Missed Approach: Ace Combat

Missed Approach: Ace Combat

MAAC01

For the longest time, the Ace Combat series was the undisputed king of combat flight simulators on consoles, mixing arcade-like gameplay with enough realism to call it a simulator. Ever since the release of Air Combat in 1995, no other series has been able to overthrow its firm rule on consoles. Recently however, development for the main consoles seems to have slowed down, and its undisputed reign has provided an opening for competitors who seek to supplant its market dominance. The potential downfall of the series on consoles may continue to an ignoble end, or it may just be reversed. Why has the series been so successful, why has it been failing, and how can the death of yet another series be averted?

Air Combat released for the PlayStation in 1995, and aside from its graphics (which were sub-par even for those days) the game was characterized by its solid gameplay. There was no real storyline, but it was at least meaty enough to be retconned into the series’ storyline later on. There was an arcade sequel/port that was confusingly named Air Combat 22, but it otherwise sold well enough for the series to continue. Ace Combat 2 was the series’ first foray into legitimate storytelling and it served as a base for the rest of the series. The game itself was also excellent. While the graphics weren’t the best, they were far superior to Air Combat. The game also introduced a time-honoured tradition of having new fictional superfighters as a reward for players who finished the game.

This thing can actually fly, believe it or not.

This thing can actually fly, believe it or not.

Ace Combat 3, released in 2000, began a new era of story-driven games in the series, with the Japanese version having a multi-layered story with many endings depending on player choices during the game. The US and European version was severely cut in complexity, probably because the translation work was too daunting for a fledgling series still coming to terms with its identity and gameplay. Elements such as a detailed universe, futuristic yet plausible aircraft, varied weapons selection, and bombastic music were all introduced in this game. These features would go on to define the series and set it apart from its competitors.

The Ace Combat series hit its stride in the PS2 era, with 04, 5, and Zero all released for Sony’s console. All of the Ace Combat hallmarks were there: a wide variety of aircraft, cheesy storylines that didn’t take themselves too seriously, cross-game continuity and running jokes, an elaborate in-game universe, a wide array of excellently composed music, absolutely fantastic game pacing, and a fascination with obscenely impractical superweapons. There were competitors, of course, but none of them quite managed to merge all of these elements at once.

Stupidly enormous superweapons are a hallmark of the series.

Stupidly enormous superweapons are a hallmark of the series.

Ace Combat 6 showed that the series could make repeated leaps across platforms and generations without suffering too much. Aside from pretty mediocre voice-acting, the game continued the trend of a successful titles in the series. However, development of the games stalled after Ace Combat 6, and what was previously a solid and consistent 2-year development cycle turned into a 4-year drought. At the end of those 4 years, we got Assault Horizon, and many fans wondered what they could have possibly done to have deserved such a punishment from the Project Aces development team and Namco-Bandai.

Something changed in the series when Namco merged with Bandai back in 2005. Ace Combat Zero was too far into development to be really affected by the merger, but there were hints of what was to come in Ace Combat 6. Loads of DLC was pushed out for Ace Combat 6, mostly just expensive aircraft reskins based off their previous games or from tie-in works, but there was also an “Ace of Aces” difficulty offered as obscenely priced DLC which ramped up the difficulty past the traditional “Ace” difficulty. Many were offended by the prices and by the slow release process. By the time a meaningful number of Ace of Aces missions were out, many had put down the game for a long while. It was only a glimpse of what was to come.

350 MS points for a mission? Come on.

There’s a total of five of these, for the combined price of ~$21.25.

The flight mechanics of the series were very forgiving and were quite fun. G-induced loss of consciousness was not simulated, nor were airframe stresses, and aircraft often carried dozens of missiles and bombs. A player could take an exceedingly high-G turn at Mach 2 with no repercussions, and skilled players could even cheese the flight engine out by hitting the ground at just the right angle to actually bounce back into the air. Even so, the flight mechanics required skill to properly handle, and aside from a little bit of looseness in Ace Combat 04’s aileron controls, were generally responsive and balanced enough to satisfy most fans.

