Home / Things / Games / I Like Ace Combat

I Like Ace Combat

  • Games

Preface


Early this year, I cleared my whole schedule and dedicated a couple days to a new game. I fell in love with it, wanted to learn everything about it inside and out, and since then it’s become quite possibly the only game that I’ve gotten to true 100% completion. There’s not a completionist bone in my body, yet this game was different. This game is Ace Combat 7. The pure excitement I felt when it was released was so foreign to me, I’d never been so invested in a franchise that I truly couldn’t wait to get my hands on the next one… but I couldn’t quite figure out why that was the case. It had been 12 years since Ace Combat 6, yet the name was still so fresh in my mind. Why? How did I get so into these games?

Well, I remember when I was a kid, I was really into cars and airplanes. Need for Speed III and Flight Simulator 2000 were my jam, I had a huge collection of hot wheels that came seemingly from nowhere, and I went to air shows with my aunt every year since they were held right by the building she worked at. Did you ever know a kid that was kind of quiet, but just wouldn’t shut up when someone brought up cars? That was me. I was rattling off horsepower numbers and thrust-to-weight ratios from the very start, and I guess that never really dwindled. I was a particularly big fan of the F-15 Eagle for reasons lost to time… it’s not like there weren’t other planes doing awesome stuff at the air shows but this one in particular just struck me something special.

One time, I went to a friend’s house and caught him playing a game with airplanes in it on his PS2. Stingy bugger wouldn’t let me play, but he let me watch, and it was rad. Only years later would I find out that game was Ace Combat 04, but I still didn’t have a PS2 and couldn’t afford one. Even more years later, I had pretty much forgotten the whole thing, and I was leaning much more heavily into racing games. I got an Xbox 360 to play Forza Motorsport 3 on, made some cool friends in those days… and I also caught a glimpse of Ace Combat 6 in a store bargain bin. All the memories flooded back when I saw that name again, especially with the F-15 on the cover, so I bought it right away and played it several times. It became my favorite game ever, at the time, even though I was terrible at it since racing games were all I ever played.

Later still, I got myself a PS3 to play Ace Combat Infinity, which was certainly a game. It was a backwards compatible model too, so I got myself Ace Combat 04 and 5 to go with it, and I’m pretty sure that’s 75% of all the games I ever had on that PS3. I don’t clearly remember my thoughts on those games from that point… but I think that’s because I never finished them. I only realized that this year, just after beating Ace Combat 7. So here I am, ravenously excited over a game in a long running series that I’ve only barely dipped my toes into. Naturally I decided to do the only reasonable thing in a situation like that, and play every single game in release order and write this post about it. So where do we start?


Origins


Air Combat

Air Combat box art

O-oh… well, we gotta start somewhere right? Uh… this certainly is a video game.

Alright, so there isn’t a lot to say about this game. It’s got the basic ingredients, there are airplanes that you fly around and shoot missiles at, there’s missions and such, including one where you fly through a tunnel and another involving a flying fortress, but uh… no sir I don’t like this.

It feels empty and meaningless, I don’t like the music, the funky livery on the planes is weird, the voices are annoying, and did I mention that I had to play through this game with only the D-pad? That’s not fun. I did try again another time with the analog stick enabled but it was actually worse. I couldn’t tell you exactly why it works the way it does, but it feels hypersensitive in a way that gives me less control. Maybe it’s just me, who knows?

This game feels like it’s been very heavily marred by the conventions of arcade gaming of the era, especially apparent in the non-linear mission selection and the way planes are actually lost when you crash them. Makes sense considering that this game was originally supposed to be a direct port of the original arcade game that apparently exists, but instead was a sequel to it… and apparently, the funky liveries was to emphasize the casual nature of the game? That’s what the Acepedia wiki says at least, which by the way, is a fantastic resource put together by absolute legends that you should check out yourself if you want more detail about anything Ace Combat related than I’m going to give you. There’s a lot. The headings for each game in this post are links to their respective wiki pages to make it extra easy for you.

Hmm… nope. I don’t see it. Nah, I don’t like 1995, I rushed through this game and got it over with as fast as possible. Apparently, a fair few people felt the same when it was new, because this game got just a 60% according to Gamerankings. I might even argue that this game isn’t really an Ace Combat game at all, it’s just too… not… fun. There’s definitely a dedicated group of people who will disagree with me here, but it’s hard to tell if they actually think the game is good or they just enjoy reliving their childhood memories that I don’t share. Tell you what though… it’s pretty neat to see that flying through tunnels and fighting massive flying fortresses were concepts present from the very beginning.

Screenshot

Ace Combat 2

Ace Combat 2 box art

Alright, now I’m starting to see it! Right away, the soundtrack and voices both strike the tone I expected, and those funky liveries are gone! Is the game no longer casual? I don’t know, but these mission briefings are very Ace Combat now. Oh, and I’m still stuck with the D-pad because the analog stick has the same hypersensitivity problem in this game, so that sucks.

This game plays pretty much exactly the same as Air Combat does, and yet I’m having a great time with this one. The overall theme of the game from the music to the presentation to the more linear nature of missions and even the interface, really adds a lot to the experience and makes the game feel good to play. I had no urge to rush my way through this one. There’s even named aces this time around, though I didn’t get nearly all of them.

Also, Kei Nagase is here. Neat.

You’re still with the Scarface squadron in this game, same as Air Combat, except this time you’ve got planes that aren’t funky lookin’ and you’re running missions sequentially, as though you’re a real valuable part of the war effort. In Air Combat, pretty much the entire plot could be summed up as “you’re a mercenary and you’re helping out I guess” whereas the plot this time actually exists! Really, there was a plot in Air Combat too, but it was barely presented at all, and even though the plot here in Ace Combat 2 is still a very basic one, it’s presented so much better and feels important this time. This is what draws me in. Apparently, I got the bonus ending too, which is neat but also sucks because flying through a tunnel is cool and shouldn’t be a bonus, it should be the default!

For how much of an improvement over its predecessor this game is, it didn’t do as well, and that makes me sad. Air Combat sold more than double what this game did. Not to say it did bad though, it still sold just over a million copies.

But, overall, it’s basically just a much better version of Air Combat. The gameplay itself is just about identical but with some additions, like takeoff and landing sequences, replays, and the named aces mentioned earlier. Not to undersell the magnitude of the improvement though, it was received far better with a score of 81% according to Gamerankings. I’d almost play this game again. Almost. The control issue is too much for me. This soundtrack is pretty jammin’ though.


Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere

Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere box art (JP)

First of all, I’ve got to point out something important about this game. Ace Combat 3 sucks compared to Ace Combat 3. Confused? So was I, but apparently Namco decided that it would be a good idea to save money on production costs by essentially deleting the localization team from existence, so what we got instead was a single piece of white bread instead of the nice sandwich that could have been. Air Combat has basically no story at all and Ace Combat 2 had enough of one to be fun, but the western version of Ace Combat 3 has… something weird.

The ENTIRE STORY of the Japanese version is gone. All the characters, all the backstory, everything is gone except for the three main factions – of which one is renamed for some reason – and you’re just out to stop a war again. Several missions were cut out entirely and the rest were arranged into one linear campaign.

This game… has a PLOT. Hoo boy, does it ever. Thanks to a fantastic group called Team Nemo, the Japanese version of the game is fully (or at least fully enough) translated into English, and it is something else. It’s far enough into the future that the war being fought isn’t between countries or political superpowers, but megacorporations, and you’re just a small peacekeeping force caught in the middle… if that’s what you choose to be. There’s a branching story in this game with five endings, and there are even some other branches within the branches so you may have to play a given route multiple times to truly 100% the game and see everything it has to offer.

What’s also strange about this story is that it’s very much a character-driven story unlike every other game in the franchise. You have direct dialogue with several named characters both in and out of gameplay, and the story revolves around them, the war effort is secondary to that. There’s no narrative side-story like the other games, it’s all connected directly to you. That’s not to say characters aren’t important in any of the other games – they are – it’s just that the characters are the story in this one. I’ve heard Ace Combat games described as something like playing through an anime, and well, literal anime cutscenes aside, this game is by far the most fitting of that description.

Screenshot with Kei Nagase in it
Also, Kei Nagase is here. Neat.

Some cool future nonsense happens, some less cool future nonsense happens, but I genuinely think this is worth experiencing yourself so even though this game is so very old, since the Japanese version never came to the west and I’m sure even many fans of the franchise haven’t played it, I won’t talk about the endings or twists… except for the electrosphere, screw that thing, I hate it, makes my eyes hurt. Seizure hazard. S’dangerous. Cool name but the PS1 was absolutely not the console to do this on. Or, maybe it was perfect for it? I sure haven’t seen anything quite like this today… but I’m fine with that. Speaking of spoilers, I’m going to talk about them for all the other games yet to be mentioned, so bear that in mind before continuing.

Screenshot
This is what the electrosphere is like.

Anyway, rejoice! Proper analog controls at last! Almost! The analog stick no longer has the hypersensitivity problem, but instead, it’s got kind of the opposite problem. There’s a strange delay on inputs when you try and move the plane, it feels like it takes a second to fully respond to your movements. Makes the planes feel very heavy, even when they’re not supposed to feel that way, and with highly maneuverable planes it feels almost like aeronautical mouse acceleration. It’s definitely the game working as intended, whereas the problem with the previous two games may have just been on my end. Regardless, sluggish controls are easier to handle than hypersensitive ones, so this is tolerable.

