Review: Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War

So you’re picking through old games at the local shop, or you’re clicking through the bargain pages of a web site.  Either way, you come across Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War for the PS2 (known as Ace Combat: Squadron Leader in Europe), and you’re pondering picking it up.  Sure, you can go off of reviews written when the game was new—but what was tasty as freshly-baked bread then may be trifling better than microwaved navel lint now.  So how’s one to know?  That’s what I’m here for.

Ace Combat 5 US box art

The Ace Combat series has always tended to fall near the arcade-y end of the spectrum between arcade physics and “sim” physics.  The beauty of it is that it doesn’t feel too arcade-y.  It’s often masked the arcade-y nature with believable—though not necessarily “realistic”—controls, keeping it in the “flight sim” area of the general “air combat” genre.  It was also never the most popular of franchises outside of Japan, though it’s never exactly been unpopular, either.

Ace combat 5 also offered something only toyed with once before—the ability to command wingmen.  It added a slightly different dimension to the game, though even here it wasn’t as fleshed out as it could have been.  Still, it was an interesting addition, one of many.

Game Play
When you first pop the game in and load ‘er up, the thing to do would be to go to the tutorial.  There are a good dozen things to learn, here, though even taking hardware limitations of the time into account, there’s no good reason why you are restricted to having to go out to the tutorial menu and select the next tutorial mission.  They could have had them all seamlessly flow into each other, or at least have a Next Tutorial option when you finished.  Something.  It’s a bit stilting, but it does the job of teaching you the basic controls admirably well, and rather patiently.  The draw-back is that when you fly through rings, sometimes a group doesn’t pop in until you’re almost on them.  On the other hand, while the tutorials try to teach you the more complex maneuvers and tactics, it’s really nowhere near actual experience, so in that regard the tutorials aren’t as useful as they try to be.

Once you get into the game proper, you’re given the controls of something in a weird grey area between an arcade jet-shooter and a flight sim.  The controls lean a bit toward the arcade side of things, but they feel so fluid, just precise enough to make you really feel like you’re piloting an aircraft.  And each one handles differently, to be sure.  Your quick-and-speedy fighter handles noticeably different than your slow-but-tough attacker.  There are enough different aircraft to where one’s individual play style should be met, mostly.


Image by shanewarne_60000 via Flickr

On the other hand, each mission is different; some will have more ground-based enemies than others, or you have areas where tight control and speed is worth more than armor.  Unless you use a guide, you’ll have to figure out what suits what through trial and error.  On the other hand, your wingmen (more on them in a moment) will tell you if they think the team isn’t balanced enough.  Thing is—sometimes what they think is imbalanced is actually the best combination for a mission for your play style.

Speaking of wingmen, you get one to three lackeys at a time (though there are a few missions where you’re alone).  You have four commands to give—you can tell them to zoom ahead and attack in front, to go their own way and attack whatever suits their fancy, or to cover your six (your tuchus, your butt).  Lastly, and independent of the others, you can tell them whether or not they can use their Special Weapons (each craft has some super-nifty weapon, usually rather powerful and/or useful against a certain type of enemy, coming at a cost of ammunition and/or ease of use).

The wingmen, themselves, aren’t really useless—but they’re not all that helpful, either.  At best, they can kind of annoy the enemy, and will occasionally—I stress occasionally—defeat enemies on their own, but that’s not too common.  On the other hand, you don’t have to babysit them, since they’re actually invincible (and have infinite ammunition, interestingly enough).  That’s not to say you can necessarily always send them away and forget about them; though they’re not as helpful as wingmen in later games, you can and should use them strategically.  They can help against particularly annoying enemies, whether tossing a few missiles at them, or be targets while you swoop in and and unload missiles of your own.

As for the missions, they all make sense and they lead into each other in a very organic and logical way.  Most of the time, you’ll have air-to-air or air-to-ground combat, though there’re the occasional take-off, landing, or mid-air refueling “mini-missions” to sort of shake things up.  Really, they’re just there to add a smattering of points, but they’re a nice enough break from the “real” missions, though their ease depends on the difficulty you set.  They also seem to get easier the more you attempt them, as you figure out exactly what the game is trying to get you to do.  Coming into Ace Combat 5 without any experience in the other games in the series, you might get flustered when trying to land and end up crashing into the tarmac.  However, the learning curve is deceptively small; you should figure out what the landing, mid-air refueling, and take off “mini-missions” want you to do after only a very small handful of attempts.

