Crimson Skies was a great game on both the PC and the Xbox. An arcade flight sim set up around an alternate 1930’s inspired pulp action world where air power took over from the roads, it put players into some of the most tricked out piston props to shoot up the skies. It was also the last big arcade flight shooter that I had played on consoles as there weren’t that many to choose from at the time with the PC garnering a lion’s share of the same. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the Ace Combat series, but I figured that I’d try it out and settled on getting my wings with Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. At the end, I was treated to a game that was part Wing Commander, Crimson Skies, and Secret Weapons Over Normandy set in a modern world that was a cross between the Cold War and WW2.
Fire in the Sky
Taking place in a fictitious world based on our own, players will become a part of the Sand Island squadron as one of Captain Bartlett’s “nuggets”, raw recruits training under his careful watch to be the best. It has been fifteen years since the end of the Belkan War, when the country of Belka used seven nuclear bombs to lay a line of fire across their frontier to stem the advance of the enemy armies marching against her. It signaled the end of the war, and the horror of the Belkan incineration of their own cities marked a turning point for the world at large.
The kind of world in Ace Combat is similar to our own with the story starting out in the last few months of the year 2010, with a few interesting liberties taken with technology. The game feels as if it were based on our modern world, only with the occasional sci-fi invention thrown in as a means to shock and surprise players. The only things that have really changed are the names and places, many of which are drawn from sources of inspiration such as the Cold War. Two powerful countries, Yuktobania and Osea, were allies during the Belkan War and now maintain a cordial, if not distant, relationship much as how the USSR and the United States had in the last years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost.
But instead of Cold War tension, several events will eventually draw the inexperienced pilots of Sand Island to the edge of war and well past it as they attempt to save themselves and their country from annihilation. As the player, you’ll experience much of what your wingmen will hope and fear as you take to skies alongside them in some of the most exciting action to be found on the PS2.
AC5’s action helps to support the great story that is told through its missions and the well rendered cinematics that help to tell it in between them. There are even a few moments in the missions themselves when the camera takes the player to another place on the battlefield, or highlights a particular moment of crucial importance that heightens the dramatic tension of a desperate dogfight. If you like your flight sims filled with plenty of story, AC5 tries very hard to make you a part of the experience. Told through the eyes of a reporter covering the story of the Sand Island pilots, you’ll get to know each one of them especially when they take to the skies alongside you.
From Nagase’s dedication to protect her flight lead to Chopper’s antics over the airwaves testing the patience of his superiors, and in watching Grimm go from an untested rookie to a veteran pilot, the title does a lot to make each of its characters as much a part of the atmosphere as the action and to a large extent, it works. Each character becomes a large part of the excitement that you’ll experience in the game as AC5’s Unsung War unravels around them as they call out targets, tell you what they think about what is going on, and ask to see if you need any help. As you progress in the game, you’ll also see how Bartlett’s “nuggets” eventually become the most feared pilots in the sky as enemy chatter feverishly calls out for reinforcements at your arrival. Although they might not be as effective as you might want them to be in combat, their presence and that of everyone else on the comm keeps you from feeling like the last pilot in Osea.
Jet Fighting without Cruise Control
AC5 has also licensed the actual aircraft used in the game from names such as Dassault, Boeing, and Northrop/Grumman…names that might not mean much to anyone without a Jane’s reference guide handy, but which allow the title to put the real-world warbirds that they produce into the hands of players. F-15’s and their variants, the F-117 stealth fighter, the Mirage 2000, and fifty other planes including one or two imaginative bonuses, are all for the taking.
Despite the authenticity of its planes, AC5 is not a flight sim on the level of Falcon or MS’s Flight Simulator series and is more of a shooter like Crimson Skies only with more attention paid to certain restrictions…such as blowing up when you actually hit the ground as opposed to bouncing off of it. With most planes sporting enough missiles for several squadrons, no fuel to worry about, unlimited bullets, and able to take direct hits depending on the difficulty you want to play at, AC5 is focused more on providing a fun environment where big explosions and action are more important than in forcing a player to earn a virtual pilot’s license. Players hoping for a grittier, bullet grazing experience may not like the emphasis of the gameplay for missile shots over actual dogfighting with guns with much of the action will revolve around shooting down targets with explosive prejudice. While lining up targets and avoiding getting shot down while jockeying for position is still plenty fun, players from the vulcan School of Lead may not find the action as exciting.
A set of tutorials helps ease new pilots into the game with a series of exercises to guide them in flying a multimillion piece of hardware with the PS2 controller. Players can pilot the plane using the left analog stick while looking around with the right one. You can also decide what view you want to play at, whether it’s a chase camera view, or in the pilot’s seat with or without the cockpit around you. Weapons are easily accessible and a HUD provides plenty of info as the first few missions from the thirty or so possible get you used to the dogfighting in the game. Targeting is handled by pointing at the enemy and tapping the triangle key to track what you want, but it can’t scroll through threats that aren’t right in front of you when you do so unless they’re part of the batch you’re pointed at.
Before you know it, you’ll be the one calling the shots and a new set of options will come up before each mission allowing you to pick and choose which planes you want your wingmen to fly in. Depending on your shooting skills, you’ll earn credits for every target you blow away that can be used to purchase new planes which are, fortunately, not as expensive to get as in the real world. You’ll also be ‘graded’ on a ranking system for your performance during the mission which can also reward you with a bonus. When the time comes to do some shopping, you can sell planes that you don’t want if you’re thinking about upgrading your squadron of four F-5’s to flashy new F-14’s or Mig-31’s. Most of the planes that are available will also earn a certain amount of experience depending on how many kills that you get with each, unlocking improved versions or new variants that you can also acquire if you have the credits.
