Here we investigate the overlooked, the underappreciated, the Shameworthy titles of the world. Jump in to an existing mission thread and give your thoughts, or start your own to kick off a discussion.
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Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Angry Jedi » Thu Oct 09, 2014 5:34 pm

Squad,

I am informed by Private Timmy that the latest threat to the safety and stability of the world comes from the sky. Hostile forces from various regions -- some of which he'd never heard of -- appear to be inbound, and their trajectory puts them on a direct line for Squad HQ. Whatever their intentions, we cannot allow them to disrupt the sanctity of Headquarters, and so, it is with some satisfaction that I finally get to say...

Scramble, Squadron! Launch all fighters!




Those of you reading elsewhere on the forum will know that I've expressed an interest in this series recently, primarily after checking out early access PC game Vector Thrust -- which is rather marvellous, but also noticeably unfinished. As such, I figured it was high time I checked out a series I've had on my radar -- yes, that was intentional -- for many years now, but have somehow never got around to playing: Namco's Ace Combat.

I know very little about the series save for the fact it involves aeroplanes, missiles, things going boom and excellent soundtracks. I am very curious to find out, however, and have copies of Ace Combat 4, 5, 6 and Zero winging their way to me as I type this.

As my initial dive into the series, however, I am going to check out the one Ace Combat game I do already own thanks to a Steam sale a while back: Ace Combat Assault Horizon. I am aware that there are many purists who scoff at this game -- which is actually why I want to try it first. I want to be able to judge it on its own merits, then see how it compares to the most fondly regarded installments in the series, rather than coming to it last with all the baggage from the other games as most people have.

Also, my copies of 4, 5, 6 and Zero aren't here yet and I want to fly some planes now, dammit.

I'm going to use this thread to chronicle some thoughts as I work my way through the series. I have no idea how long it's going to take me in total, but if any of the rest of you would care to join me -- or simply share some thoughts as I play -- then do feel free to chime in whenever you feel like it.
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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Alex Connolly » Fri Oct 10, 2014 2:17 am

Looking forward to this! I'm tilting towards picking up Assault Horizon just to be on the same page.
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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Angry Jedi » Fri Oct 10, 2014 7:51 am

All right. Assault Horizon initial impressions.

Firstly, I'll say playing a game where pushing right just rolls you right rather than turning you right is quite refreshing. (Yes, I'm playing on the "proper" control scheme, with no flight assists.) I can't remember the last time I played a flight game and either had to use the rudder or bank to a 90-degree angle and then use the pitch to actually turn. Or indeed where dogfighting upside down was a perfectly viable option.

Secondly, I'll say that any references you may have seen to it being "Call of Duty in the sky" are pretty much accurate. Assault Horizon approaches things in much the same way as Call of Duty -- at least when it comes to presentation and spectacle. It's a game built around exciting things happening, and you being in the middle of them. You move from mission to mission -- and character to character -- at a decent pace, and you're rarely doing the same thing for two missions in a row: you might be running an air intercept mission first, then a helicopter ground assault the next, then firing rockets and mortars from a larger plane the one after.

Where it differs a little from Call of Duty is in the fact that you're not forever running along behind someone with "Follow" over their head -- you're a lot more than just the cameraman with a gun. Waypoint markers and the like are kept to a minimum; many missions simply consist of "destroy everything marked 'TGT'" and you're left to your own devices to determine how to do that, in the air intercept missions in particular. The turret-based missions are a lowlight, as they inevitably tend to be in modern games, but they have a certain degree of fun about them and are usually used as a means of delivering the more spectacular setpieces; the helicopter assault missions, meanwhile, are silly, totally unrealistic (I've never seen a helicopter gunship dodge a missile like that before!) and very enjoyable.

Dogfight Mode seems to be the thing that riles up Ace Combat veterans, and indeed it's a little... odd. For those unfamiliar, Dogfight Mode means that if you get close enough to an enemy and can stay on their six, you can switch into a mode where your plane pretty much flies itself and you have to make only minor adjustments to attitude and speed in order to keep your quarry within the aiming circle. Keep them in there long enough and you can fire a super-accurate missile -- but Dogfight Mode is also used as a means of providing cinematic moments: weaving through buildings, narrow misses with the ground, that sort of thing. It's exciting and spectacular, but from a gameplay perspective it does simplify things somewhat, which is why I can absolutely understand why some people don't like it.

The story itself is military-grade fluff, though there are some intriguing mysteries surrounding the Trinity super-bombs you seem to keep running into, and I'm not yet far enough to see how that's resolved. The characters aren't very well developed or interesting -- you pretty much have "the white dude" (fighter pilot), "the black dude" (helicopter pilot), "the girl" (bomber/transport pilot) and several all-but-anonymous characters that you occasionally take control of when you're on the turret or weapons systems of a larger vehicle -- but the story is delivered with aplomb and the game provides an impressively cinematic experience which certainly kept me interested for a good few hours last night.

