Friday, December 19, 2008

Ace Combat 5, or If It Ain't Broke Don't Fix It

Inspired by Andrew and these hard times, I've begun working my through the backlog in my game library. Games I bought in 2006, perhaps used even then, are finding their way into my PS2, urging me to finish what I started.

Recently, I completed NAMCO's Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War for the PS2, the 2004 (yes, I know) follow-up to its Greatest Hit Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies - a game I've beaten at least three times. AC5 is a homogenous blend of arcade and flight-sim combat, with an impressive stable of planes that were considered quite pretty in 2004. NAMCO's released two more games in the franchise since, but I figured it was worth checking this one off my list before moving ahead in the series.

When dusting off a last-gen game from a few years ago you prepare yourself for ugly graphics. The planes themselves look pretty decent given the year and hardware, but AC5 faces the same texture issues that plague the rest of the series. When you're 13000 feet in the air, the ground looks fine, but dip below 1000 feet and you'll find yourself flying over mountains capped with pixelated snow. I, for one, have never been a graphics whore, demonstrated by my ability to log a few hours in this monstrosity. And when the gameplay's at its best (i.e. enemy jets screaming by, the missile-lock warning screaming as you try to provide close air support), you don't have time to notice some of the simpler helicopter and ground unit models. You're too busy trying to save your own ass, and that of everyone around you.

The gameplay is like a box of chocolates. Allow me to tell you what you're going to get. You'll get controls that are a comfortable mix between arcade and strict flight sim. Maneuvering isn't difficult. It doesn't laugh in the face of physics like Crimson Skies, but barrel rolls affect your flight path a lot more than Peppy would have you believe. You'll also find a few things that worked fine in AC4 but someone decided to break this time around. Targeting is now anything but intuitive, sometimes requiring multiple button presses just to start cycling through available targets. Plus, the throttle seems like a flawed implentation of pressure sensitive controls. My index finger gave out a few times as I squeezed the hell out of R1 trying to reach top speed. These negatives don't ruin or break the game. They're just frustrating given that the controls in the last game, you know, worked.

An added gameplay morsel is the then new wingman controls. Supposedly, you can use the D-pad to tell your three wingmen to either A) Attack your target B) Disperse or C) Cover you and you can release them to use their secondary weapons. I did this every mission and never saw a secondary weapon fired once. Furthermore, Attack and Disperse generally produced the same result: nothing. You always end up doing everything yourself, which is fine. Just don't lie to me and tell me I have subordinates to boss around when they're just going to ignore my orders.

And damn do these guys like to talk. The beginning of almost every mission includes at least thirty seconds of your wingmen whining or bickering or telling you how much they like some made-up song called "Face of the Coin." I'm serious, that actually happened. Good thing that guy got shot down and crashed in a stadium. I'm serious, that happened, too. The quality of voice-acting oscillates from mediocre/FFX-quality to the text-to-speech function I had so much fun playing with in first grade. I applaud their attempt to drive narrative in-game rather than via cutscene. And the radio chatter during combat becomes background music, an ambient soundtrack of war and chaos. But when you start getting shot down and having to replay missions, the insipid dialogue begins to gnaw at your ears.

The plot isn't anything extraordinary. Two nations, Osea and Yuktobania (better known as the U.S. and Russia) square off, secretly spurred on by a third country bitter at having been defeated fifteen years prior. This third nation, Belka, infiltrates both governments, captures their leaders (who are pacifists trying to end the war) and becomes the main antagonist. You spend the latter half of the game as the Osean president's personal squadron, acting extralegally to expose the aggressors and end the war.

This quest for peace - not revenge, not domination - is refreshing (though not unprecedented) for a game of military conflict. However, your wingmen and other characters spend a lot of time expressing their disdain for war. It gets old. Instead of this didactic approach, I'd prefer more scenes like this powerful one late in the game: one of the "Russian" commanders fires on members of his own fleet for believing your side of the story and refusing to fire on their own peacenik prime minister. The lack of fraternity, the blind nationalism, is shown, not told. Give me more of that! I can't help but compare this to Ace Combat 4, where none of the cutscenes were told from your character's point of view - they came from a boy who, while living under occupation, had grown to like the enemy. Your character was only mentioned when he shot down members of the infamous Yellow Squadron. The game humanized both sides without resorting to generic moralizing.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning AC5's shameless use of genre tropes it had already employed in AC4 to greater effect. Of course there's a rival enemy squadron (think Star Wolf). But their role in the plot is small and murky until later, while AC4's Yellow Squadron menaced you quite early on. And just like its predecessor, the end missions of AC5 revolve around the destruction of a superweapon, which requires flying through very tight tunnels and shooting missiles at very tiny targets. Sound familiar? Thought so.

I'm a sucker for the genre so I played through the whole thing, and the bulk of my criticisms came to me only after the credits rolled. But I leave the experience frustrated because despite its myriad efforts to move the series forward, the game seems to have taken the series a step backward. There are newer iterations of the Ace Combat series that I've yet to play, including one for the 360 with online multiplayer. But if you're looking for a deal and you find The Unsung War in a bargain bin somewhere, spend the extra minute scrounging and pick up Ace Combat 4 instead.