The flight mechanics themselves ran parallel to the game’s progression. Changes in stability and maneuverability between aircraft were very noticeable, and the player’s reward for getting to the end of the game was accessing high-powered aircraft with great handling and great weapons. Only players with a solid grasp of the game could take the weakest aircraft and carry them through every mission in the game. There were the traditional superfighters, of course, but they were all unlocked only after finishing the game, or going through the game more than a few times to find secrets. In certain games, a superfighter or two could become unlocked if the player had a save file from a previously completed game in the series on their console.

The humble J35 Draken is a far cry from what you'll be flying by the end of the game.

The humble J35 Draken is a far cry from what you’ll be flying by the end of the game.

This all changed with Assault Horizon, which changed up the flight mechanics considerably. The addition of the controversial Close Range Assault (CRA) system essentially took all the flying skill out of the game. During activation of the CRA system, the player’s aircraft and the target’s aircraft were jarringly locked into what can best be called a repetitive quick time event. Although “optional”, the game essentially forced the player into using it for any of the more challenging opponents, as they had an awful tendency to warp around and perform impossible maneuvers unless locked into the CRA system. It was nearly impossible to play through the game without using the CRA system at all.

Assault Horizon had a pretty decent aircraft selection, with the standard wide selection of new and old airplanes, but it still deviated from the rest of the series in several significant ways. For the first time since Ace Combat 3, players couldn’t choose aircraft or weapons for their wingmen, and were also locked into using certain aircraft types during certain missions, abandoning the old aircraft unlocking scheme. Most bizarrely of all, there are a few sections clearly influenced by the Call of Duty series where the player has to take control of helicopters, bombers, and even an AC-130. They were often absolutely inexplicable non sequitur in an already strange game.

This is a real scene from an actual Ace Combat game.

This is a real scene from an actual Ace Combat game.

Assault Horizon also abandoned old Ace Combat standby elements, such as the superfighters or superweapons. Although there are two superfighters for the game, they are both DLC-only, and only one is new. As for the superweapons, while the series has featured such insane weapons as a gigantic supercannon, an array of hypersonic cannons, an array of physics-bending cannons, a missile-launching array that shoots down asteroids, a suicidal orbital MIRV platform, enormous combination aircraft carrier/ICBM submarines, an enormous tower-based laser that can be reflected off airborne platforms, an underwater missile base, and an absolutely unbelievable amount of airborne and orbital aircraft carriers, Assault Horizon has… a cruise missile. A cruise missile carrying a totally-not-nuclear bomb in it.

That’s not all Assault Horizon abandoned. The world and storyline of the entire Ace Combat series was thrown to the side. That rich and vibrant world the fans called Strangereal (due to its odd map featuring warped and displaced bits of the real Earth, as well as random landmarks from the real world) was abandoned to set the game in the real world.

Let's play spot the deformed or transplanted landmass!

Let’s play spot the deformed or transplanted landmass!

Even though the nations in Strangereal were thinly veiled analogues of real nations, the transition was jarring, to say the least. Aside from a few straggling and mandatory references to characters and locations from the series, it was as if the past 16 years of world-building never existed. Abandoning a rich and unexplored world just to do another clichéd USA vs Russia story with predictable results. The story was hopelessly predictable, and struck all the wrong notes in all the right places. Perhaps acceptable in an Ace Combat game that didn’t feature so much change, but in Assault Horizon it’s just another glaring issue.

Lastly, one of the biggest changes in tradition for long-time fans was the inclusion of clearly depicted, voiced, and changeable player characters. In all previous Ace Combat games, the main character was an unnamed and undepicted enigma, perhaps somewhat less of an enigma to the sharp-eyed long-time player with a keen mind, but never quite identifiable.

In Assault Horizon, not only is the main player character voiced and depicted, but there are 5 player characters, all voiced, and three clearly depicted. It’s a clear break from tradition and severely hinders one of Ace Combat’s most defining features: the ability to project oneself into a blank and undescribed character and then feeling your rising levels of competence and skill as your friends and foes alike take notice and begin fear you.

At the end of the day, Assault Horizon was an insult to long-time fans. It changed far too much in a single iteration, and abandoned all of the defining features of an Ace Combat game. The uninspired storyline and unsatisfying gameplay made it feel like a HAWX spin-off with the Ace Combat label attached, but hey, at least the music was good. That hasn’t changed.

