Review: Ace Combat 5

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Ace Combat is widely known as the preeminent air combat console game. The series combines arcade style gameplay with highly deliberate marks of authenticity that give it a prestige look and feel akin to the Gran Turismo series. This charming cross section of design goals that emphasize accessible controls alongside a fetishistic attention to detail towards the object of worship is a mark of Japanese game design rarely duplicated by western designers. There are many finely modeled aircraft to select from with individual weapons, stats, and sounds.

Levels are huge fields with different terrain and weather effects. Rain looks particularly nice zipping past your cockpit window as you run down an enemy jet. It’s not a game captured by screenshots; it needs to be seen in motion to be appreciated. When your wingmen disperse to engage the enemy, you’ll see multiple dogfights happening all at once. Bullets and missiles streak back and forth, ground targets launch anti-air attacks as radio towers and gun emplacements are blown up by your bombs. The AC team had a clear vision about this series and their finger was directly on the pulse of what matters in an air combat game — chaotic three dimensional action.

Guy plays AC5 and rambles about Osama bin Laden

Tutorial exercises help even out a fairly steep learning curve. Missions occasionally seem ultra demanding, requiring patience and reflexes that seem nearly inhuman, but with trial and error become surmountable. Once it feels like air supremacy is finally in reach there’s always at least one dreadful turn of the screw that threatens all the progress you’ve made up to that point (no checkpoints.) There are times where the words “Mission Failed” appear on screen seemingly out of nowhere because some boundary was crossed prematurely or a vital piece of equipment was destroyed. You’ll often want to freak out and say “this isn’t fair! what the fuck!!”, but — as if the game itself were taking you by the hand — you find yourself playing again, more patiently, more attentively. It’s clear the designers were being very deliberate in their difficulty scaling and their wisdom is surprising. Each stage seems to build on the expertise gained from the last, and things that seemed impossible before (like shooting targets down with the vulcan gun, or accurately dropping unguided bombs, or just keeping the damn enemy in sight) suddenly become do-able. It’s a stern game, but unlike a lot of tough games, you can tell it’s on your side. AC5 wants you to get better at it.

The setting is a fantasy alternate earth where indistinguishable caucasian utopias wage terrific airplane wars. The player-surrogate, Blaze, is a cadet in the Osean Air Force. During cutscenes, he takes artsy-fartsy pictures with his camera and narrates the war. The dialogue is littered with all kinds of poorly translated nonsequiters, like this:

“Nagase, you keep flying like that and you’ll die real soon!”

“I won’t die, sir.”

“Are you sure? You look like you couldn’t hurt a fly!”

“This badmouthed good-natured old firebrand could take the greenest of rookies and forge him into a fearsome fighter pilot.”

Of course, none of this detracts from our enjoyment. At Inugami, sketchy translations and poorly directed voice acting are what we thrive on. There are plenty of engrishy platitudes on the badness of war, like “even enemies can be pals too, y’know”, that will put a great big dumb grin on your face. Wet blankets can turn on the Japanese VA in the options. I’m actually kind of impressed by the introspective quality of the cutscenes, mostly of characters sitting around, or staring out a window, waiting for their next deployment. They’re short and unintrusive, and since they depict the banal activity of life between airborne sieges and dogfights, they do a good job selling you on the scope of the game’s time frame. Small dramas come and go; the war goes on. You get an ounce of character development, then you’re back to fancy map graphics and mission briefings. AC5 takes place in a totally antiseptic fake airplane world, but the slice-of-life narrative manages to convince in small ways.

What convinces in big ways is the radio chatter, which can’t be praised enough. Once you start bombing buildings, you’ll hear the enemies scream about their friends trapped under rubble, radioing in medical assistance and giving triage to their wounded. Both sides of the conflict are frantically delivering damage assessments, sitreps, and orders to attack and counterattack. You’ll hear workers trying to put out fires, a captain abandoning his ship, an officer yelling about misdirected ordnance, wingmen trying to shake off missiles, a few jokes, and countless cries of despair, one after another. When combined with the dizzying air combat, it pulls off amazingly well the giddy, delirious, thrill of combat, and the simultaneity of action and human drama that is the mark of great war movies. It can’t be emphasized enough that the things that are easiest to cut out of games — like including a shit-ton of extra dialogue that fills up over a dozen twenty minute missions — often end up being one of the most memorable things about them. A remarkable synthy orchestral soundtrack rounds out the auditory package.

Dig on this menu music:

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