Missions are nicely varied and the progression feels much more interesting compared to Ace Combat 2, though that may be all thanks to the futuristic setting making the game seem more unique than it really is. Regardless, the amount of target variety combined with the quick pace of missions and the way they’re presented prevents the game from feeling like a drag. You even go to space in one mission, which was wild. Each mission is tightly focused on the objective at hand, even considering the mission updates. Though, by now it’s become very apparent that the developers really wanted to incorporate some real large scale battles that the hardware simply can’t deliver. This doesn’t detract from the experience, but I can absolutely feel their stifled ambition.

If I was given this game and Air Combat side by side in a blind test, I probably wouldn’t have known they were from the same series. Electrosphere is such a massive departure from the previous two games that even the in-universe timeline hasn’t caught up yet, two actual decades later. I’m still flying a MiG-29 though for some reason, but whatever, I’ll allow it. Er, sorry, I mean the completely different and not at all the same plane, MiG-33. Know something else that’s a total quantum leap from its predecessors? Them graphics! Look at them! I hate early 3D, but this is completely passable!

Screenshot
Not the best screenshot. Take my word for it.

Another particularly great thing about Electrosphere is this soundtrack. It is so far from anything I would have expected in an Ace Combat game, so unusual, but there’s something about it that just grabs me. It’s uncanny, and elicits a borderline inexplicable feeling when listening to it in-game… it’s weird, feels like something is off, but at the same time is a very strong enhancement to the experience. The game wouldn’t be the same with any other style of music, and would probably be a far less interesting experience. When it wants to, it’s also very good at prompting a very particular feeling to accent the situation… like this song, Floe. Or Lithium. Or The Protocol. Basically what I’m saying is that this soundtrack is one of my favorites of all time.

All in all, I like this game a lot. After getting used to the weirdness of the controls, it’s just good. There was some frustration in some areas, but it was enjoyable enough overall that I felt no need to rush, and getting all five endings didn’t feel like a burden. In fact, I’d happily play this game again. It’s kind of hard to say why I like it so much considering how far we’ve come from here though… but I think it’s probably all in the style and presentation. But while that style is great, there’s only so much more that can be done now, so where do we go from here?


Shattered Expectations


Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies

Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies box art

Of course, it’s rewind time.

Having gone so deep into the future and creating such a decisive and divisive series of events, the team painted themselves into a corner. With that in mind while being presented with new hardware bringing so many new possibilities with it, a soft reboot was in order to fill in the blanks of the timeline, and heaven only knows how much is yet to come. That’s actually why they called it 04 instead of just 4, because it’s a “return to zero”, which is a funny little detail I never knew, but it makes sense now.

This is it. This is the game. Project Aces found their stride, and they hit the ground running with perfect grace.

The gimmicks of Electrosphere have been stripped away in favor of core gameplay refined to crystal clarity and a razor’s edge. I said before that in Electrosphere, I could feel the team’s ambition through the game’s limitations, and now that those limitations no longer apply, it’s become an impressive passion.

On top of nailing their core formula and improving just about everything, the music is particularly notable as this soundtrack has to be pretty high on the shortlist of best game soundtracks of all time, setting the bar for all future Ace Combat titles.

And finally, the controls… they set the bar here too. The planes feel good to fly, and the controls are highly responsive without being too sensitive. They’re nearly perfect but feel like they’re still missing a little something. And speaking of setting the bar…

Electrosphere has 52 missions, Shattered Skies has 18. But to make up for that, most of the missions are much larger in scale, and all of them are so much more engaging, especially with the addition of a huge amount of radio chatter that definitely doesn’t repeat itself constantly and get a little annoying sometimes. Just look at mission 8, also called shattered skies. There are so many planes in the air during this mission that it feels like more than there seem to be in all of Electrosphere combined. Notable among this furball is the Yellow squadron, your direct antagonist during much of the game, Yellow 13 in particular.

Screenshot
Those Yellows are pesky.

Yellow 13 is an interesting character. There are two stories in this game, one told in gameplay and one told in cutscenes by a narrator. The very first thing you hear from the narrator is about his parents’ deaths being caused by Yellow 13, and the story follows him from then all the way to the end of the game. Later, the narrator, still a child at the time, met Yellow 13 in the flesh at a bar, played music with him, and ended up becoming friends with him and his whole unit. Throughout the story, Yellow 13 is painted as a quite mysterious but honorable person, taking pride in his record of never losing a squadron member rather than his own kill count, despite being the Erusean top ace presumably with the most kills by far. He has a close relationship with his wingman, Yellow 4, and you see him coping with her loss after you shoot her down, and yet he even praises you for your accomplishments, though his words were bitter over the circumstances. Through all of this, he dutifully continues to fight without holding back, all the way to the end, presumably having died satisfied after having finally found a worthy opponent.

You play as Mobius 1 and you’re the holy hand grenade of airplanes. That’s- that’s it, that’s him, yes sir. Really. Granted, he’s fully deserving of his reputation since he pretty much single-handedly won the war for the ISAF, is apparently the only person who ever stood up to the Yellow squadron let alone beat them, and destroyed two massive superweapons all alone… but that’s all he is. A list of accomplishments. There’s no more than that. This is why despite Mobius 1 being the protagonist, I believe this game is the story of Yellow 13, not Mobius 1. That’s certainly how it’s presented at least. Everything surrounding Mobius 1 is definitely a great addition and sets the tone of the game, makes the action feel even better, but all the narrative weight of the game revolves around Yellow 13. It’s an unfortunate shortcoming of the narrative because I know it could have been different, but as this game is a return to basics, I can forgive it… still, hot off the heels of Electrosphere, it’s disappointing.

Screenshot
Yellow 13 praising Mobius 1. What a sport.

Speaking of shortcomings, this game has some big ones! How about mission 9, operation bunker shot? How an A-10 be can flies like that? But it do. I suppose. If you’ve played it, you know what I’m talking about. How about mission 10, tango line? Boy, I sure love spending 20 minutes on a boring level bombing small clusters of ground targets spaced two minutes apart, then having to spend five minutes resupplying and getting back to doing the same thing again while listening to the worst song in the game. Mission 11, escort. It’s an escort mission, everyone’s favorite.

Screenshot
Also, Kei Nagase is here. Neat.

Tell you what isn’t neat though, missions 13 and 14, safe return and breaking arrows. Who… who came up with these? I hate these. Anybody who likes these missions is a liar because these are some of the most blatant examples of padding for time I can think of. You go straight from one of the coolest missions in the game to a mission with no enemies, you just spend seven minutes flying around looking for black specks to shoot a single bullet at, and your reward… four easy targets. And for what? A passing mention of Megalith? Megalith is cool and all… really cool… but it kind of comes out of nowhere and this mission doesn’t justify it at all. After that, you get thrown way up to the north end of the map to go shoot down 15 missiles and 1 extra annoying missile for… some reason. Horrendous. Compared to all that, the issue of your jet noise being about 3000% too loud and the entire game’s audio mix being too loud as a whole leading to a lot of sound distortion sounds like it’s just a nitpick, and the Yellow squadron having invincible plot armor for most of the game seems unimportant. These missions are so bad that I’m pretty sure many of the game’s fans have subconsciously repressed their memories of them so as not to harm the idea that this is a perfect game.

There’s that word… “perfect”. A descriptor so commonly thrown around that the word has lost its meaning. I’m not going to bother trying to define it here because that’s a large and difficult topic to cover, but this game in particular seems to receive that title quite often. Many also consider it to be the best in the whole franchise, some even came out of it with a strong and lasting impression from the story of Mobius 1, but… I just don’t see it. Maybe this is just because I played the game right after playing Electrosphere, but Shattered Skies on all fronts but core gameplay and soundtrack just feels… lacking. There is no denying that this game revolutionized the franchise and maybe even the whole genre, you can still feel its influence today, and it very firmly set the bar high. But remember the zero. It’s more than just a soft reboot, it’s a new project from the ground up… and with that in mind, its issues make sense. It’s a truly great game and I love it as one, but it’s not without its flaws. No game is without its flaws, and I really think they need to be acknowledged and remembered, not just the good stuff. Because when you remember the flaws of a game like this and then realize that it still holds up and stands strongly so many years later, the true value of the game becomes that much more impressive and admirable. This is a game that must be played.

Screenshot
Told you Megalith was cool.

So now that Project Aces has laid a new, solid foundation, what will they build on it?


Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War

Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War box art

Well I mean, yeah, obviously. Of course. What else could have been expected? Just the best Ace Combat game, no biggie.

Yes, I’m aware of how big that claim is, but I stand by it. Everyone has their own thoughts on which Ace Combat is the best one, and they’re all valid. All of your opinions are valid. But this one is the best one, facts only, change my mind.

As the absurd, over-the-top story-heavy arcade flight action game this is, 5 does everything 04 can do, but better. They took their new foundation and built a masterpiece with it. Heck, they even put Mobius 1 in the arcade mode if you want more of that with these new improvements. Every mechanic has been refined to razor sharpness. The controls are so tight and responsive that I can’t blame them for my mistakes no matter how hard I might have tried. The gun works a little differently in this game and requires a much more precise shot to hit, but personally, I think the precision of the plane controls more than makes up for that… most of the time. Sometimes it seems like they forgot to put larger hitboxes on the larger aircraft, but whatever.