That brings us to one of my personal favorite parts of the game—the varying difficulties.  From “Very Easy” to “Ace” and a lot of options in the middle, it’s brilliantly easy to start out on a comfortable setting and work one’s way through the harder modes.  One of the other pleasantly refreshing things is that no matter what difficulty you choose, the game doesn’t insult you, nor does it keep many things (unlockables, secrets, whatever) from you for playing on and easier setting.

Flying the not-so-friendly skies

You can play on Very Easy and still unlock many of the planes (but, obviously, not the bragging rights), which we’ll discuss in more detail in a bit.  That is, I think, a wonderful aspect.  Not everyone is a great gamer who can make their fingers fly across the controller, and the game doesn’t punish people for not being “über”.

Speaking of difficulty, the range is, Very Easy, Easy, Normal, Hard, Expert, and Ace.  The last two difficulties have to be unlocked; Expert after beating the Campaign Mode once, Ace after beating it twice.  Generally speaking, the difficulties affect the health and number of enemies, and your health and carrying capacity of weapons.  On the easier settings, enemies can be taken down in one or two basic missiles, and you get unlimited ammunition for your Vulcan cannon as well as up to ninety-nine basic missiles.  Later difficulties decrease your health (the last few difficulties, you will be lucky to survive one hit; contrast that with being able to survive a good half-dozen or more in the earlier difficulties), as well as carrying capacity of the missiles and Vulcan.

One issue that really needs to be addressed is that for most if not all of the series’ run, developer Namco seems obsessed with making you pilot a plane where it should not go.  In the case of Ace Combat 5, one of the more memorable examples is having to pilot through a series of canyons with walls uncomfortably close to the wings of your jet.  If you try and rise above the canyons, you’re assaulted by a barrage of unavoidable missiles.

There really aren’t many examples of such a thing, though the other example would be the next-to-last stage, where you have to pilot through an underground base with the walls even closer to the jet than the walls of the canyon.  As rare as they are, though, they add only a degree of difficulty instead of just frustration.

That aside, one of the other interesting aspects is the ability to unlock more aircraft as you progress.  They’re grouped together into what can be called “families”; you get the first aircraft in each “family” simply by progressing.  To unlock more in each “family”, you have to fill up a “kill gauge”.  What that means is that each aircraft has a certain number of kills required to be made with said plane.  Fill up that aircraft’s gauge, and it unlocks the next tier in the “family”.  Many only have two tiers, though a few have more.  How fast the gauges fill depends on the difficulty setting; interestingly, the higher the difficulty, the quicker it will fill.  It’s a nice reward to off-set the lower health et al. that make the higher difficulties, well, more difficult.

In most missions, the player can choose the aircraft for themselves and their wingmen.  Similar to its predecessor, the player also has the option to select a paint scheme for the aircraft, though unlike Ace Combat 04, the different schemes don’t cost money.  Instead, the player has to fulfill certain conditions, normally shooting down enemy Ace pilots (more on that in a moment).  The player generally has the choice between two or three paint schemes for a specific aircraft, though a total there are a total of five “styles” over all.

We’ve talked so much about what the game offers in the game play, it’s time to talk about the game play itself.  The first thing to be said is that it’s certainly nothing like playing a real jet—but as I mentioned earlier, it feels like you’re really piloting an actual aircraft.  Each jet handles differently; some are sluggish, others speedy, some turn on a dime and give you change, others bank widely enough to be described as “turning on a dollar”.

There’s a definite thrill when you destroy an enemy and manage to pivot so you avoid the wreckage so close you can smell the burning metal.  It’s hair-raising when an enemy has you in their sights, and you’re barely dodging and weaving enough to avoid fire.  It feels so believable as to almost let one forget they’re playing a video game.

