launched for the PlayStation in the West, featuring the simplistic head-on dog-fighting combat like the Japanese arcade counterpart.
Ace Combat 2, on the other hand, has seen the light of the day in the Americas and Europe since the very beginning using the same name as the Japanese original, filled with denser background history, more complex (and longer) missions, a wide variety of fighter jets and slightly better controls. But it wouldn’t be before Ace Combat 3 that the franchise would have that “more serious approach” I was talking about.
Story wise, Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere has reached a point no one would expect for a semi-simulation air combat game. Players would take the role of the silent character named “Nemo” as he progresses in his career as a pilot in a futuristic world ruled by super corporations instead of governments. Anime styled cutscenes created by third-party animation studio Production I.G served as medium for the storytelling, either by dialogue messages sent by other characters, pre-mission briefings or TV news that Nemo was supposedly watching between missions.
As the story progresses, the player could actually defect from his original employee, UPEO, to other companies, changing the game ending in the process. Even the way this defection is performed was elaborate: instead of a simple dialog option, pilots from rival companies would try to convince you to go rogue, suggesting that you change your plane’s course to follow him instead of returning to base. As expected, characters from your current side would oppose this decision and even open fire as soon as they realize you changed side. Considering that all this was accomplished without you ever leaving your plane’s cockpit, that’s a pretty neat.
Very unfortunately, Namco decided to save costs when porting the game to Western market and ripped all anime cut scenes, most of the dubbed dialogue and even altered the history progression to be simpler; a shame to anyone who have never experienced the Japanese original…
Gameplay wise, Electrosphere provided you the means to pilot using all four fundamental controls: pitch, yaw, roll and thrust. The original PlayStation Dual-Shock controller was a great improvement on the experience, but normal D-Pad could be used as well. The plane variety ranged from some of the most iconic real world fighter jets, renamed and slightly revamped to fit the fictional setting. Of course, many futuristic style machines would be available to you depending on the company you are working for the moment. The physics and realism are acceptable up to this point, but the factors that makes the Flight Simulator jihadists rage about begins with how the game handle missions.
Fun first, realism second (but not last)
After long wait, your commanding officer enters the R&R room and signals that the mission has been greenlighted. As you walk the tarmac towards the cockpit, ground personel loads your aircraft with ordinance: 4 pieces of 2.000 pounds JDAM drop bombs. You take-off for a 40 minutes flight in route to target. As usual, you stick to the same direction, same altitude and same speed for the whole cruise.
You approach the location and confirm visual on target: 5 to 10 stationary armored vehicles in enemy territory. Headquarters gives you the “go ahead” one more time, starting your maneuver to a medium-altitude fly-by. You drop all your four warheads over the strip, destroying at least 4 vehicles and damaging the rest. Now, all that’s remaining is the RTB flight. Again, nothing more than 40 minutes of checking gauges and watching the radar while your F-16 roars in night sky. You land. Mission accomplished.
What has been simplistic described above is one very tense experience for a real pilot in the real life, since the very task of keeping a warplane airborne is no simple job. But to express the same level of tension of this air-strike mission using nothing more than a Sony PlayStation as simulation platform is just too much to ask. Therefore, Namco opted to strafe a bit from real-life parameters in order to provide an experience with enough depth and fun for a good video game.
For start, most Ace Combat games generally cut the takeoff, target approach and landing part to focus only in core events on missions. Dropping four bombs on ground targets or firing 6 missiles at enemy fighters may be a life changing experience in reality, but just not fun enough for every single mission in a game, with loading screens in between.
So, even the smallest breed of jets in Ace Combat can carry astonishing numbers of ordinance, like 60 air-to-air missiles, 20 air-to-ground bombs, or mixes of both. Unless you are playing in harder difficulties, unlimited gun ammunition is also available; otherwise “only” one thousand rounds will be supplied. In other words, you can carry the ammunition supply of an entire small country’s Air Force in a single flight, all aboard your Mig 29 Fulcrum. Not too shabby, huh?
The result is missions that allows you to stay airborne for 30 minutes shooting as many as 30 or more enemy planes, without worrying to much about conserving ammo. Air-to-air missiles also works for most ground targets and locking-on is pretty easy.
Many could say that playing an air combat game like this is just too unrealistic to be fun, but make no mistake: Namco have balanced it so you actually have to sweat for succeed in several stages, especially when facing bosses; a key factor for the next Ace Combat games.
Aces in the PlayStation 2 era
The PS2 console is home for some of the most iconic games of all times, and — in my humble opinion — Ace Combat actually succeeded in being in pair with the same level of quality of all the great names I mentioned before.
Shooting down hordes of red-targeted planes was fun enough for the first Sony console, but it gets old to say the least. AC3 already featured boss battles and missions in extreme conditions, like flying beneath an underground fortress to destroy a super-weapon. But In Ace Combat 4, however, the concept was taken beyond.
Story on-the-fly in a shattered sky
In Ace Combat 4, we are back to Strangereal, the fictional “Earth” in which the story takes place. Right from the beginning, you learn that a super-anti-air rail gun is the key element in a war between two major nations and — you guessed it — it must be taken down by your missiles at some point. I still have hope that you will play this game if you haven’t already, so I will keep this article spoiler free. I can assure you that the battle is nothing less than amazing, though.
Similar situations will happen in Ace Combat 5 and Zero. Apart from other kinds of behemoths on land or sky, like huge flying fortress with many sub-targets that must be destroyed before the whole plane can be shot down; the player must also face foes that are not big in size, but in strength. In Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, for instance, you character is constantly facing the menace of the Yellow Squad, an enemy formation with extraordinary combat capabilities, good enough for performing extreme stall maneuvers and keep your “missile alert!” always beeping.
Exquisite narrative techniques are often used throughout the games. In Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, a journalist performs interviews with many ex-combatants while he seeks answers about the legendary pilot known as Galm-1, also referred as “The Demon Lord of the Round Table”. Full-motion videos cutscenes presents the point-of-view of those pilots while they tell you about how they fought and lost against the aforementioned ace. At the same time, your hole as player is to fly-those missions as the “Demon Lord” himself.
A similar “enemy point-of-view” is used in Shattered Skies, with a boy from the defending country narrating the story about how the nation’s most praised squad was ultimately defeated by… well, you. The confluence between story and mission is held flawlessly in almost every installment of the series, engaging the player in the plot in several dramatic moments that succeeds in withstand in your memory.
If you kept reading up to this point I can assume you’re really interested in knowing why the number 7 in the next game is so important. Don’t worry, I will tell you… in the next episode. Stay tuned!