My only other nitpick about the controls is the stalling mechanic and how your plane just suddenly noses straight down and drops like a rock, but I can’t really complain about that either since pre-stall speeds are telegraphed MUCH more clearly with a shaking screen and vibrating controller compared to 04 with its big fat nothing… but it can be kind of annoying when you’re flying at an altitude of 7 as slowly as possible and accidentally go a little too slow. Bah, nitpicks!

Photo of a low flying F-22
Don’t fly at an altitude of 7.

The pacing in 04 was fairly consistent in the first half but then seemed to fall apart. Here in 5, it’s almost the opposite, as the pace is slow at first and comes into form later on, but it’s a smooth progression from start to finish that felt logical. Well, as logical as it can, given the content. No random 16 cruise missiles, no out-of-place final battle, not even any plot armor. Landing sequences and even aerial refueling are around, but resupplying is gone in this game, which may seem like a mistake at first considering how important it was to resupply in 04, but for 5 the levels have been balanced very well around your available loadouts. Even on harder difficulties with early planes where your ammo is limited, you can readily S rank missions with ammo to spare if you’re accurate and don’t keep crashing into the ground trying to get too fancy like I do. Having no need to resupply is also great for pacing since that’s a big break in the action that’s no longer present. What breaks in the action do exist in this game are all scripted events, which are presented in a way that feels context-appropriate, never an annoyance or a failure.

There are a lot of scripted events. There’s even an entire mission dedicated to one scripted event. Aside from the cheesiness of the dialog, this is the most common complaint I see against this game, and that’s completely understandable, I won’t argue if you’re not into that. But for me, I was introduced to the franchise as a narrative-driven game, and I feel that the narrative in this game is presented so well, in such a cohesive and compelling manner, that the scripted events are enjoyable… or at the very least, non-intrusive. Even replaying the game, they’ve never felt burdensome to me… at least, not on their own.

The abundance of these scripted events slowing down the pace of the game makes the lack of any checkpoints VERY apparent, especially at high difficulties where you can die from three bullets or a single missile. If you die a lot during some of these missions, you’ll be adding a significant amount of time to your playthrough. Strangely, I don’t hate this… it’s not pleasant, kind of frustrating in fact, but I never complained since it always felt like my own fault, not unfair at all. Even on the mission 8492 where I died about that many times trying to shoot down every plane on ace difficulty. You can absolutely complete the mission by doing that instead of running away like you’re told to do, I just failed so many times that I got frustrated and turned the game off to take a break and then had to do the entire previous mission again which cost me my S rank and somehow I still wasn’t upset about that, this is not normal I think I have a problem and will be bringing this up with my therapist.

Screenshot
I still have nightmares…

But about the narrative… it’s like fondue. A nice variety of good stuff, and then you cover it all with cheese. The voice acting is cheesy, the dialog is cheesy, the cutscenes are cheesy, some particular plot points are highly cheesy, but all this cheese is revolving around a well presented linear story about some characters going full anime protagonist for their country. Is the story good? That’s up to interpretation. I think it is, but you can’t deny the sheer ridiculousness of hearing about a country dropping seven nukes on ITSELF… in RETALIATION… then trying to nuke the entire continent, and when that failed, founded the Illuminati to make the two global superpowers go to war with each other across continents for… some reason. And also the part where you, a rookie pilot, just happen to stumble upon the president of your country and fly escort for him, then you get pinned as spies so you pretend to die and then continue to fly anyway somehow where you then happen to rescue the president who got kidnapped a while ago, and then you, alleged spies who are officially dead, become his personal air force… it’s absurd. Extremely absurd. But I don’t play Ace Combat for realistic stories, this is a series where fighter jets are a dime a dozen, you fly them through tunnels on the regular, you rack up more kills in a single mission than a real fighter pilot gets in a lifetime, and you take down gigantic (sometimes airborne) superweapons with your hundreds of missiles, I can suspend my disbelief a bit more for a crazy plot if it’s effective, and so should you.

Screenshot
You know, the classic castle assault with an F-14.

And it’s VERY effective in this game. In 04, there was very little personality to the game, you were a blank space that fought the entire war dutifully while a deadpan narrator told a somber tale in the background, and that was it. Everything was auxiliary. Here in 5, everything is dripping with personality. You have wingmen this time, for one thing, ACTUAL wingmen, and they have a lot to say, to which you can even respond sometimes with a yes or a no. Little things like that go a long way when trying to form connections with characters, so when one of your three wingmen gets… replaced, it really carries some weight. You can even find a bit of personality in your faceless player character with those responses. Also, you can command your wingmen to either cover you, attack whatever is in front of you, or split up and do their own stuff, which is fun.

It’s not just for show either, they’re quite capable, claiming their own kills and handily doing partial damage to lots and lots of enemies, sometimes even making it easier for you to hit things by distracting them and definitely never stealing your kills, which is why the only command that matters is the disperse command. They also keep you up to date with what’s going on, letting you know when their shots land or miss and all that. Even if you do end up doing practically all the work single-handedly, these things make you feel like you’re part of a team rather than just a one-man show, and that helps make the game that much more engaging and compelling. Speaking of compelling, this soundtrack… it’s just spectacular, it has to be pretty high on the shortlist of best game soundtracks of all time. The sound design and overall mix is also greatly improved over 04 as a nice added bonus.

Screenshot
Also, Kei Nagase is here. Neat.

But like I said before, a game’s flaws must be acknowledged and remembered to really grasp the true value of the positives, and this game isn’t free of them. I joked about it, but the lack of checkpoints is really quite horrendous at times, as it’s entirely possible to die and restart an entire mission just seconds before completing it… or seconds after completing it, on rare occasion. That issue is huge, and for some could even be a deal-breaker… but hey, no shame in playing on easy! The issue of mission 11B is an annoying one too because it’s the worst mission in the game by a huge margin. It’s a neat concept, but the neatness runs out in all but 60 seconds and then you spend the next several minutes doing pretty much nothing at all since there are no enemies. But at least you get to shoot a TV and a chair with your gun I guess… and you better be good with the gun, because that’s all you get when the helicopters come. Unless you want to play the game twice, answer yes to Chopper at the beginning of mission 10, save yourself the trouble. I suppose there’s also the nitpicks about gun hitboxes and stall behavior I mentioned earlier, but apart from all that… it all seems pretty subjective. Maybe you just can’t stand the cheesy dialog or hammy delivery, I don’t know. Considering how outstanding the rest of the game is, even an issue as frustrating as the lack of checkpoints seems easy to forgive… I think. It’s hard to tell if that’s fair because there isn’t really anything to weigh this up against… if 04 set the baseline, 5 is the peak, nothing else comes close. Play it.

Screenshot

Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War

Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War box art

As far as capstones go, this is a pretty darn good one.

Let’s get this out of the way right away. Mechanically, this game is pretty much identical to 5. A couple of very small improvements have been made here and there, like a slightly more forgiving gun and a more graceful stall process. Difficulty is increased. You can now tell your wingman to go specifically after air or ground targets if you want on top of the normal disperse option. And I do mean wingman because now you only have one of them. And that’s the end of that.

You know how everyone in 5 just loved to talk about “the war 15 years ago”? This game is that war. The narrative isn’t anywhere near the scale of 5, but somehow it carries even more weight behind it. It’s kind of a hybrid between 04 and 5 in terms of storytelling because it’s got the big over-the-top anime protagonist style story like 5, but it’s told largely from the enemy perspective with a narrator recounting the past like in 04. And they really front-load the intrigue with this one and get you invested as quickly as humanly possible, just listen to how the first mission starts! (Skip to 3:30 if it doesn’t start there)

This incredibly hype intro is just… a MASSIVE dopamine hit. And then you play the mission for 11 seconds and it’s over, but you’re still on that dopamine high, so the game wastes no time throwing you straight into the next one. And the next. And the next. Gone are the days of scripted events and long periods of downtime, the pace this time around is warp speed and all business to the point that you could even feel lost and confused when it’s over because it all went by too fast. And then you play it again. And again. And the game continues to reward you for it because the gameplay has been boiled down to its purest elements and pumped full of small milestones for you to chase over several playthroughs. The focus has also been shifted so violently towards air-to-air battles that not only do you get to fight five quite difficult squadrons in each playthrough, but on top of that there’s also more named aces scattered throughout the game than in all other Ace Combat games combined, and they all have little snippets of backstory in the assault records which is pretty neat. Those unique squadrons cannot be undersold either, they’re an amazing addition. They’re not just for show, each squadron actually flies with visibly unique tactics and can really give you a run for your money if you can’t adapt to counter each of their flying styles, especially Gelb and their Su-37s that can fire missiles backwards, but uh… don’t worry about that. Beat all of them and you unlock a special mission that can only be played in free mission mode, specifically dedicated to fighting a bunch of them all at once, fittingly titled “The Gauntlet” to really test your skills and endurance.

Screenshot
And Mobius is there. Very cool.

