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Posted on Sep 19th 2017 at 08:00:00 AM by (GrayGhost81)
Posted under ace combat, reviews

Image of Ace Combat: Infinity courtesy of Playstation

Since I played Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy on the 3DS last month, I had been craving more dogfighting, dive-bombing airplane action. I didn't realize how addictive the gameplay was until I was done with the game, when it dawned on me how much it left me wanting more. There's something about controlling a fighter plane, and methodically locking onto enemies and taking them out, one by one that is very satisfying.

Mind you, I haven't played an Ace Combat game since I was a teenager. It was called Air Combat in the US back then, but the first game in the series was one of my first favorites on the PS1 and one of the first PS1 games I actually beat. I wondered if it would be easy to go back to after playing a more modern entry on the 3DS, but I decided to play through at least the first four games in the main series, just for fun (and maybe something good to write about). Replaying the first Ace Combat was extremely nostalgic for me. Everything about the game screams 1995, the year the game was released. The music throughout the game is glaring guitar rock, the paint jobs on the planes are exaggerated and gaudy flame patterns, and the radio chatter while playing is over the top but extremely endearing. Compared to more modern titles, the first game is extremely dated in many ways. On the other hand, it is completely playable and worth going back to.

Gameplay sample courtesy of ShiryuGL

This first game established much of the structure and gameplay elements that remain essential to the series to this day. The player can buy and sell different planes, each with different attributes, by using credits earned by completing the main missions. There is a branching nature to the mission structure with many forks in the road on the way, leading to a certain amount of replayability. Although this title doesn't sport a tricky indoor end mission like many of the later titles, it does sport a massive flying fortress as the final boss, establishing another commonly used element for the rest of the series.

The game is very short and most of the missions themselves can mostly be completed in a matter of minutes. In comparison to later games, the controls, while workable, are stiff in a way that makes the flight of the planes feel a little unnatural. For example, planes seem to pitch side to side in incremental steps as opposed to being on a smooth slope. There's a rigidity to the controls that may take a little getting used to, and once you master them you may not be able to shake the feeling that you are cheesing the game, but as players we must work within the game as it was designed. All in all, even though I can freely admit that the first Ace Combat game was an awesome nostalgia trip for me, I can also recommended it to fans of the series or someone looking to jump in. Its datedness does not hamper its playability.

After completing the first game, I decided to skip ahead to the third main entry, Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere, also on the PS1. Someday, I will go back and play Ace Combat 2 on the PS1, but since Assault Horizon Legacy is a remake of that game, I decided it was okay to skip it for now. If the first Ace Combat is a reflection of mid nineties over-the-top rock 'n roll aesthetic, Ace Combat 3, released in 2000 and set in the not so distant future, is a more subdued reflection on emerging technology and the turn of the millennium. As such, the game overall seemingly has less personality than the first game, but as a package it made more and more sense to me as I made my way through the game. Gone are the blaring guitar solos and overexcited radio chatter of the first game. These have been replaced with more mellow (though not ambient) trace-influenced techno music and very limited robot voice samples for the in-game chatter. At first this change was rather jarring but like I said, as the story unfolded it made a lot more sense and I got used to it by the end. The gameplay here is very similar to the first game, though the maneuverability of the planes has been improved greatly and varies nicely from plane to plane. Most of the missions can still be completed in about five to ten minutes, but there are many more of them than either of the first two games. 

Gameplay sample courtesy of Mindinsurgence

Ace Combat 3 has an interesting localization history. The Japanese version of the game contains anime cutscenes and an in-game encyclopedia which expands on the story. It also contains a few more missions than the North American Version. The reasons for this content being cut are not crystal clear, but most boil it down to a cost-cutting measure. Thankfully a fan translation patch exists for the Japanese version of the game, so English speakers can experience the full story as it was originally intended. Though I played through the North American version, I intend to look at the Japanese version some time in the future.

With Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies the series made the jump to new hardware in the Playstation 2 and made huge leaps in complexity from all previous titles in the series. While most of the missions in the first three games can be completed in about five minutes, the missions in Ace Combat 4 require a significantly higher time investment. In fact, for the first time in playing through the series, I found myself having to pay attention to the mission objectives and gearing up my planes accordingly. One thing I didn't love about this more complex mission structure is the amount of empty spaces of time once objectives are met. For example, many missions have you trying to rack up a certain amount of points within a specific time limit. In these missions, even after you clear the score minimum, you'll have to wait for the timer to run out to continue the mission. Most of the time this is not a big deal, especially since Ace Combat 4 adds the ability to return to base to resupply during a mission. On a few missions though, the time limit can be more than twenty minutes. This was an abrupt adjustment to make after the very short missions of the first three games, but it does not detract from the overall experience except for within that context.

Gameplay sample courtesy of Blaze1337

Ace Combat 4 naturally sports an incredible graphical upgrade over its PS1 predecessors. There is a quality to the game wherein the distance of objects (as well as the ground) leaves them looking amazing, and only under up close scrutiny (which is rare) can any lack of details be discovered. I think the lack of human character models in a game like this lends itself to the game aging incredibly well. The game overall still looks very cutting edge. Ace Combat 4 is also the first game to really hook me with its story. The narrative is presented very simply with hand drawn stills of scenes from a fictional military occupation of a sovereign nation by an outside force. The series at large has been good at blurring the lines between good and evil and that ambiguity is an important element of this story. The voice acting in these cutscenes, which are composed of a letter written to the player, is perfectly somber and subdued without being boring. Although the connection between the game's missions and the narrative is unclear at first, the connections made as the story unfolds are amazingly satisfying.

Despite my one minor complaint of some of the missions being too long, it is easy for me to see why many people consider Ace Combat 4 to be a masterpiece, and an absolute must-have for the PlayStation 2. It is easily one of the most common non-sports titles to find for the console. I recently scored my copy for one dollar at a convention. With this game being so incredibly good, I am very excited to see how much the series develops after this. Tune in next month as I continue this overview with more main series Ace Combat games as well as a few portable entries!

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Funny timing with this article.  Despite many chances to play this, Ace Combat is a new game series to me.  Just recently I downloaded Ace Combat Infinity on PS3, so that I could have something loud while I tried to repair my Pioneer AV receiver.  I've since started to wonder what I've been missing all these years, and this is a great start for me to learn.  So far I'm having a blast, and am looking forward to some of the other entries.
@bombatomba: Nice! Infinity is pretty awesome and very interesting as it is a download only free to play game. I'll be covering it for sure.

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