Can Project Aces use up-close shooter action to make the flight combat sim exciting again? VG247 speaks to executive director Kazutoki Kono over a hands-on test.
The Ace Combat series
Made by Namco’s Project Aces in Japan.
Began in 1995 on PlayStation with Air Combat.
Notoriously difficult flight combat games with a vocal hardcore following.
Latest in the series was last year’s Ace Combat: Joint Assault, after a three-year hiatus.
It’s fair to say that flight combat hasn’t been making anybody hot for quite some time. Arcade flight combat like Wing Commander were all the rage in the 1990s, but for a long time the genre has been defined by dry, realistic, historical simulation rather than drama and explosions.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon clearly wants to be the game that changes that image. Its killer feature? The Close-Range Assault System, an up-close fight mode that zooms you in on an enemy and tracks their every veering movement with realistically violent shaky-cam effects, reducing your field of vision but bringing you physically closer to the action. When you hit something, the camera zooms right in to the explosion before pulling back to your plane. Watching someone else play is almost enough to give you motion sickness, but when you’re using it yourself it’s genuinely, breath-holdingly exciting.
Chasing a skilled pilot at extremely high speeds and in completely unpredictable directions, weaving through buildings and trying to keep the missile lock trained on the plane ahead with the cacophonous roar of jet engines, missile explosions and machine-gun fire blasting from the speakers, brought me out in a bit of a sweat. This isn’t picking off dots on the radar screen from a distance any more. It’s much more immediate, and much more fun. And the ludicrous metal soundtrack, composed by series veteran Keiki Kobayashi, definitely helps.
Much more fun
“The Close-Range Assault System enables a very intense close-range dogfight, whereas before you were shooting at dots,” says Kazutoki Kono, producer and executive director. “It has this drastic and intense destruction effect, too – when you were chasing dots in previous games, you only saw popping far away when you actually attacked them. But now you can see what you’re shooting at. You can machine gun them down, you can take their wings off – those kinds of dramatic moments are thanks to this new system.”
This is intended to be the Ace Combat that makes this unique but rather unfriendly series accessible, giving players more game-like controls to replace the flight-sim-esque configuration of its predecessors (though option to switch back remains hidden in a menu). It still takes a short period of adjustment before you’re flying happily, and it’ll still take much longer before you’re really flying skilfully, but it takes away one of Ace Combat’s major barriers to entry without sacrificing nuance for veterans who’ve been flying on Expert for years. The cockpit view remains intact, too, if you want to make the game so realistically difficult for yourself that it’s barely playable.
The Ace Combat series’ switch from faintly ridiculous fantasy to real-world locations and pseudo-real-world situations and planes was disappointing for those of us who prefer overblown Japanese-style plot nonsense and improbable superweapons to earnest American-style gung-ho militarism. But when producer Kazutoki Kono flies over a tiny Dubai, recreated from satellite images and replete with mini versions of the tallest building in the world, the airport and the hotel we’re currently sitting in, it’s pretty damned impressive. Buildings rear up as you fly lower and lower – from higher up, the ground just looks like a texture.
“We wanted players to feel closer to and more immersed in the storyline,” says Kono, asked why the series has made the switch to real-world locations. “For instance, we’re in Dubai right now, and I’ve just tried to shoot our hotel. That’s more amazing than a fictionalised setting – don’t you feel closer to it than a fictional world?
“The other reason is that prior Ace Combat series games had a rather mellow, Japanese-ish script and scenario, and according to Western market trends and peoples’ likes and dislikes, it turns out that people prefer more realistic storylines and locations. So we’re trying to challenge ourselves to operate on that level.”
I would never have called the Ace Combat games “mellow”, but nonetheless, you can see where he’s coming from. Real-world locations might be more conventional, but they are more accessible too. Dubai is, obviously, not the only real-world location in the game; we also fly over Russia and East Africa. “There are 17 or 18 maps in the campaign, but many more missions,” says Kono. “It’s all based off of satellite photographs, especially the famous cities, which are easier to make from satellite images. But for the landscapes, sometimes we don’t use photography.”
“The Close-Range Assault System enables a very intense close-range dogfight, whereas before you were shooting at dots.”
It’s important that it looks good, because ground combat is a big point of emphasis for Assault Horizon. The Close-Range Assault System makes it easier to target enemies on the ground when flying a fighter jet, and the game includes bombers and helicopter combat as well. We didn’t get to fly a helicopter ourselves, but Kono demonstrates a level where he’s hovering close to ground whilst shooting missiles at trucks full of enemy soldiers. The helicopter controls in a sort of over-the-shoulder view, which looks more than a little confusing at first, especially with the camera’s habit of dashing all over the place to focus on exciting explosions.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon has invited comparison to a “Call of Duty of the skies”, which is perhaps testament to how effectively is has distanced itself already from the existing perception of both the Ace Combat series and the genre as a whole. It’s left behind a lot of what defined it – the fictionalised setting, the demanding control system – but it’s embracing exciting new concepts that could well take the series to a new level. Kono is keen to emphasise that this is definitely still Ace Combat, but a version of it that’s ready to compete with heavier-weight titles.
“Of you are a prior Ace Combat series fan, we don’t want you to be afraid of Assault Horizon,” he says. “We, Project Aces, are taking care of this from the ground up. Our hallmarks are all in there – the great sound, the old mechanics – so there’s no need to be afraid of the new challenges we’re taking on.”
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon ships for PS3 and 360 on October 14.
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