This should never have happened.

This should never have happened.

There is a silver lining to this dark and brooding cloud. Ace Combat has continued in excellent fashion on portable platforms. The releases of Ace Combat X and Ace Combat Joint Assault for the PlayStation Portable were pretty solid and followed the standard Ace Combat keystones, even though they were developed by Access Games (yes, that Access Games) and not Project Aces. Even Joint Assault, which was set in the real world, didn’t suffer too much from the transition. It still had solid gameplay, and even an airborne fortress with a railgun superweapon.

Another project developed by Access Games, Sky Crawlers – Innocent Aces, also followed the tried-and-true Ace Combat gameplay formula, even though it was developed for the Wii. This shows that even a proper Ace Combat game doesn’t have to suffer too much from being set in the real world, being developed by someone else, being developed for an entirely different console paradigm, or even being a whole different series. The gameplay simply does not have to suffer, and neither does the story.

The source material is still pretty freaky though.

Even the traditional Ace Combat HUD was adapted in a skillful fashion.

In the case of these games, they all followed the Ace Combat formula of skillful but forgiving gameplay, responsive controls, tangible player progression, an excellent soundtrack, a love for superweapons, a wide variety of aircraft, and a magical feeling of surrealism. Even Sky Crawlers – Innocent Aces featured these elements, working around the Sky Crawlers story and setting. These games all tried something new across different platforms, yet they were still rooted in the classic Ace Combat formula.

With the remake of Ace Combat 2 on the Nintendo 3DS as Ace Combat Assault Horizon Legacy (thankfully having nothing to do with Assault Horizon apart from the name), Project Aces showed that they can still pump out great Ace Combat games, even to the point where new gameplay mechanics can be applied to old games and still be enjoyable. The Ace Combat formula is still there, the Strangereal universe is still around, the developers can still make a great game, there are no meaningful impediments when moving around gaming platforms, and there is still hope left.

Very recently, a teaser trailer for Ace Combat: Infinity was released, showing the Earth with some very Strangereal elements, such as a series of fragmented meteor impacts very much like the Ulysses 1994XF04 asteroid in Strangereal’s timeline, the Stonehenge cannon array from Ace Combat 04, the Aigaion airborne aircraft carrier from Ace Combat 6, and a series of aircraft from Ace Combat X. Perhaps Strangereal will be merged with our world, perhaps there will be two separate series, but only time will tell. In my opinion, I think it’s the developers trying to bring back some of the old series’ magic into a publisher-constrained setting, but that’s just me.

This one blurry frame makes me optimistic about the future.

This one blurry frame makes me optimistic about the future.

Can the Ace Combat series be saved? There is a very strong possibility, but only if Namco-Bandai doesn’t mess around too much. Everything is there, all the tools, resources, background, gameplay elements, and universe. The developers have nearly two decades of experience and a talent for unique and campy storytelling. Can the series go past the hiccup called Assault Horizon, or will it be completely changed into a completely different series? Both options are very possible, but I’m optimistic. Maybe Infinity will lead us to a new golden age. Maybe it’ll just be Assault Horizon 2. But as long as the gameplay remains solid, and the formula lies intact, the series will remain healthy.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Change and evolution are not inherently bad, they are often necessity for franchise to keep up with the needs of the players.
    But sounds like this one didn’t really know how to improve what worked and compliment it with natural improvements but insted suffered of what often hurts so many frnchises, an identity crisis and a lack of focus with reboots that fail to improve what was good and just managed to lose the appeal.
    Chasing the leader, in thise case COD, and a sudden pursuit of realism without any real inspiration or well defined game plan.
    Such a shame.
    This one sounds like it can be saved guys. It just needs to get over that internal crisis to come back restored and truly improved.

  2. Anonymous says:

    That they’d downsize from 360, PS3 and PC to a downloadable release on just a single console must say something about their planned direction for Infinity, that alone makes me slightly more hopeful.