Zero also features a new system, called ace style. Some targets on the map are now considered neutral, and depending on how you react to those, you’ll either be flying with the knight style, soldier style, or mercenary style. Each of these styles gets a fair bit of unique dialog throughout the game, and they each face off against different ace squadrons with their own difficulties. Want an easier time? Fly knight style. Mercenary style gets you the toughest ones. It also affects the money you earn to buy planes with though, with mercenary style earning the most whereas knight style earns the least. You also unlock different planes with each style. It’s pretty cool, though you will have to play the game many times to unlock everything if you’re into that. I am not that kind of guy, full completion is not my thing, but with the sheer addictiveness and style of Zero, I’d go for it. I had to try really hard to pull myself away from this one in order to move onto the next game when I was playing them all to write this. And that’s before considering how strong the soundtrack is, just listen to this song, The Round Table! Just spectacular, it has to be pretty high on the shortlist of best game soundtracks of all time.

But flaws are ever-present, and some of them are real frustrating off the heels of 5. There’s a laser in mission 8 that you have to avoid on your way to the return line kind of like how Stonehenge worked in 04, except there’s only one of them, there’s no safe altitude, and sometimes it fires right on top of you with no warning and no time to react. The only way around that is to get lucky or fly slowly. Missions 7 and 13 bring back the old 04 problems of having targets spread all across the map and a score objective forcing you to trek all the way to the return line and back for more ammo, and while that would be a frustrating issue in itself, it’s complete whiplash to the established pace of every other mission. Then there’s the final fight… all the ace encounters throughout the game come with sharp difficulty spikes, but they’re both expected and manageable… but this fight comes with a MASSIVE difficulty spike, partly true and partly artificial, AND it brings back plot armor… but it kind of makes some sense I guess. If you’re good enough to handle the immense difficulty spike then it’s great for the ridiculous narrative, but for everyone else, you’ll die a lot and hear the same monologue repeatedly and get discouraged. I still don’t know how I feel about that.

And speaking of the ridiculous narrative, this one may be the most powerful in the whole franchise despite its light delivery, smaller scale, and crazy fast pacing. Here you are, an absolutely unstoppable force of destruction, devouring everything in your path with your wingman who might just be the only person skilled enough to fly alongside you. You aren’t just turning the war around, you’re absolutely stomping it. Mobius 1 ain’t got nothin’ on Cipher. The enemy becomes desperate, you see some truly horrible things happening on the ground… and then they drop the bombs. You witness the greatest atrocity ever committed in Strangereal, firsthand. Your trusted wingman fires on you and deserts. The war comes to an end, but you’re still fighting as a new enemy presents itself with radical ideals, prepared to commit an even worse atrocity than before, and among them is your old wingman, ready to take you on.

Screenshot
And then you JOUST HIM. JET JOUSTING. YEAH SON.

And that’s the end. You disappear into your own legend as history remembers you not as a hero, but as a demon. Nobody knows your name, but everyone knows who you were.

And that’s the end of what is affectionately known as the “holy trinity” by Ace Combat fans. It’s easy to see why these three games are held in such high regard. 04 changed everything, 5 set the bar, and Zero caps it off with a bang. Obviously, I’m going to recommend you play this one too, but I’d go so far as to say that if you could only pick one of these three for whatever reason, it should be this one. 5 may be the best of them according to me, but zero is my favorite despite that. It’s a pure, visceral experience unlike any other.

Screenshot
Also, good ol’ Kei Nagase is hiding in the multiplayer mode.

Fallen From Grace


Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation

Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation box art

Now it’s time to cover the game that started it all for me as I mentioned earlier. Ace Combat 6 holds a particular spot in my heart as the game that introduced me to this wonderful franchise… and to be honest, I’m quite nervous to return to it now. Nervous that my memories of it may be tinted by nostalgia, or perhaps it simply won’t live up to my first impression all these years later. Especially nervous because of how much negativity I’ve seen surrounding this game since then… but there’s only one way to find out. So I played it again.

And I think I hate this.

Immediately the game gets off to what should be a great start, but then you start playing and it’s, uh… jarring. Maybe I’m only saying this because I had just played through Zero several times, but the controls in this game feel slippery, floaty, and even a little vague at times. Not just that, but the game starts you in an F-16, a small, light, maneuverable aircraft… but it moves like molasses.

The High-G turn was introduced in this game which is the one thing I felt was missing in the PS2 games, but it doesn’t make up for this. On top of the slipperiness of rolling, pitching down is at most a third as effective as pitching up at any point, and the rudder is practically useless in all but the most maneuverable planes available where it becomes only tolerable at best.

Also useless, the air brakes. You try to slow down at all and you need about 3000 meters. At one point I tried to do a front line landing, so I came in straight and true from quite a ways away, touched down, bounced across the entire runway, took off again and circled around before actually coming to a stop. The brakes were on the entire time. This problem in particular only gets worse as you play more and your new planes get faster and faster. To be fair though, once I got accustomed to the weirdness of it all, the controls became strangely satisfying, sort of combining the weightiness of 04 with the nimbleness of 5 and Zero. Can’t say that applies to the F-16 though.

The performance gap between playable aircraft is ridiculously large. The difference between the first plane you get and the last plane unlocked in the PS2 games is pretty big, but that kind of difference is just the first third of the aircraft tree here. The F-16 is actually unbearable compared to almost anything else available. Then you get to the end of the game and unlock the F-22 and Su-47 and they’re both on a completely different plane of existence, especially the Su-47 with its maneuverability so stupidly high that you can do all the wacky nonsense the unfair AI bosses can do in these games, you can even turn 180 degrees with a High-G turn so quickly that your plane will take an extra second to actually start moving in that direction, so you’ll be pointing one way and moving the other… and you can just do that all day, no problem.

Screenshot

Then you beat the game and you unlock the CFA-44 thinking it must be just otherworldly good, but no, it’s nothing special. Not particularly maneuverable, not very fast… it has a weird behavior with the High-G turn too because when you start it just doesn’t stop, you have to fly in a straight line for a couple of seconds to get out of High-G mode… or stall. The only notable thing about it is the stupidly overpowered weapons like the ADMM with its 12 target missile volleys and its EML with the one-hit kills on pretty much everything and stupidly high fire rate for what it is.

Speaking of overpowered, the gun! The A-10 is pointless in this game because apparently, every single jet has its gun now. It literally takes three bullets to kill any plane. As if that wasn’t enough, the hitbox sizes of planes are massive now, so you don’t even need to be very good at aiming anymore to get plenty of gun kills. Which you might want to practice because the missiles are garbage now. Not just inaccurate, but seemingly inconsistent. Sometimes you’ll be lined up perfectly with a giant, stationary ground target so your missiles only need to go in a straight line, and they miss anyway. Other times, you fire missiles at a jet reflexively and then immediately think “oh no, those will never hit, what was I thinking” and then they make a wacky turn and hit anyway. The reason for this is at least partially down to the new ESM system. Stay within range of the ESM on radar, your missiles get an accuracy boost, simple stuff. The enemy gets them too but I can’t tell if they do anything. I would have liked this mechanic if they didn’t make missiles so horrendous without it because it is not fun to waste six missiles on a single stationary ground target.

Screenshot

Tell you what else isn’t fun, the pace. There are only 15 missions this time around, but in exchange, they’re all big boys. The maps are bigger, the target counts are bigger, the timer is bigger, your missile count is bigger, everything is bigger. To make up for that, checkpoints are finally here, which is nice. They also have another cool concept in these missions, where the mission itself is so large in scale that they break it down into several sub-missions for you to tackle one at a time. I both love and hate this idea because it makes things more interesting, but I also liked being able to clear all the enemies from the map before moving on which is something you can’t do in these missions, you simply complete the required number of submissions and either get a mission update or the mission is over, just like that. It’s fun while it lasts but because of the bigger maps and the molasses atmosphere – along with the low FPS and possibly smaller FOV – everything feels a lot slower than it really is, and it’s already pretty slow. Mach 2 is no longer fast enough. Then you get to the end of mission 11 and the music cuts out and you can’t move on until you shoot down all of the Strigon planes, which isn’t easy because they’re all overpowered and like to gang up on you, so you could very well be stuck dodging missiles with no music for ten minutes. Just adding to the slowness, the briefings and cutscenes are pretty repetitive at times and they’re really slow and they just drag on and on and on and on…

Why? Why this? Narration, endless narration, and why must they narrate things in the past tense as they are currently happening in front of them? Why must they repeat themselves so much? Why the constant awkward pausing? Why is everything so perfectly convenient? Why is this entire story one big plot hole? How did the Estovakians turn an entire city into a fortress in like six months? Why do the briefings take 15 years to finish and repeat themselves constantly? Why does everyone repeat themselves constantly? Why is every male an American stereotype? Everyone except for Voychek is awful and I hate them, and I especially hate the bank job boys. Oh, also, just a side note for good measure, remember that one mission from 04 with the bunch of cruise missiles for no reason? Let’s do that again BUT WITH A HUNDRED OF THEM! I-

Ahem… sorry you had to see that.

