Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ace combat 4: a matter of taste

"i'll see you in your nightmares, kids!" There are those on this site who would gush about the merits (or shortcomings) of games featuring planes. Lately I have found that I am not one of those people.

I wanted to like Ace Combat 4, I really did. I can tell it’s a well-done game, made by people who know what they’re doing. They set out to make a certain type of game, and they made the hell out of it. For me, playing AC4 was about venturing outside of my comfort zone – it’s not Namco’s fault that what I found left me cold.

If you brought your disbelief, you ought to have checked that shit at the door. I found myself unable to suspend said disbelief in multiple instances, and I will readily admit that one of my favorite games involves extensive time travel. The problem with games that approach realism is that the mind sort of expects them to be more real. A redheaded Japanese boy who cavorts through time is ridiculous – I have no preconceived notions about how something like that might go. If I’m playing some pseudo-futuristic World War II plane-fighting game featuring real and lovingly rendered aircraft, though, I might expect the gameplay to at least try to conform to the realities of war. Not so Ace Combat. With your four or five wingmen, you regularly and single-handedly crush the enemy war effort. Every mission seems to involve “severely crippling” or “destroying 60%” of something. These feats become even more impressive when you consider that your wingmen, in terms of combat effectiveness, rank somewhere between a human infant and Slippy Toad – you’re by yourself out there, your companions little more than chatty subtitles across the top of the screen.

The incompetence of your allies is nothing compared to the ineptness of your enemies. Your faceless, nameless adversaries, who as often as not speak with thick, unidentifiable accents, rarely seem as though they’re actively mounting a war. You regularly catch them with their pants down – you and your awful wingmen sweep in, blow up all their ships and energy supplies, and fly right back out in twenty minutes, and they never insist on protecting their high-value targets with more than half a dozen planes and a couple of easily-dispatched anti-aircraft guns. They’ve got one elite squadron, also of five guys – in this universe it would seem that each side is allowed only half a dozen trained professionals, and the rest of their armed forces just do this on the weekends sometimes.

So in essence it’s you versus the world, and you win, natch.

This is really a problem that a lot of games have, particularly the explosion-filled shooters – you, the player, are a lone Rambo-esque figure, easily taking on all comers without breaking a sweat. You carry an unthinkable arsenal of weapons and ammo around with you at all times – maybe you keep it in your pockets. No one knows. Your enemies, on the other hand, seem incapable of switching weapons, of firing from behind cover, of some basic competence. Perhaps all war and shooter games take place in universes where competence is finite, and your character took all of it and ran. It’s hard to say. We’ve said in the past that gaming’s trump card, the thing it can do that other media can’t, is immersion. What happens to immersion when every fifteen seconds or so you have to stop and ask yourself, “why on Earth would anyone/thing behave like that?”

Most games insist on making you the center of their respective universes – you’re the lone hero, the last hope, the leader of some ragtag band of rebels who can lead the world to peace and usher in a new era. For real, that shit is all over the damn place. Fewer are the games that make you one part of something larger, a cog in a much larger war machine. Similarly, none of your enemies are ever quite so competent as you. The game might tell you that certain baddies are universally reviled and have never been bested in years though many have tried – still, it’s just because you’re the first person in history who took the time to memorize their attack pattern. None of your enemies have your arsenal or your adaptability unless you’re playing against another human, at which point your game ceases to be a narrative-driven single-player game and becomes another mindless deathmatch. It’s a problem with no obvious solution, especially since improving enemy AI nearly always seems to come in last on developers’ lists of concerns.

I write about this stuff in a post about Ace Combat 4, but to be fair most of it applies to nearly all action games with single-player modes. It’s not AC4’s fault that it succumbs to these age-old conventions – certainly, no one has come up with anything better. For all of the game’s meticulously-designed aircraft and (for the time) impressive graphics, though, it’s missing a good deal of realism.