Essentially, what I'm thinking is that if the other games in the series are even half as fun as I've found this one -- and everything I've heard seems to suggest that they're more so -- I'm in for a treat.
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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Alex Connolly » Fri Oct 10, 2014 11:35 am

Michael Douse of PCG Media did an excellent review of Assault Horizon a while back, which is one of the main reasons the game has remained in the back of my mind as something that might be more than a mere guilty pleasure. The true games? Yeah, incredible, but I can get behind this bizarre effort.

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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Angry Jedi » Fri Oct 10, 2014 12:12 pm

That's a great rundown, and from my limited experience I'd concur with many of the things mentioned.

It hadn't occurred to me that the reason the helicopter missions were so fun was because they were actually mech missions in disguise, but he's absolutely right. There's nothing quite like having a dogfight against a Hind, flying sideways at approximately 200mph and flinging some of your seemingly bottomless stock of rockets at it.

I'm looking forward to playing the rest of it. It's certainly a polished, beautiful game, and runs like a dream. And the knowledge that the best is yet to come in the form of the "proper" Ace Combat games is just great.
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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Angry Jedi » Sat Oct 11, 2014 10:57 am

Finished Assault Horizon last night -- it's not long; about the length of your average Call of Duty, I'd estimate -- and overall enjoyed the experience. I posted a few thoughts on my blog last night, but for those of you who don't read said blog I present said thoughts to you now in the following spoiler tag:

Spoiler: show
I beat Ace Combat: Assault Horizon this evening. (Looking at the clock, it’s nearly 2am… I guess I was enjoying myself, huh.)

I’ve already said a lot of the things I want to say about this game in yesterday’s post, but having played the whole thing through from start to finish now, I feel I can talk about it with a bit more confidence.

The thing I most want to talk about, I think, is what it was clearly going for and whether or not it was successful.

What it was clearly attempting to go for was a dramatic military-style story with a personal angle. And, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it failed. Not miserably, but it still fell very short of what I can only assume were the team’s ambitions.

To put this in context for those of you unfamiliar with the game, let me explain a little. The majority of Assault Horizon casts you in the role of Colonel Bishop, an ace fighter pilot who is wracked with recurring nightmares about facing off against a “shark-faced” rival ace. (Indeed, the first level is a dream sequence that — spoiler — you re-enact for real later in the game, only things turn out a little differently.) Bishop becomes embroiled in a war between the free world (the real world, unlike many other Ace Combat titles) and an army of Russian rebels. (This latter aspect allows the game to follow the Unwritten Law of Jet Fighter Games, which is that you must spend the majority of your time shooting down MiG-29s and SU-27s.) Said Russian rebels have access to a weapon called “Trinity” — an incredibly powerful nuclear device that you see the devastating effects of firsthand in several of the early levels. Naturally, it’s up to Bishop to put a stop to all this nonsense by flying shiny planes very fast and blowing lots of things up.

Except it’s not just up to Bishop; there are also a couple of other characters who provide a vehicle (no pun intended) for the other types of mission you’ll be flying aside from air-to-air combat and air-to-ground assaults. One guy flies helicopters, so you get to play as him during the helicopter missions; the token ladypilot flies bombers, so you get to play as her during the few bombing missions — including a pretty cool “stealth” one where you have to avoid enemy radar cones.

The setup is fairly interesting, then; Bishop has the potential to be an intriguing character, confronting his own personal demons over the course of the story and developing into someone “human” as it progresses. Unfortunately, this potential is left largely unrealised; a short monologue at the end of the game suggests that he has learned something from his experiences, but the rest of the game’s narrative really didn’t make that particularly clear.

Things are worse with the other characters, who pretty much only appear to be there for the sake of it. Ladypilot is shoehorned into a rather hasty apparent romance plot in the final scenes of the game, having spent the rest of the game showing no form of interest in Bishop whatsoever, and Helicopter Man is… well, he flies helicopters.

Perhaps the biggest wasted opportunity is the “villain”, who is teased a little early in the game — the “shark-faced” pilot from Bishop’s dreams — and then introduced rather hastily towards the end. He’s given little in the way of explanation, and his own personal motivations are pretty much used to bludgeon the player over the head with to say “This! Is! Why! He’s! Evil!” at one point. He’s a pain in the arse to shoot down in the final mission, so there’s a certain degree of personal satisfaction in blowing him up, but this finale could have been so much more interesting if there were a lot more interaction between him and Bishop throughout the game. It is a poor antagonist who only reveals himself in the final chapters of a story, and it leaves Markov feeling like a rather weak adversary for Bishop.