Clearly, I have a lot of negative things to say about this one, but it’s because I came into this with a very strong bias since I had just finished the PS2 trilogy and had nothing but good memories and high expectations for this game from years ago. But, I promise, it’s not at all that bad. Many of my complaints about the game can be a little jarring at first, but only take a little bit of time to get used to, and then it’s fine. Most of the flyable planes are genuinely fun to fly, and being able to just mow down everything with your gun is really satisfying. The Aigaion is 100% the coolest superweapon in the franchise and nobody can change my mind. Checkpoints and High-G turns making their debut are genuine game-changers, and several other concepts like front line resupplies, allied support, and ESM are really cool ideas that just needed a bit more time in the oven to really nail them. Speaking of allies, the radio banter in-game is really charming, there’s a real sense of camaraderie in the Emmerian air force.

It’s just a fun game to play and is worth replaying, especially if you’re a completionist or a speedrunner. And in case you haven’t figured it out already, this is a beautiful game. Especially the smoke and contrails scribbling across the entire sky, this game has some seriously good looking scenes. In its time, these were some of the best graphics out there, so the 30 FPS cap is understandable with that in mind.

Screenshot

And that soundtrack… Just spectacular, it has to be pretty high on the shortlist of best game soundtracks of all time. I can’t say the same about the sound though, because while the sound quality is clearly improved, the mixing has taken several steps backwards with many sounds being too quiet, others being too loud, and many being inconsistent one way or another.

Everyone’s biggest issue with this game is the story though, and… yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. I’m not going to rant about it anymore, either play it yourself or go watch a YouTube video about it if you want to go more in-depth on those problems. All in all, though, I think one of the biggest problems with this story is that it’s trying to be Ace Combat 04 with a wingman. First, you get invaded so hard that your whole military gets pushed back to a faraway island. You then (almost) single-handedly push the retaliation effort all the way back. There’s an extremely long-range superweapon that makes big explosions in the sky that you have to avoid, and it gets to be a problem so you go take it down yourself. You go take the capital back and the war is over, except oh no, it’s not really over because there’s a secret even more super superweapon aimed at you and you need to go take that one out as well to finally end the war. I wonder where I’ve heard that before!

There’s even the mission with cruise missiles. You know what, this game could have even had the same mission count if they included three horrendous padding-for-time missions like 04 did. Shame, really, because the Aigaion is way cooler than Stonehenge in my opinion, but the Chandelier is nowhere near as cool as Megalith for several reasons. But even with all that in mind, it could have been so much more if it wasn’t for the… uh… problems. Like every other entry in the series, you get to be the coolest darn pilot around and this game does a great job of making you feel like a rock star. Just don’t think about it too hard I suppose.

Screenshot

None of that matters anyway, you want to know the REAL problem with this game? No Kei Nagase. Irredeemable.

Anyway, it’s time to look at the handheld entries in the series.

Ace Combat Advance box art

Eh? What’s- uh, what’s this? What game is this, who put this here? Is this right? Is this real? I don’t think this is real. Nope, doesn’t exist, get this outta here.


Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception

Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception box art

Okay here we go, this one’s real, we can continue.

This one actually came out a year before 6 did, just a few months after Zero. It’s basically Ace Combat 04 in your pocket, kind of. The whole physics engine is recycled from that, except the planes stall easier. Also, the interface is basically the same, the hangar and stats are exactly the same, and a bunch of models are recycled from all the PS2 games, among other things. So, there’s not much point talking about any of that. Graphics have taken a slight hit in the move from PS2 to PSP, understandably so. The models are still mega good but all of the textures are approximately three pixels in total between them now. Some new concepts were introduced here, like being able to tune your planes to improve their performance. Unfortunately, you can only tune the fictional planes here… but on the other hand, there’s a lot of fictional planes to choose from and they are all cool. Two planes from my top three favorite fictional planes in this franchise are from this game, the Apalis and the Forneus… which is a shame, because those planes only appear in this game. I just love them so much…

Sound is stifled because of the PSP, so all the sounds are extremely heavily compressed, and a lot of sounds are louder than I’d like because they needed to compensate for the tiny little PSP speaker. At least they didn’t skimp on the music though, because the soundtrack is great as one would expect at this point… but it’s not quite spectacular. Sometimes it captures that same kind of weird magic that the Ace Combat 3 soundtrack had, like with End of Deception, which is fitting since this game is in the future again what with the lasers and such. Other times it kind of reminds me of old flash game music, like the mission select theme… and I’m not knocking that. Because I want more of that. I just wish the main motif was more than a five note loop. Sure, it’s a good five notes, but… come on man. Really? That’s all you got? Like I said though, it’s a great soundtrack overall, just lacking that wow factor from the other games.

Also returning this time around is the split mission path all the way back from Air Combat, except this time it’s good and I like it a lot. The order you approach the missions with changes things sometimes which is fun, and you can beeline straight to the end instead of doing all the missions if you so choose. Unfortunately, it can also change how your final mission plays out, and only one of them involves a cool tunnel run so why wouldn’t you just always pick that one? There’s a lot of replay value in there because of this. Now, you may have noticed that I’ve been saying the word “unfortunately” a lot so far, and UNFORTUNATELY, this is where I start complaining. They put… JAMMING MISSIONS… IN THIS GAME. MULTIPLE JAMMING MISSIONS. HMMMMMMMMMMMM I HATE IT.

Screenshot

Remember escort from Ace Combat 4? Remember white noise from Ace Combat 5? If those missions had a deformed bastard child, here it is, in pursuit. This mission… this is a human rights violation. I hate it, everything about it, it makes me angry. And if you don’t do this mission, you have to deal with MULTIPLE other missions with your radar jammed. Now, that wouldn’t be the end of the world normally, but this is a PSP game, you don’t have free camera control, you can only turn the camera by holding triangle and focusing on your target, but when your radar gets jammed, you lose the ability to do that, the game just takes it away from you. Oh, also, that applies to stealth planes too even without radar jamming. Horrendous. Sinful. Illegal. Okay, so you actually do have freelook, but only while in autopilot so it may as well not exist.

Naturally, with radar jamming, you’ll be expected to use your guns since missiles won’t lock on, but again, this is a PSP game so your rudder control is on the D-PAD. It’s debilitating. At least the gun has a small area where it’ll lock on, kind of like an aimbot, so you don’t quite need pinpoint accuracy, but it still hurts. Don’t worry about it though, because you can just install an actual aimbot on your plane and trivialize absolutely everything in your path with your almighty god gun. Which you’ll want to do anyway since you get an absolutely pitiful amount of missiles in this game, especially for your special weapons, which are borderline useless most of the time anyway just to add insult to injury.

Speaking of useless, the Gleipnir. You know, the big cool flying fortress, the thing that’s supposed to be awesome like all the other flying fortresses. It looks pretty cool, it sounds pretty cool, and wow it must be powerful since Leasath used it to take over Aurelia in only ten days! They even play slasher movie horror music when it shows up to make it extra scary! But no… it’s completely non-threatening. So useless it’s not even funny.

Screenshot
Okay, maybe it’s a little funny.

Now I said Leasath took over Aurelia in ten days, that’s the story. Well, all I can really say about the story is that it’s certainly there. Things just kinda happened. Maybe the story could have been interesting if there was more of it, but again, PSP game, there wasn’t enough space on the little disc to have a cool story. The voice acting certainly doesn’t save it either, it’s some of the stiffest, driest voice work I’ve ever heard. Not particularly enjoyable. Oh also, landings and refueling are still here but it’s ultra finicky, what with the refueling plane being easy to miss and the runways just not working sometimes. It’s like the ground itself has a broken hitbox.

With all these issues combined, I can definitely say I have very little interest in replaying this game… at least not on my own save. I downloaded a 100% save because I wanted to experiment more with the tuned planes, to see just how much improvement could be made, and there’s certainly a lot. You can take the Apalis from a slow, average jet to a warp-speed hyper maneuverable jet for instance, or make the XFA-27 fire four missiles instead of two. It’s pretty fun. I also used this save to go back and play some of the mission branches I missed instead of playing through the whole game again. Time limit is a very annoying mission, by the way, don’t play it.

I have to say though, despite all of that… with the exception of the jamming missions, I still had a blast playing this game. It’s generally very well received too, so many of my problems with it might just be personal problems. The gameplay is there, and it’s genuinely cool that they could get a game like this on a console like the PSP. I actually forgot that this was a PSP game while playing it more than once because it really feels a lot like the PS2 games when you’re not missing the free camera control. On one hand, that’s high praise, but on the other hand, it feels like the developers also forgot that this was a PSP game while making it at times, because many of its shortcomings are control-related and just needed some extra work to adapt to a handheld system. Alternatively, they could easily have made this another entry for the PS2 and it would have fit in just fine…

Screenshot

The Abyss


Ace Combat: Joint Assault

Ace Combat: Joint Assault box art

So how in the absolute wretched depths did we end up here?

What we have here is the perfect example of how to take something great and destroy it piece by piece, a masterclass in making every mistake you possibly can, and an exquisite display of sheer ineptitude. Maybe this entire game was made by one single intern and then they got funding for voice acting and stuff as a joke. Am I being too harsh? Maybe. I don’t care though, this game hurt me bad enough that it brought Ace Combat Advance back into existence. I… where to begin?