Equipping your squadron for success is absolutely vital as the enemy will eventually be sending everything they have at you in the later stages. In addition to the regular weapons that each plane has at their disposal, they’ll also be equipped with a special weapon such as unguided bombs or long range laser guided missiles that can target multiple bogeys. Each mission also has certain requirements that your wingmates will suggest, such as balancing how much air-to-air power it has versus the need to fly fighters that have a strong air-to-ground attack for what lies ahead. You can always ignore their advice, but doing so can sometimes put you in a tough spot especially when you find out that you don’t have the right plane for the right job.
Your wingmen will also try to cover your six and you’ll also be able to give them orders to attack the enemy, spread out, or use their special weapons in combat. Although they add a lot of personality to the story with plenty of dialog and do a decent job in trying to fight the enemies you’ll come up against, expect to do most of the work. They also happen to be indestructible so you won’t have to worry too much about how they are doing which only enforces the feeling that they are there mostly for the sake of the story in several of the missions.
And if you want to take a break from the main campaign, there’s an “Arcade” mode that puts you in a side story called “Operation Katina”. Taking the role of legendary pilot Mobius 1, you’ll pit your flying skills in a gauntlet of stages where you have to down so many planes before the time limit runs out. As you meet the quota for each stage, you’ll move on to the next one. It’s a nice diversion from the campaign, especially for players that simply want to go in missiles hot and guns blazing without having to worry about whether they need to pay attention to a story.
Beyond the Sky
For an older title, AC5 holds up surprisingly well in the visual department with each plane appearing as if they had just come off of the Gran Turismo production line. The planes look sharp and the landscape that they’ll be flying over looks just as good…from a distance. Up close and the graphics below don’t look too hot with stretched textures including an uncanny ability for your plane to clip through 2D trees.
But it’s the chatter coming over your speakers from your wingmates, soldiers on the ground, navy officers desperately trying to save their ships, and the enemy that really makes every battle feel like a slice of Hollywood-inspired drama. Much of the voice acting brings each mission to life, even if some of the dialog can be a little cheesy, adding to the chaos filled tension of trying to cover a D-day type invasion of the enemy’s mainland or the climactic battle at the end. Some of the conversations will even ask what you think by answering yes or no to them, often eliciting different responses and sometimes influencing what mission you and your squad will be on next. There’s a lot of chatter in the skies and you might not hear everything the first time through a particular mission. Coupled with orchestrated music that can easily add to the impact of each battle, each mission can feel as if it’s upping the ante as to what you will be facing next.
Shooting down planes and saving the day with some smart flying was great until I had gotten to the final battle in the main campaign that made me fly through a series of tunnels as part of a subterranean obstacle course. Instead of leaving my fate to the skill of enemy pilots, I got to fly through AC5’s version of the second Death Star. It’s not that hard to get through, but it can be frustrating to simply die after getting so far thanks to a blast door that you almost dodged.
There’s also the occasional end-of-mission strangeness where all of the enemies on your radar would disappear while the story wrapped up the mission, only you might still find yourself under attack. It doesn’t happen often, but it can be strange dodging rockets while your wingmen calmly talk to each other about their hopes when the mission is supposed to be over. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it can simply be odd to see the enemy “disappear” as soon as the mission is done.
When you finish the game, you have the option of starting the campaign over with all of the credits and planes that you had unlocked and collected. There’s also a free play mode in which you can pick whatever missions you want to play over again with all of your toys and try to beat your best score or rank. Credits that you earn will also carry over to the special campaign mode allowing you buy even more planes, testing the firepower of an F-22 or Su-47 early on just for fun. There seems to be a glitch, though, in the scores that are retained during Free Play. I’d often save what I thought would be my current progress, only to see some of my scores wiped out when I reloaded. The credits I’d have earned are still there, but certain missions appeared as if I had never gone through them.
On Normal difficulty, the game provides a fun challenge that tries not to be frustrating, although experienced pilots can probably burn through the main campaign over a weekend despite the number of missions that it has to offer. If anything, the game is extremely forgiving towards everyone, offering a wide range of difficulty modes that go from Very Easy to the white knuckle brutality of Ace. The focus is definitely on making the game as accessible as possible and it shows. The only thing that can really be annoying in the game is that some of the missions can take some time to complete, especially if there’s quite a bit of story to go through before the fighting actually starts, and it can be aggravating to die towards the end forcing you to repeat much of what you had to do because of one mistake. This doesn’t happen to often, but when it does, it’s not exactly fun.
It’s also somewhat hard to tell how well your allies are doing on the ground or in the sea. Although you can get an idea of how they are from the chatter that comes over your speakers, much of the information is there for atmosphere with only a few pieces meaning anything of vital importance to the mission at hand.
Knights of the Sky
I had a lot of fun with AC5 as there’s a lot that the game offers both newcomers to the series like myself in striking a casual balance between arcade dogfighting and flight sims in general. It’s not a game that purists might be looking for, though, but as a fun game that won’t demand that you memorize what all of the gauges do before you even take off into the sky, it’s just right for the occasional need for speed. Packed with a great story alive with characters that come into their own as they survive from mission to mission, easy to get into gameplay, exciting action, and plenty more to offer after it’s finished, there’s plenty that it brings to the flight deck. The only thing that it doesn’t have is multiplayer in any form, so you can’t duel your buddy for top gun. Even so, it’s still a game that PS2 flight fans may want to add to their roster as Ace Combat recounts the Unsung War.
– World 1-1