  3. Bruce Obongo says:

    Yo Buddy, still alive?
    Yes><No

    I still don't know why they made Assault Horizon like they did other than "we want the Call of Duty audience." As the author pointed out, there may be reasons to be optimistic about Infinity but considering the abortion that was AH, there is still plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. Even if the devs didn't like strangereal as much as the fans seem to, it would seem like a good idea to go back to it just to distance the new game from AH. But just removing CRA and the rail shooter segments will go a long way toward making Infinity a better Ace Combat game. Anyway: Here comes the snow

  4. Hardcore Bro says:

    Very interesting article.
    I’ve never played an Ace Combat. Where would you recommend starting?

    • Armando Davalos says:

      Ace Combat 5 is probably the best for a newcomer. Ace Combat 04 would be fine but it’s pretty short compared to 5, and doesn’t have the refinements of 5 or the later games. Zero, 6, and Assault Horizon Legacy are probably too full of Strangereal references to enjoy to the maximum without the foundation of 04 or 5. Getting a PS2 just for the PS2 Ace Combat games is probably worth it.

      If you have a PlayStation 1 and can understand moonrunes, a Japanese copy of Ace Combat 3 is absolutely and utterly worth it. The US/Europe version is tremendously pared down, so I’d stay clear of it until after you decide whether the series is worth your time.

    • Kevin says:

      Play the titles in release order. It’s understandable if you can’t play AC3, so at least start at 04. The PS2 titles are must-play games.

  5. I don't remember what name I use says:

    Well written article. Glad im not the only one who plays these awesome games. easily one of my favorite series of all time.

    meanwhile, final fantasy 7 has been released on steam. I have heard “things” about the PC port (which i assume this is an unaltered version of, knowing Squeenix), Mostly that it is shite. is this true?

  6. I don't remember what name I use says:

    Fun fact: in ace combat four, you can get shot down by stonehenge during the mission you destroy it if you fly directly in front of it when it fires. this can happen even below 2000 feet where you automatically avoid it.

  7. Axe99 says:

    Ace Combat has never been a combat flight simulator, but rather a flight action game. If you’re looking for flight sims on console, there’s the Wing Over series (PS1), Energy Airforce (PS2) and Birds of Steel/IL-2 (PS3/360). Ace Combat is heaps fun, but it’s about as much of a flight simulator as Need for Speed is a driving sim ;).

    • Armando Davalos says:

      Every place you look has the series listed as either action or as a combat flight simulator. But flight action? That’s an excellent description.

      Another great PS2 flight simulator was Aero Elite: Combat Academy. That was wonderfully challenging, with limited missile loads, pretty realistic flight dynamics, and even limited fuel. Shame I can never find it in stores or at garage sales.

      • Anonymous says:

        I got it, first try, off of eBay for $5. You have tried there haven’t you?

        • Armando Davalos says:

          eBay is usually my last choice, mostly because my house is some sort of space-time nexus of confusion for UPS, FedEx, Purolator/DHL, and all the other shipping companies. Not Canada Post though, Canada Post loves me.

          It’s not a big deal though, I don’t have a TV that currently works, and I don’t currently have the money to buy some sort of adaptor to my DVI monitor while keeping audio intact and transmissible to external speakers.

          • Anonymous says:

            To be brutally honest, you’re not missing too much. AECA can be fun, but also annoying. It just leaves me wanting to play DCS. My biggest complaint? It has that awesome ugly US-1 flying boat and rarely are their any missions with it.

  8. SHAZBOT says:

    If you want something like Ace Combat, try Airforce Delta on the Dreamcast.

    On topic: Ace Combat: Infinity does give me hope that Project Aces and Scamco are listening to the fanbase. Project Aces changed their logo on facebook back to the old PS2-era logo, and we’re getting teased stuff that comes from the PS2 era. I’d say Project Aces is getting back on track. And on that note,

    THERE’S HOPE IN THE WIDE BLUE SKY
    (spoiler: Ace Combat 4 best PS2 Ace Combat)

  9. Dongs says:

    So Infinity is going to be a free-to-play game, here goes your hope.

  10. AceCombatFan says:

    I myself loved the fiction- world Strangreal. It gave the series enough space to make it’s own historical events in i’ts own world, and I remember that i used to love when playing a new Ace combat title and finding a hint or reference to a previous or coming title. It gave so much depth and meaning to the games.

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