Okay, first things first… This is Ace Combat X but worse in every way. It came out four years after Ace Combat X, and not only does it not improve on even a single element of that game, it actively takes many steps backwards. I just… why? How? How could this have happened? Who thought this was okay? They changed the flight model and I can’t comprehend the thought process behind it, because instead of improving anything, it’s just… worse. It’s like the game is in slow motion, or like the stick is limited to maybe 30% of its true range of motion. Remember time limit from Ace Combat X? This whole game plays like that mission.

And as if that’s not bad enough, once you unlock some planes with maneuverability, it becomes slow AND uncontrollable! My favorite! And I’m not done yet, because another thing that adds to the uncontrollability is the camera because it just kinda slides around every which way with no rhyme or reason and is very disorienting, and the target tracking tries to be more cinematic but is actually just even more disorienting. Weirder still, the scale of everything is ridiculous, the planes look like they’re about two inches away from you when the game says it’s 400 meters, but as soon as you reach 1000 meters or so, they look like they’re 15 miles away. Aerial refueling is especially wacky like because of that. It’s… incomprehensible.

Screenshot
Can you guess how far away the furthest TGT is? It’s less than 1500 meters.

Speaking of sliding around with no rhyme or reason, how about every single AI aircraft? Nothing actually flies in this game, all the enemies are just sliding around like they’re on rails. Especially the big boss things, sometimes literally moving sideways, turning left while going right, or just STOPPING ENTIRELY IN MIDAIR and tilting straight up for… some reason. Other times they’ll do some “maneuvers” which just looks like they’re sliding forward while someone’s tweaking the rotation axis in the editor and that’s… that’s what it is, yep, that’s airplanes. They’re not even a little bit threatening either. Even your final fight with the conveniently evil guy works that way, he’s in a jet and does all the same types of things, stopping in midair or getting tweened into place, but this time he cheats just to make you angry and waste your time. Sometimes the enemy planes literally fly through the ground too, because yep, that’s airplanes. Oh yeah, and all this takes place at the speed of megaslow… except when it doesn’t and the enemies conveniently move faster than you’re capable of moving just to force you into a different area of the map before going back to megaslow. Well, assuming the game doesn’t just fade to black and teleport you somewhere else for a checkpoint, that is.

Ever wanted to fly in very slow circles over a single boat with nothing else around for 15 minutes while waiting for other boats to conveniently slide directly into the path of the main boat despite the river being way more than big enough for the both of them every couple of minutes? Here you go, mission 16! Ever wanted to do an escort mission with helicopters that are way slower than you – and need I remind you, you’re already very slow – against maybe two planes? Twice? In the same mission? Here you go, mission 8! Oh, but in between the two escort missions, you need to put out a fire in a city that you can’t see by blowing up a couple of factories for some reason. Also sometimes there just aren’t any checkpoints where you really need them, which is great. You may have noticed that I’m complaining about everything being very slow a lot. So check this out, you get to fly a 747 in mission 15. Through a canyon. And it’s maybe one fifth the speed of the worst plane in the game. Because yes, this all makes a lot of sense, put the top mercenary fighter pilot into a 747 to protect an insurance salesman. Also, you can just ignore everything, just don’t crash and you win.

Screenshot
This is all you see for minutes.

By the way, what kind of story is this? Yeah, an insurance salesman. Of all the things that could have been the antagonist, it’s an INSURANCE SALESMAN. The terrorist organization you fight for most of the game? Secondary. The insurance salesman was the real villain all along. By the way, he sells WAR DAMAGE insurance. Think about that for a minute. I don’t see how this business could possibly fail. The entire meat of this story is capitalism vs communism, except… they’re both the villain? Who… what are you defending? What is the point of this? Is the moral of the story that private military companies are the good guys? The entire motivation for the terrorists is that they’re angry stereotypes, and the entire motivation for the insurance guy is money. War economy you know. By the way, I haven’t mentioned it yet because it doesn’t really matter compared to everything else, but they decided to set this game in the real world instead of Strangereal, which can only salt the wound further. Also, why does he put his gun in the fish tank? What’s the point in that?

Why is the story this?
Why is the game this?
Why is the voice acting this?
Why are the cutscenes this?
Why does the tornado have better maneuverability than an F-16?
Why does the F-18 cost almost twice as much as the Su-27 even though it’s worse in every possible way?
Why does the Su-27 dominate the entire game?
Why do they pronounce Antares wrong?
Why do they call me a squadron when it’s literally only me?
Why do I have to fight the same things 50 times?

And good lord, why is the soundtrack this?! It’s so bland and forgettable! This may as well be stock music… heck, YouTube thinks so, look at all these claims I got on my gameplay footage. How did they fall so far? There’s lyrics in this?! This song sounds like it was written by a small child. How DARE they use an Ace Combat 3 song in this?!

Screenshot
The screenshot looks cool, but it took another 15 seconds to complete this loop.

Why this? How did this happen? Project Aces themselves did this, they… I-

I do not like this game. It is bad. Bad game. F-minus, no repeats, 5 million years dungeon, don’t play it. I’d rather play HAWX 2. Or Jane’s Advanced Strike Fighters. This game… no more. I’m done. I’m gonna need a minute.


Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy

Ace Combat Assault Horizon Legacy+ box art

Hey look, it’s Ace Combat 2 again, that’s pretty cool. Too bad it’s on the 3DS.

So this is actually Joint Assault again. For some reason, they decided to use the Joint Assault engine to make this, and I can’t fathom why. Not going to complain as much as before though, uh, I promise. Credit where it’s due, this one isn’t nearly as bad as Joint Assault in any aspect. Look, rudder controls! The new 3ds has two sets of shoulder buttons, so now I can yaw like god intended, which is good because yaw controls on the D-pad would be well and truly impossible to use on a 3ds. But, that doesn’t save these controls, because the analog slider seems to act more like an 8 way hat switch than the analog slider it is, so controls are jerky and imprecise, which is only made worse by the flight model which is somehow even worse than Joint Assault, since low stability planes fly like a greased bar of soap dropped in the shower, and high maneuverability planes fly like a cat also dropped in the shower. Can’t control ’em. You’re either sliding around haphazardly and rolling a solid 180 degrees more than intended, or making a string of small sudden movements that seem to do more harm than good.

Aha, but you see, there’s a solution! See, they have this cool maneuver system now, so if you fly close enough to your target for long enough, you can just push a button to line yourself up behind them! You can also hold a direction and push a button to dodge missiles more readily. That goes a long way in sidestepping the control problems. Too bad it’s also not enough, because sometimes it either doesn’t help or outright doesn’t work for some reason. Here, think about this: You are presented with a control problem. The flight model makes it very difficult to pull maneuvers as one would expect. There’s also a group of players who have trouble doing those moves even in the games without this problem. How do you solve that? I think this was the best they could come up with at the time, and it does kind of make sense as it sidesteps the control flaw and lowers the difficulty for those who want that at the same time. Two birds, one stone, right? Problem is, if it was a 100% guarantee that you do what you expect, it would trivialize the entire game, so you have to introduce some room for error and a little randomness, but then you also create player frustration… and I think they chose to take frustrated players over having to redo the entire flight model. Or, I don’t know, they could have just used the model from the good PSP game…

Screenshot

Also, when starting the game, it’s immediately apparent that the Joint Assault problems are still there since the game still feels like it’s in slow motion and the controls still feel stupidly heavy, and you can still see enemies just sliding around instead of actually flying, and they still look way bigger than they should, given the distance, but it’s nowhere near as bad, thankfully. Except for the gun, that’s about 3000 times worse, It’s more than useless now. Absolute zero accuracy. Given how imprecise the controls are and how tiny the hitboxes are, and the fact that the gun still has a slight lock onto targets but no longer leads its shots, you’re going to miss almost every shot you take. Until you get the F6F that is, because that gun gets hilarious, mowing down absolutely everything without issue. Don’t question why you get an F6F. The soundtrack is still depressingly lackluster, but nowhere near as bad as Joint Assault. High G turns are also in this game, but they’re ultra stupid because your plane just kind of whips around and bleeds off all its speed immediately. Maybe some of my problems here would be gone if there were proper analog controls… or even just an actual analog stick. I don’t know. Stat balancing is still horrendous with no real motivation to use any high-end planes, especially when high maneuverability planes can get so hard to control. The F-18 is all you need, it can handle everything just fine and hits the maneuverability and stability sweet spots so it’s pretty controllable. You can upgrade it too, but who cares about that, it’s got a slick paint job.

Out of all the problems this game has, the most baffling of them is the performance. There are some serious frame rate problems. It’s so bad that pretty much the entire tunnel run sequence in the final mission is running at half speed. I don’t understand how they managed this considering how much more powerful the 3DS is than the PSP. I don’t hold this game in very high regard… and that may seem unfair since it’s a handheld title, but look back at X, that was a handheld title that could easily have fit right in with the ps2 trilogy if it was just a little more fleshed out and also wasn’t on PSP, so I see no reason to cut this game any slack on the basis of it being handheld.

And that’s all there is to say, really. It’s Ace Combat 2 again, but with a bit more of a fleshed-out story. It’s kind of neat to have the elite squadrons like Zero had again, and for Z.O.E. fights to be mandatory instead of optional considering how important Z.O.E. is. But I think I’d rather play the PS1 original than this. I really wanted to like this game. It’s really far better than Joint Assault in every aspect other than performance… but there’s still a bit too much Joint Assault in there for me.