One area where that’s almost a detriment, though, is that from high up, you don’t really get a sense of speed.  Much like in real life, everything that isn’t pretty close to you looks like it’s crawling.  This is, of course, whether by design or a by-product of the way the game engine simulates real-world physics, a version of parallax.  As such, on the one hand it does kind of make it difficult at times to feel how fast the aircraft is going; on the other, it is similar to parallax in the real world, so can add a good bit of immersion and depth to the game.

One area that exemplifies the idea of seeming believable without being anywhere close to such is the combat.  Aside from being able to carry dozens and dozens of missiles (many small real-world combat-oriented aircraft carry, like, two to four missiles), you usually have to get up close to your enemies to to make effective use of your weaponry—a stark contrast from the real world where fighter pilots fire their missiles without the enemy being anything more than a blip on the radar.

Still, those aren’t bad diversions from reality.  They’re acceptable breaks because they keep the game intense, they keep the player immersed in the world—most of all, they keep the game fun.

Apart from Campaign Mode, there’s also an “Arcade Mode”, which kind of continues the plot of Ace Combat 04, though if you haven’t played that one, it’s not a detriment.  The player is given enough plot to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and make it all make sense, without overloading the player with information.  The Arcade Mode rides that fine line quite well.

Bogey on your six!

Arcade Mode, also called “Operation Katina”, has the player take control of the protagonist from the previous game, call sign Mobius One.  As the name of the mode might suggest, Operation Katina is all about shooting, dodging, and shooting some more.  There are dozens of enemies and the player has very few special missiles, so it often comes down to the Vulcan cannon, skill, luck, and a healthy dose of determination.

There are usually optional enemies to defeat that will give the player additional ammunition, but it’s never a good idea to simply fire randomly.  While Operation Katina shouldn’t necessarily be handled like a chess match set a few thousand feet in the air, keeping a tactician’s outlook is definitely a good idea.

There are four different endings that can be obtained by choosing certain missions, though the main difference between the missions is the number and type of enemies.  Also, initially, the player is only given access to a F22 Raptor, but if one completes all four branches, they get access to whatever aircraft unlocked in Campaign Mode.  That makes it quite enjoyable to go back through Operation Katina, testing out different aircraft and different strategies.

One interesting thing is the H.U.D.  In a first-person or cockpit view, you have visual access to all kinds of information—your altimeter, speedometer, and a good few more things.  In third-person view, however, you get only the basics.  While this makes a little bit of sense on the face of it—in third-person view, most of that information would obscure the aircraft—for players who aren’t comfortable in perspectives other than third-person, it’s a little bit of a let-down.

Speaking of the H.U.D., available in all viewing perspectives is the radar.  You get color-coded triangles representing the enemies, the color signifying their altitude in relation to you.  Missiles are tracked, as would be expected, and the most interesting aspect to the H.U.D. over all is that while it’s normally green, it becomes a brilliant red when an enemy locked on to you.  It’s handy in that you don’t need to necessarily keep a constant eye on the radar; as soon as the H.U.D. flashes red, you know to start pulling some evasive maneuvers.

Set in the year Two Thousand and Ten, the game follows the world war between two superpowers in Strangereal, the nations of Osea and Yuktobania.  It’s somewhat a tale of the fall-out of the war fifteen years previous, when the nation of Belka attacked its neighbors, then when the war turned against them, they set off nuclear weapons in Belkan cities to ward off the advancing enemy.  Belka later became a protectorate of Osea, but Belkans generally still held onto their animosity toward Oseans.

Kei Nagase

Players control the taciturn pilot with the call sign of Blaze, and through the wingmen (you’ll get up to five, though only four at a time, and there are interactions with a few other characters) and cut-scenes between missions, the player gets a variety of perspectives on the “nature” of war, with a few downright calling it everything but inhumanly immoral.  It’s all a bit more chatty and passionate than one would expect of trained, experienced military personnel, but it works well to set the tone of the story.

It starts with a a beautiful and informational cut-scene setting up the history of the world, then transitions into a training mission—which gets interrupted by an assault on the island base that takes out most of 108th Tactical Fighter Squadron, alias Wardog Squadron.  Blaze is one of the survivors, and he and the rest of Wardog Squadron take to the air to defend the base.

As the story progresses, it’s discovered that the enemy nation has built an experimental submarine capable of firing insanely high-powered missiles, and Wardog Squadron initially escapes harm only by luck—but that won’t happen a second time, and they know it.

As the story progresses, Wardog Squadron discovers that things aren’t quite so simple as one nation being royally annoyed at another.  At one point, Wardog Squadron is blamed for an unprovoked attack on innocent civilians, all of course a mask for someone behind the scenes to set their plans in motion.  By the end of the story, when the true “enemy of peace”, as it were, is discovered, Wardog Squadron rise from the ashes of defeat and loss, to give it one final all-or-nothing go.

Over all, there are heavy shades of “war is bad”, but it’s told quite well.  Rather than simply force the idea down the players’ throats, it’s shown how war isn’t as glamorous as some films might have one believe, as friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and victories are bittersweet, coming at the price of burying friends and loved-ones.

To get it out of the way, the cities you fly through look rather low-res.  On the other hand, there isn’t much copy-and-paste with the buildings; they mostly look different, but never like they don’t “fit” the world.  Most of the ground are texture-maps overlaid onto the game world, looking beautiful from high up, but somewhat jagged up close.

That’s about the only place the graphics really let the player down.  The aircraft themselves look downright beautiful, as the series had come to be known for by this point.  The cut-scenes that flesh out the story are quite stunning as well.  There are no model “clones” of the people to be found, here.  Everyone looks distinct and unique, though there are more than a few cases of what looks like a visual mixture of ethnicities, with one wingman being a notable exception.  That’s really not a bad thing, though it does sometimes feel like the characters were created with an eye toward world-wide marketability.

Where the game shines, of course, are the aircraft.  To a one, they look beautiful.  Flaps move as they should, and the models are richly detailed.  One may get the desire to open the thing up, confident that they would see a perfectly detailed engine et al. underneath it all.

Explosions look fine; they aren’t too detailed, but then again, you won’t get much chance to really study them.  You’ll get a glimpse of fiery orange as you zoom past the remnants of an enemy aircraft, or from a ship or ground vehicle you destroy as you quickly turn your attention to the next one.

The soundtrack is simply beautiful.  It’s full of orchestral scores that really feel like a modern war biopic.  Imagine old war movies, where the music wasn’t merely there for added nuance, wasn’t there to just be “interesting”—where it was as much an integral part of the film as the cast and plot.  It’s almost that good, here.

Just as audiences cheer when Allied forces storm the beaches of Normandy, in any of the well-made films featuring such, as the music swells and all but demands the viewer be carried along with it, there’s something very similar at play, here.  When allies die, when it seems like the war will be lost, when hope for the future rests on a rag-tag group of pilots, the music accompanies it all and carries the player right along for the ride.

The voice-actors were simply superb, one and all.  Steve Blum plays gruff-but-friendly as Captain Jack Bartlett, your commander for the first couple-few missions; Johnny Yong Bosch plays Hans Grimm, the young and idealistic, but competent, wingman; Karen Strassman plays Kei Nagase, a tough but sympathetic wingman; Eddie Frierson plays Alvin H. Davenport, a motor-mouth who couldn’t shut up if his life depended on it but will stay with you through anything; and rounding out the wingmen is Beau Billingslea as Marcus Snow, a man who has seen more than he ever wanted to.

(Coincidentally, Billingslea, Blum, and Wendee Lee [who has a small role in this game] also lent their voices to the Cowboy Bebop anime series and movie, as Jet Black, Spike Spiegel, and Faye Valentine, respectively.  For those familiar with Cowboy Bebop there are a few nice moments of hearing “the gang” together.)

The last thing to mention, and perhaps the most important, are the sounds of the aircraft themselves.  Each jet sounds different, and though I couldn’t say how realistic they sound, considering that Namco went to many real-world aircraft companies around the world, I’d be surprised if many were made up for the game.  The roar of the engines are quite satisfying, letting one almost feel the shaking of the aircraft itself.

