The new Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
game has been bumming me out. Ever since the very first peeks we've had of the game its been clear that they are taking this new instalment in a very different direction from the rest of the series. OK, fair enough right? But with ever new piece of information, every trailer and interview, my attitude about it creeps further from apathy and towards downright resentment.
Please take everything I say here with a grain of salt. I'm basing this on the few short trailers released for the game and a few interviews done with the developers. The game is still in the oven and for all I know could turn out completely different from what I am expecting, in which case I will have to eat helping portions of humble pie for being a typical knee-jerk gamer. But I'm not getting my hopes up.
One part of me knows that sequalization is a problem in the industry. For every original idea we have a pile of sequels, prequels, side-stories, expansion packs, and add-ons for existing games. Developers are encouraged to stay inside their comfort zone and repackage the same thing again and again and that stunts artistic growth in the industry. I don't want to be one of those people who jumps all over a developer as soon as they try something new. But... damn this new Ace Combat
Simplification seems to be a major design element. While the player can opt to use the traditional control scheme, which IMO found a sweet spot between arcade-like fun and flight-sim finesse, there is a definite push towards using the "Optimum" controller schema. Taking the ability to roll the plane out of the players hands, the focus is placed on stabilization to accentuate the new close combat system. These new "dog-fighting sequences" have you loosely tethered to an enemy plane as it takes you through what seems to be a pre-designed chase while you spritz him with machine gun fire until you receive a button prompt to blow him out of the sky. Basically turning dog-fights (supposedly the focus of Ace Combat
) into a on-rail shooter and QTE minigame. Other control options feature things like auto-balance, auto-collision avoidance, auto-stall assist, auto-sight assist, and auto-target selection.
On-rails dogfights and auto everything else. Why does the player even need to show up? Why was all automation and simplification needed? Was it too hard to actually chase enemies in the previous games; do people need to be led by the nose? It isn't like the Ace Combat
series has ever been super-demanding or way too flight-sim like to thrive on consoles. It has always been an easy to pick up action game while still giving the player credit enough to trust him not to crash the damn plane into the ground. Please don't think I'm being elitist or that this somehow offends my L33t pilot skills, I am just a run of the mill fan of the series, not some AC
guru. I just think all this automation and hand holding is a step-back for games. Really, watching the gameplay footage of these new dogfights reminded me more of a superslick version of Afterburner than anything else.
I suppose I wouldn't be so offended if I felt they were actually innovating or creating something different. What they are showing so far seems more like a lazy composite of ideas plucked here and there from the best selling titles from the past few years in an attempt at a shameless cash grab. You have regenerating health, screen jelly to indicate damage, QTEs designed to make the player feel badass without actually involving much skill, and a chopper gunning minigame seemingly lifted from a CoD
killstreak. It all just seems so lazy and pandering, I can't help but wonder if it isn't some stealth criticism of western tastes.
At the rate they're going I'm sure we will see multiplayer ranks, perks, and probably even killstreaks in the final product. They should have just dropped the Ace Combat
brand and made CoD: Air Warfare
I hate the aesthetic of this new game. They keep showcasing this "in your face" action like it was a good thing and it keeps turning me off more and more every-time I see it. The camera wildly zooming in and out, the focus rapidly shifting from the afterburner of your plane, to your gun ports, to the massive destruction of a missile ripping apart an enemy. Basically anything on fire. I'm not sure how you are supposed to actually keep track of anything and pilot your plane in a deliberate manner in all that chaos. But I'm also not sure how much that matters since the game seems to love those QTEs. I guess you really don't need to keep track of much when all you need to do is press Y to get behind the enemy and fire away.
Ok, now I just sound like a troll.
I'm not a fan of the new tone of the game. Hearing that some military paperback writer was going to be behind the story was not a selling point for me. I was a big fan of the Ace Combat
series narrative, with its fictional countries and pastiche settings. It let them explore a war without getting bogged down in real life politics. It freed them up to explore the effects and nuances of war without stepping on toes or turning their game into some kind of political statement. One of the things I always loved about the Ace Combat
series was its regard for humanity, the underlining message that war is a terrible thing that should be avoided at all costs. It seems like a contradiction for a military game based on bombing runs and dogfights, but Ace Combat
pulled it off.
