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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.