Screenshot
Enjoy this crusty screenshot of a WWII fighter killing a modern superplane.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy: Better Than Joint Assault! Put that on a medal, wear it proudly. Oh yeah, this game is called Assault Horizon Legacy by the way. No relation to Assault Horizon whatsoever. I don’t get it either.


Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

Ace Combat Assault Horizon Enhanced Edition box art

Anyway, here’s Assault Horizon. Everyone’s favorite scapegoat. A lot of people think this is the worst of all the Ace Combat games, but nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah… nah, that’s Joint Assault. That’s not to say this game is great though, it’s still not fun.

I… listen, when I played through this game to write this, my mood was soured so hard that I lost the will to take notes, and just trying to write about it is bringing me right back down again. At least with Joint Assault I was fueled by the anger it brought me, but that’s not the case this time. I’m just going to list off what notes I did take and move on, alright?

Let’s see here… In some of the other games, the control schemes you can choose from are “novice”, the one where you turn left when you move the stick left, and “normal”, the correct choice. In this game, “novice” is called “optimal”. I don’t know who made that decision but they should get their brain checked.

Missiles are actually just flying JPEGs. Mister protagonist man was dreaming within a dream and it was actually a vision of the future apparently. The controls are too sensitive and the field of view is way too small and the camera moves around WAY too much and there are way too many blurring and shimmering effects, making this entire game a quite disorienting experience, and it only gets several times worse toward the end when the clouds start moving really fast and you’re zippin’ around all quick like. Also, I love how you can see through things when there’s clouds and smoke about. Nice feature.

Screenshot
Yeah, just look right through, there’s nothing in there.

Helicopter. AC-130. Bomber. None of these are the things I want to be flying, but that’s half the game. They also force you into attacker planes at one point instead of letting you pick a fighter or even a multirole. Missions in Ace Combat 6 were really long, but missions in this game are several times longer… the difference is, they drag on and on and on so much worse because there’s so much nothing to do. And that gets ten times worse in the helicopter, and 100 times worse in the AC-130. Also extremely annoying is trying to see those JPEG missiles to shoot them out of the air with my gun because of course, that’s what you do when you’re not in a fighter. Speaking of the guns, the reticle doesn’t lead targets anymore, you have to do that yourself… only in this game.

I like how all the enemies are just too maneuverable to keep up with most of the time, or have infinite flares just to force you into DFM, which I’ll talk about later. I also love how their idea of difficulty in this game was to just throw 50 jets at you with their constant missiles that track better than yours and their DFM that warps them across the map. Also, regenerating plane health. Because yes, of course. So you have to fly around and actively avoid combat if you want to not die because it’s balanced around the idea that you will take hits. Also love how the bombers take 15 missiles each. Also love the part where you have to shoot down an ICBM and stay out of the fire except the DFM forces you into the fire.

Screenshot
Thanks DFM, very cool.

Mister protagonist man has no personality whatsoever, I call him Cardboard McBeigeface. He likes to say warwolf a lot. I swear, 70% of all the dialog lines in this game contain the word “warwolf” at least once. I don’t understand why they respond with a call sign instead of saying “roger” or “wilco” or whatever else one would expect. Maybe that’s how it really is in the real world, but I don’t care because that’s dumb and the real world is dumb, this isn’t the real world.

From beginning to end, I had no idea what was going on or what I was fighting for. Why were there rebels? Why did the Russians do what they did? Where did trinity come from and what even is it? Who is Markov and why should I care about him? All I have is questions and I don’t care enough to look for the answers. There’s just no story here, it’s just a series of things happening with no real explanation or precedent. Even in-game, there’s no driving force, it’s just “hey go kill these things” and then you do it and you hear “there’s more of them” and you repeat that a bunch of times… every time. The general tone is kind of awkward too because where every other game in the franchise was delivering some kind of anti-war message or focusing heavily on character interactions, this game is just glorifying war, death, and revenge, failing to deliver anything more compelling than that.

And that’s all the notes. So let me talk about DFM for a minute… Not to be confused with the maneuvers from the 3DS game, DFM puts you and your target on rails, but still allows you a measure of control. So you can control your plane while it’s being automatically moved along a set path. The camera also goes wild, planes do some ridiculous wacky nonsense maneuvers, it’s very disorienting and just not fun… and you’re forced into it. Over and over and over again, all the way from start to finish. I’m sure the idea was to make Assault Horizon a more streamlined, cinematic, western experience, but in that effort, they ended up compromising everything that made Ace Combat great. Joint Assault was a masterclass in doing everything wrong, and this is a masterclass in being out of touch. You know, looking at it like that, I can kind of see some parallels between this game and another horrendously out of touch attempt at rebooting a beloved niche franchise…

Anyway, I have to give credit where it’s due. Some of the music in this game is genuinely great, even though it’s not what I’d have expected from an Ace Combat game. The sound design as a whole is also just fantastic, they really worked hard on the sound and it shows. The tagline for Assault Horizon is “make metal bleed”, which would be a pretty terrible tagline if it didn’t deliver so well on that statement because this plane carnage is a really cool idea, great eye candy.

Screenshot

And it’s not like this is the worst game I’ve ever played, it’s not even terrible. It’s just terrible in comparison to other Ace Combat games. And considering that this is a spin-off that has nothing to do with the rest of the franchise, not even being set in the same world, it’s tragic that it had to turn out like this. I’m certain that if Assault Horizon wasn’t an Ace Combat title, it would stand much stronger independently. As it stands though, it’s disheartening…


Ace Combat Infinity

Ace Combat Infinity box art

Speaking of disheartening, Ace Combat Infinity is disheartening in several ways. One of these ways is that I can’t play it again even if I wanted to, no matter what I try. See, this was a free-to-play game focused very heavily on multiplayer co-op, but had a small eight mission single-player campaign… and you can’t even play that anymore, because apparently, the whole game required a constant online connection to the servers that shut down in early 2018, even the single-player mode.

Since I can’t play it, all I can tell you about this game is that it made me sad. When it came out I was immediately concerned by its free-to-play nature. To play the game, you needed sortie fuel, which was very limited. You could only save up three at a time which would regenerate one per hour, buy fuel for real money, or win fuel by completing challenges.

You unlocked planes and stuff through a tech tree and had to pay exorbitant amounts of credits to get some of the later planes. There was customization and such like the handheld games, lots of stuff to grind for. Interestingly, it used the same engine as Assault Horizon, but without the DFM and all that, which just adds more salt to the wound that is Assault Horizon.

Infinity was actually really fun to play. Co-op is such a good concept for Ace Combat and it worked so well. The campaign was also fun to play, but nothing special. It played out kind of like a greatest hits album of the best Ace Combat moments, except it was set in the real world… which was interesting. Good to know that the Avalon dam is in Russia I guess. My favorite fictional plane in the franchise is in this game too, the ASF-X Shinden II, though it was actually introduced in Assault Horizon and I never noticed. I’m basically just reading off the wiki now so I’m going to stop now, go read it yourself if you’re curious.

A lot of people, myself included, became hopeful that Infinity would succeed because we thought the prospect of a new mainline Ace Combat game hinged on that. Critics weren’t too fond of Infinity but the fans were dedicated and it did indeed become quite successful, and very well may have been a huge driving force for the development of Ace Combat 7 after all…


Redemption


Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown box art

Finally, here we are. Part one of the Ace Combat redemption arc.

When in doubt, go back to basics, and that’s exactly what they did. The old style, the old formula, it’s all back in stride with the culmination of everything the team learned up to this point. Until now, the PS2 games still held the title for a lot of things, but after dropping things like DFM and automatic maneuvers and moving away from their aging and increasingly convoluted in-house engine, they could focus once again on their roots and polish and refine until it was sharper than ever before. I will say with no hesitation or doubt that mechanically, particularly in the controls, I believe this isn’t just the best Ace Combat has ever been, but it’s the best any arcade flight game has ever been. Everything is so precise, perfectly striking the balance between punishing and forgiving, and not once does it come up short. You are in full control at all times, especially now that the High-G turn has been so well refined, and if you want to get really fancy you can even do post-stall maneuvers now with full control, so now some of the automatic things from Assault Horizon are properly in your hands.

The gun is also better than it’s ever been, with a reticle that’s actually useful, hitboxes that are fair and predictable, and reasonable damage output. But if you want more, you can have more, because you can tune your planes much like the handheld games in this too. I won’t even judge you if you pick the gun auto-aim part. Heck, if you liked the regenerating plane health from Assault Horizon, you can even bring that back with an upgrade part, but it’ll only repair you to 50% instead of a full heal. The best part though is that you can seriously improve the handling of even the worst planes with parts now, so you can really play any way you want with any plane you want without needing the maddest of skills. Enemy missiles are fair again and not too difficult to avoid if you’re aware of your surroundings, plus you have flares now, but there’s also parts available to help you if they still give you trouble. With this game, the skill ceiling has been raised and the floor has been lowered at the same time without compromising any of the gameplay, and that’s amazing to see. Also amazing to see is how generally well-balanced everything is in the campaign. With the exceptions of the TLS being horrendously underpowered, EML being horrendously overpowered, and Mihaly having plot armor until his final battle, there’s not a single thing to complain about… and I can’t complain all that much about the exceptions either because they don’t negatively impact the gameplay, they’re just minor annoyances.