Despite all that I’ve said above, however, Assault Horizon was an enjoyable experience in the way that a good action movie (with equally ill-defined characters) is. The missions were varied and fun — though a couple dragged on a little too long — and the presentation throughout was immaculate; the PC version looks lovely, and the action is accompanied by some wonderful music and excellent voice acting just to add to the whole “movie-like” feel.

It’s just a pity so many opportunities for interesting narrative development were squandered, leaving the whole experience feeling a bit hollow afterwards. I’m not sorry I played it, as on the whole I did enjoy it immensely, but now my appetite has been well and truly whet for the earlier — apparently much better — installments in the Ace Combat series, which hopefully I will be getting my hands on very soon.


Short version: I enjoyed it, but there were a lot of things it could have done a lot better, particularly with regard to storytelling and characterisation. The main cast was a wasted opportunity to do something interesting in particular, but ultimately this disappointing aspect didn't detract from the stuff that was enjoyable.

My copies of 4, 5, 6 and Zero arrived today so I'll be getting stuck into those shortly. Looking forward to it!
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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Alex Connolly » Sat Oct 11, 2014 12:34 pm

Will you be hitting them in order, sir?
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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Angry Jedi » Sat Oct 11, 2014 1:39 pm

Highly likely, yes. Will probably boot up 4 for a quick spin this afternoon.
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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Angry Jedi » Sat Oct 11, 2014 4:33 pm

Started Ace Combat 4, or Ace Combat: Distant Thunder as it's known over here. (I don't know why Europe got lots of games named differently to elsewhere in the world for many years -- this was particularly troublesome with the Castlevania series, which perpetually omitted its subtitles completely until the later GBA/DS games.)

Okay. I get it. Coming straight off Assault Horizon, the differences are immediately apparent, in numerous ways.

First, the presentation. Assault Horizon looked great, but it also had that rather generic triple-A veneer over the top of it -- it wasn't very stylish. Or, to be more accurate, it didn't feel like it had a distinctive identity of its own -- I feel at least some of the unfavourable Call of Duty comparisons have been drawn because of the fact it simply looks a lot like Call of Duty -- and by extension like an awful lot of other games on the market right now.

Distant Thunder, meanwhile, has that late '90s, early '00s Namco thing going on, where the menus look great -- they're all fully animated, rather Metal Gear-esque futuristic in their design -- and everything you do is accompanied by some awesome, slap-bass-heavy arcade-style music. I particularly like the music played during mission briefings.

The interesting thing about the game's presentation, though, is the cutscenes that punctuate the rather clinical "military plot" that unfolds facelessly with each mission briefing. In stark contrast to this, the cutscenes make use of some lovely anime-style static artwork, combined with some understated voice acting and lovely music. They also contrast in character: they tell a very human story about the cost of war, and how it rips lives apart without warning. I'm only 5 missions deep so far, but I'm interested to see where it goes. I sense that the ace pilot responsible for the death of the narrator's family -- "Yellow 13" -- will be making an appearance at some point in the campaign and, in contrast to the rather rushed treatment of Markov in Assault Horizon, his early introduction and humanisation through these cutscenes will, I imagine, make any conflict against him, whenever it happens, a whole lot more meaningful.

In-game Distant Thunder superficially resembles Assault Horizon -- or, more accurately, the other way around -- but once you get your hands on the controls the differences are apparent. In Assault Horizon, the planes were very agile, and turning while squeezing the brakes made for some satisfying but very unrealistic-feeling super-tight turns. By contrast, Distant Thunder's planes feel much heavier and more sluggish; you have to work a little harder to make them dance, but it feels great when it works. The flight model is still massively unrealistic, of course, but I get the feeling with Distant Thunder that there's much more of a grounding in reality than the very arcadey Assault Horizon. Neither is a "bad" approach, but I can see how the change might upset series veterans.

I haven't got far enough in Distant Thunder to determine what effect the lack of Dogfight Mode has on air combat -- I don't think anything in the sky has actually shot at me yet -- but I'm interested to see how different this is in particular, as I sense this may be one of the biggest divergences between the old game and the new.

Anyway. Loving it so far, and also quietly impressed at the PS2 pushing around such lovely (albeit low-res) visuals around at a rock-solid 60fps. Eat that, next-gen.
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Re: Reach for the Skies: Ace Combat

by Alex Connolly » Sat Oct 11, 2014 4:37 pm

I'd be interested to see what you make of the visuals in 5/Zero. They blew my socks off back in the day, and happen to think they still would!

Love that slick Namco interface from that era, too - primarily using Ridge Racer and Ace Combat as touchstones. Really elegant, design-oriented fare.
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