Then you have the explosions—they sound more than merely satisfying.  They sound rather exquisite, and the player is sure to grin at least once after hearing an enemy’s aircraft explode in a fireball.

Hoo, boy, there’s actually quite a bit of replay value.  Between unlocking more planes and different color schemes, plus quite a few missions which are just fun enough to create the desire to replay them, there’s quite a bit to do.

There’s the aforementioned Arcade Mode, which again hearkens back to Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies.  There are fourteen total missions, though they’re set in a branching structure, and there’s no ability to save halfway through so you have to go through one entire branch in one go.  Still, there aren’t many missions in one branch, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

Shack on the target!

The meat of the replayability is the Campaign Mode.  With the plethora of aircraft to unlock, including one super-powerful jet, plus a few branches to explore, plus the different paint schemes to earn, plus the numerous difficulty modes to go through—this is a title one can play for weeks.

One of the most interesting aspects, one that really makes it even more enjoyable to pick back up, is Free Flight.  You pick a plane, a map, and just—fly.  No enemies, no missions, no goals—you just fly.  It makes hunting for easter eggs or trying for interesting stunts much easier and much more enjoyable.

Final Recommendation
The Ace Combat series, until recently with Ace Combat X2: Joint Assault for the P.S.P., had been set in the world of Strangereal, and a serious attempt had been made to make every game “fit”, and tell one long story along with the individual stories in each game.  It didn’t always succeed, but it fared far better in that attempt than many other series.

There was also a serious attempt to make each game easily accessible for new players, and Ace Combat 5 typifies this quite well.  You don’t need to know anything about the series or setting to enjoy this game.  It sets up the world quite well, whether you’ve played other entries in the series or not.

It also lends itself quite well to playing only sporadically, so players who don’t have much time per gaming session can still enjoy themselves.  Each mission only takes anywhere from a few minutes to eight to ten, with quite a few chances to save offered to the player.

The lack of a multi-player function is missed, especially if one is coming into this from its predecessor or later titles, and if one is coming into it from Ace Combat 04, it’s notable that there isn’t as much innovation, here, as there is, there.  However, that last is not a huge detriment.  The predecessor had fine-tuned a lot of game play elements, so much so that there wasn’t much need for a lot of further tweaking.

Game Play: GOOD
The aircraft all handle differently, believably enough without a strict adherence to “realism”.  The missions in Campaign Mode are straightforward enough to not let players wonder just what it is they have to do, instead structured such as to allow different tactics to be viable.

Story: GOOD
There’s a strong anti-war message, which is almost odd considering the setting and the ones who voice such a message the strongest, but it’s a coherent and cohesive tale, which is equally enjoyable to the player who’s never even seen an Ace Combat game before as well as one who’s played many other titles.

Graphics: GOOD
The models for the characters in the cut-scenes are beautiful, and the terrain is decent-looking unless one gets too close.  Where the game visual excels is the aircraft.  They all look stunning.

Sound: GOOD
The music is grand, the voices mostly superb, but once again it’s the aircraft that steal the spotlight.  The jets sound wonderful, easily immersing the feel of dog-fighting in the skies, or dodging enemy fire as you fire missiles at a ground- or sea-based target.

Replayability: GOOD
The only thing that would make it better would have been the addition of a multi-player function.  As it is, there are hordes of aircraft and paint schemes to unlock, different story branches to explore, a multitude of difficulty levels to plow through—it will keep you occupied for a very long time.

Final: GOOD
It’s a great title to pick up and play as time allows, whether one has a few hours or only a few minutes.  The story is easily remembered, at least enough to stay into it even if you haven’t played in a few weeks.  Then you have the Free Flight option—it’s still not a popular game play element, though the “sandbox” genre comes pretty close.  That’s quite an interesting, definitely different, addition.

Over all, it’s an incredibly fun title, that manages to be equally enjoyable for gamers new to the franchise and those quite familiar with it alike.  That’s not something even attempted by many franchises, certainly not something that always succeeds.  Ace Combat 5 succeeds with seeming ease, all but daring the player to not enjoy themselves immensely.


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