Screenshot

There’s also the obvious thing that comes with the territory of being a game released in the latter half of the next generation… just look at it. Look at how pretty this is. This is the prettiest video game. Even the clouds are pretty when you’re not inside one unable to see anything. Clouds are also cool because they actually affect your plane and stuff, you can ice up if you stay in one too long. Also, there’s wind that pushes you around, that’s pretty interesting. But just… seriously, I can’t get enough of the eye candy. You could pause on any frame and have wallpaper material if only there was a photo mode in the game. It’s not just eye candy though, there’s plenty of ear candy to go with it, as this is the best the sound design has ever been for Ace Combat. And that soundtrack… Just spectacular, it has to be pretty high on the shortlist of best game soundtracks of all time. But one thing I don’t understand though is why the overall audio balance is so darn quiet… Historically these games have had a lot of clipping problems, but I don’t think turning everything this far down is a good solution to that problem. I’ve got a lot of volume headroom on my end so I could just turn it up, and console players can just as easily turn up their TV, but it still seems odd to have to turn it up this much.

Objectively, from a technical and mechanical standpoint, this is the best game in the franchise… so why don’t I feel confident in saying that? Well, there’s the fact that unlocking planes and parts uses the same tech tree approach as Infinity did, meaning you’d have to play through the game several times to unlock everything, and you can’t sell parts or start fresh without nuking your entire save file… but that can’t be it. Could be the part where overall difficulty has been drastically lowered, to the point that ace difficulty in this game feels more like hard or even normal from the PS2 trilogy… no. Maybe it’s the existence of the pipe destruction mission… but it’s not even that bad. Is it how unfortunately lame the squadrons are? Really though, Cyclops is a boring name with a boring emblem and there are no real redeeming factors to make them interesting, Strider is a cool name but with an even more boring emblem, LRSSG is just a bad acronym, and Sol has a cool emblem but it’s just the Yellow squadron again except less interesting. Yeah, now we’re onto something.

Screenshot

The weakest part of this whole game, by far, is the story. There’s a lot of Ace Combat wackiness that one should expect, but where the other games could explain why and how it happens, or at least present it in a way that you can suspend your disbelief, Skies Unknown leaves way too many questions unanswered. I suppose that could be considered fitting since the theme of the game is largely about losing data and misinformation and none of the characters seem to know any more than you do, but… it’s just not satisfying to see all these loose ends floating about. Not that it’s horrible or anything, I still think the story is pretty decent. Though that may just be because I’m fully invested in the lore of Strangereal at this point. And this still seems to cover several major points just fine… it’s just lacking. Literally, it’s lacking, I’m pretty sure they just took out a bunch of stuff fairly late in development. Like how the plot seems to just kind of disappear in the second third and then suddenly comes back leaving you feeling like you missed something. The whole penal unit arc seemed well built, like it was going to go places, but it only lasts for a few missions and then it just kind of stops. Then all the story you get outside of mission briefings and radio chatter for a while is one cutscene of the princess watching herself on TV.

Screenshot
Riveting storytelling right here.

Speaking of the princess, she doesn’t even do anything. The royal family is supposed to be a big deal, but the princess is the only reference to it and she’s a cardboard cutout who makes me seem expressive! That whole thing gets undermined anyway because apparently, it was some rogue Eruseans and also Belkans behind it all, so she’s well and truly a nothing character. Mihaly’s granddaughters have more use than the princess does, and only one of them ever speaks, precisely one time. I don’t think it was supposed to pan out like that. The whole unmanned aircraft thing is never explained at all, it’s just there as a plot contrivance, and I don’t understand why since they already have the MQ-99 drones somehow available in every shipping container ever that are powerful enough to cripple the entire navy of the biggest global superpower in one day. I get that Belka is involved but I mean come on. Osean planes shoot at the space elevator in the beginning and you don’t get any explanation at any point for that. Also, Kei Nagase is back. Neat. But why? This makes no sense.

You have to draw your own conclusions for all of that. Granted, several of the big confusing things do actually have real answers… they’re just not part of the game. You essentially have to take Strangereal history lessons to find some of them. Like the explanation for Pilgrim 1 being in a pre-order exclusive book. And how the entire existence of Z.O.E. isn’t even given a passing mention, you just have to know it’s there. This is only half of the problem with the story though. The other half lies in the regression of character roles. Trigger is just Mobius 1 but slightly different, because he too is nothing more than a blank space with a list of accomplishments. Count has a nice development arc, going from an arrogant and irritating little coward who fudges numbers to a bona fide ace pilot… off-screen. Mihaly is a cool old man who has a terrifying reputation demanding fear and respect that he earned off-screen. Tabloid is a cool Belkan dude who never got a chance to shine since the game takes him away from you early on and then kills him off-screen. Even Schroeder has some interesting stuff going on as he seems to lose faith in his own work and wonder why he’s continuing, even beginning to regret some of the things he did… off-screen. You’re never given a chance to form any kind of connection with any of the characters. You can’t even issue orders to your wingman anymore. Even something as simple as the old yes and no responses to some of the radio dialogue would have gone a long way here, but that’s gone too. With how little development there is on any of these characters, there are countless ways the story could have been different, for better or for worse. Now, I must admit, I wrote this before playing the three DLC missions, and while they are amazing to play, they cover a small separate story and don’t address any of these problems.

Screenshot

But this isn’t just another Ace Combat game. This is the first true Ace Combat game in twelve years, and it almost didn’t happen at all. Funding was short, the higher-ups didn’t have faith in it, and as it turns out, the project went through a seriously troubled development as told by Kazutoki Kono. This was also their first time working with Unreal Engine 4. With all of that in consideration on top of the fact that Skies Unknown itself is just fantastic to play, it’s very easy to forgive problems like these, even if it just leaves me wanting more. And I do, I really do. Fortunately, it seems quite likely that we’ll get more after all, as Skies Unknown has been a massive commercial success with sales nearing a million copies only halfway through its first year. And now that the team has figured out UE4 and laid all the necessary groundwork, it shouldn’t take nearly as long to make another one, especially with the higher morale I hope they have from their success. While Skies Unknown may not be what some hoped it would be, while it may fall flat on several fronts, its existence alone is almost miraculous, and its resounding success is boundlessly gratifying. Also, mods are cool, thanks Unreal Engine! Ever wanted to fly a meme? Now you can! Remember that part in Cape Rainy Assault about pizza? You can be the pizza! Or you can bring back some skins from old games like a nerd, like I did. There’s even a free camera mod now so I can have the photo mode I so dearly wanted.

All I can really say to wrap this all up is… Great work, Project Aces. I can hear you loud and clear. Can’t wait for part two.


Wrapping up


So that’s the whole series done. I’m glad I got to do this, even though a couple of these games are what V2 was for. I have a whole new level of appreciation for these games now, and I think I’ve got an answer for why these games captivated me. Are you ready for this? It’s quite shocking, even for me. Alright, here it is…

The game. Is fun.

That’s all it is. They’re just really good games that are super fun to play and make you feel like an absolute legend in the process. The series has flown under the radar of so many people simply because it’s a flight game and they assume it’s some kind of simulator, or they compare it to some bad experience they’ve had with other flight games. And that’s tragic because not only is this not a simulator, it’s highly accessible, extremely rewarding, and at the top of the food chain. In fact, even playing with a joystick at all seems unnatural because of how well refined the controls are for a typical gamepad. And comparing the series to pretty much any other flight game ever made seems unfair because it simply does not compare. Ace Combat is the benchmark for the genre, not just another entry. Few games can claim to inspire people to replay them over and over and over again simply for the sake of pleasure without getting old, and this series is absolutely among those few. Even beyond all the various little things you can do like getting a medal for playing through the whole game using only guns, or beating the campaign under a certain time, or hunting down all the named aircraft, these games are still a joy to replay every time. They are made of pure, concentrated excitement and fun.

All the stories are self-contained so you can jump in at any point and be fine, especially since you could just as easily ignore the story altogether and be fine enjoying only the gameplay. But for the big nerds like me, there’s a whole world hiding under the surface with enough lore to spawn a wiki bigger than even some RPGs that you can pore over for days. For people interested in that, it’s just another huge boost to the already immense staying power of these games. Look at how long I’ve been rambling on about these things, even in light of that I feel like there’s a lot still left unsaid! But I don’t want to keep you here all day so I guess this will have to do.

If you haven’t played an Ace Combat game before, I implore you, even if you’re skeptical or don’t think you enjoy flight games… give it a try. If you don’t want to drop the cash for the latest game, dive into any of the PS2 games, you won’t regret it. And if you do regret it, well, I’m not going to share my snacks with you anymore… but we can still be friends though.

Between the amazing gameplay and how much I love the world the series takes place in, I’ve probably spent more time playing Ace Combat games than anything else… except maybe a couple racing games, I don’t know actually. Anyway, these games are actually a huge creative inspiration to me as well, they have a big influence on my writing and are a big part of why I want to get into game development. Playing all of them like this has only intensified those things, and I suspect I’ll be replaying them even more for a long time to come.

All in all, I think it’s pretty safe to say… I like Ace Combat.