AC4 featured one of my favourite story lines in a game ever. While you play as the unnamed and speechless ace fighter pilot known as Mobius 1 while the story boarded cinematics follow the lives of a handful of citizens living under occupied rule and your rivals in Yellow Squadron, a enemy team of ace pilots you fight several times throughout the game. You see a young boy involved with the resistance struggle with his conflicting emotions as he tries to maintain his hate towards "the enemy" while simultaneously coming to see the leader of Yellow Squad as a surrogate father. You actually become more attached to the characters in Yellow Squad than you do with your own and shooting them down in combat becomes a bitter-sweet thing. The exhilaration of finally bagging one of the famed ace pilots is muted when the next scene you see is their comrades trying to stifle their tears next to a pile of wreckage. By limiting your own perspective while deeply delving into the struggles and motivations of those most affected by the war and your enemies, the game avoided the typical glorification of war and asked the player to stop and think, is war really a desirable or even necessary thing? AC4 had a very sombre tone, but a surprisingly uplifting message. Looking at the new writers previous work I don't think that kind of message is going to be presented in this game at all.
Other titles in the series featured similar messages, both overtly (AC5 might have gone overboard when your battle-fleet and several enemy groups mutiny to end the war in a scene of epic manly tears) and in more subtle ways. One of my favourite things about playing the series were the reoccurring or homage levels referencing some of the best missions in earlier games. These were great not just because of the fan appeal of seeing your favourite stage again, but because they often found cool ways to change it up. In AC2, an early mission has you attacking a enemy battle-fleet while its still mobilizing in the dock of a large metropolitan city, with you frantically trying to sink as many of them before they get out to the safety of the sea. In AC5 you revisit the same city, only this time you are tasked with the defence of those ships. Now instead of performing strafing runs on the Battleship Kestrel, you are over hearing the radio chatter of its crewmen desperately trying to a extinguish fire that has broken out in its engine room. You hear terrified dock workers trying to unmoor the last of the ships and get the hell out of there before they get caught up in the attack. A sort of retroactive horror for your actions in the previous game.
As a person who enjoys action and likes to ogle military hardware, but is often put off by the glorification of war and all the death worship of most military titles, Ace Combat
was perfect for me. It let me blow stuff up with jets but didn't make me feel like a bloodthirsty stereotype. One of the big reasons why I have never gotten into the CoD
games was because I'm always a little embarrassed to play them. I didn't think it was cool when CoD
wanted me to gun down civilians, or when that one guy in Black Ops
makes the other guy eat glass. I thought it was sadistic and somehow patronizing, like the developers didn't think much of their audience. I don't like the cartoonish story lines of most Tom Clancy-ish games which have "Russian-Nazi-Muslim Fascists" trying to take over the world with amazing military technology and the only way to stop them is to let a hardcore Spec Op group do horrible things without "tying their hands."
But now what do we have? A new Ace Combat
featuring a villain named "Markov the Shark", a suspiciously brown skinned Russian uttering corny stock dialogue like "Goodnight arrogant American!" Yeah, that's great. That is a step in the right direction.
A very "swarthy" Russian. Not that I would expect a guy who collaborated on a Rouge Warrior book to pander to stereotypes or anything...
Most of these changes are cited as a move towards realism. What realism? Stereotypical villains? Ripping through cities blowing up everything in sight by pressing a few QTE buttons? That kind of thing is more realistic than whats been in the series before? I think the game was pretty realistic when one of the storylines was about a downed aircraft landing on a school-bus. Seems a lot more real to me than having wet dreams about Mr. Scary-Russian-Guyovich.
I'm not saying I want every game to be preachy and dour, and I understand that games are often about fantasy rather than a depiction of real life. It just irks me to see one of the very few series that tried to take a more mature look at war and conflict do a total about face in tone and message. Especially when its done in the name of so-called "realism"
So I guess the new Ace Combat
isn't for me. I can't complain too much, Namco did give fans of the series seven games in the main continuity and even some portable games I've never tried before moving on. Sales for the last few have been slowing down and it would be greedy fanboyism to insist that they stick to the script and release another traditional AC
game even if it would be a money sink for them. But for all that, I can't help but feel disappointed. Its the same sensation I get whenever I see a comic or game licence I love used for a movie that has almost nothing to do with the source material, like Wanted
or Max Payne
. I wonder why they couldn't just release this game as a new IP and revisit Ace Combat
when the market seems more inclined to what its selling or at least let the series end with class. Geez, I think this image got corrupted or something... No wait, its supposed to look like that.
LOOK WHO CAME: