Ace Combat Infinity's beta just recently came to a close, so I figured I would go ahead and share my thoughts on it for my inaugural blog entry, however late it may be. To start with, I haven't actually been with the Ace Combat series for all too long. The first title I played was Ace Combat 6 about two years ago. While its certainly not a fan favorite, and there are those who even detest it, I fell in love after a couple hours with it. I then proceeded to play Ace Combat 5, 4, and Zero shortly after, loving them just as much if not more so. Obviously, Assault Horizon need not be mentioned, suffice it to say, I'm extremely glad Project Aces has returned to 6's style of gameplay in this latest iteration.
Guess they didn't quite make their release date.
So let's jump into the mechanics. As mentioned, Ace Combat Infinity's gameplay seems to be an almost exact copy of Ace Combat 6's. The only new addition to the core combat is the inclusion of a "Data Link" which provides a passive buff to team-mates within a certain area around you. I was a bit confused by the mechanic at first as I figured it was something that needed to be activated. It appears however that it activates on its own. Aside from that, just about everything from 6 and it's prior iterations is here. Dog fighting and strafing are just a basic part of the combat and require no mode to enter into like in Assault Horizon. The High-G turn is also still in it, an ability introduced in 6 that allows one's plane to turn on a dime albeit at a great loss of speed. There's really not a whole lot else to mention. If you've played any Ace Combat ranging from 4-6, you'll likely feel right at home with the gameplay.
It can still be played in a variety of views, but the cockpit view is clearly the best choice.
The game has is divided up into two sorts of modes: a campaign mode that seems to take the form of a "best of" collection, comprising several iconic missions spanning the Ace Combat series such as the assault on Stonehenge from 4 and the attack on the aerial aircraft carrier, Aigaion from 6. In what is likely an attempt to widen the appeal of the series, the game now takes place in a real world setting as opposed to the classic "Strangereal" world that a large majority of the series has taken place in. Aside from that change of setting, the events and overall tone from classic Ace Combat games seems to be present in Infinity to at least some degree.
No doubt one of the more visually impressive missions to bring back.
The other mode featured in Infinity is a cooperative multiplayer mode that is definitely the primary mode of the game. In it, players are divided into team of 4 with AI filling in any missing player spots. The two teams compete for score by destroying enemies and accomplishing Emergency Missions, which provide an element of randomness to the missions. The Emergency Missions will interrupt whatever the current objective is and turn all focus onto a new enemy threat that ranges from a squadron of enemy aces to the emergence of several stealth submarines. These missions seem to serve as a highlight of the mission as they essentially take on the role of a boss encounter. They also provide the opportunity to a team that is heavily losing to turn the game around in their favor.
Another really big feature is a unlock tree. This tree has several branches that all seem to connect together at via sub-branches at some point into the tree. On theses branches are equipment that you can slot into one of seven equipment slots. The tree also serves to unlock new planes as well as upgrade them. In an interview with the director, Kazutoki Kono, it was made fairly clear that there was no intention of there being a model in which you can pay money to buy anything from these trees. The closest system akin to that is paying for experience or money boosts that can accelerate your progress. Finally, each item in the tree has to be "researched" which essentially equates to "play several missions to gain enough research experience for this piece of equipment." Your planes can be leveled up as well, gaining experience the more you fly them. The system is alright, but I found it somewhat convoluted initially.
Upon seeing the tree for the first time, it came off as a bit intimidating.
So everything sound pretty good, right? The problem and my biggest frustration with this game is due to it being structured around a Free-To-Play model. This wouldn't be all too big of an issue for me if the the monetization model was set around the purchase of cosmetic goods, but the primary source of income for this game lies in something called the "fuel system". This is no doubt expected from Bandai Namco who have a nigh on identical model in Gundam: Battle Operation as well as Tekken Revolution (some of the scuzziness of Revolution's recycling of assets from TTT2 are to be found here as well.) The player is allotted to units of fuel with which act as credits allowing you to sortie on a mission. Unfortunately theses credits have a maximum limit of 2 at a time, so you can't really let them pile up. Also, it takes 4 hours to regenerate 1 credit. Obviously the catch is something called "stock fuel" which seems as though it will cost a dollar per unit and can be stored in great abundance. I understand this model, but games like Path of Exile, Blacklight: Retribution, and Loadout show there are definitely better models to pursue that certainly seem to make you more well liked by your consumer base.
On another note, I still fear for the lack of what is perhaps the most important part of Ace Combat to me, and that is the style and overall character of the game. What really separated Ace Combat from other games in its genre was its style that resembled something out of an 80's anime. The sort of idealism and style of Macross or like anime comes to mind, what with almost every Ace Combat game featuring a fairly pervasive anti-war message. While the stories and dialogue are often a tad cheesy to say the least, and a plot to cause world peace via launching a nuclear missile. . . is a thing that happened, its passion to its world absolutely comes through. There's a refreshing lack of irony, like a lot of action media from the 80's it just seems to be self-serious in with no sense of irony. That is not to say though that the game is incapable of having moving moment, a good deal of the games have several such moments. Also some of the set pieces in the game still hold up as incredible. What immediately comes to mind is flying through a Gauntlet ala a Death Star trench run in a massive underground base. Or flying down the barrel of a colossal railgun, Ace Combat never lacked style and grandiosity. Better yet, these were all moment that you were in full control of, the lack of which really stood out in Assault Horizon. And while many might hate me for this, "Go dance with the angels!" was at least a little bit charming, wasn't it? Even a little? The series just has a sort of presentation that just isn't seen anywhere else in the albeit small arcade flight sim genre.
You got to fly down the barrel of this thing!
However, what is perhaps the most important part of Ace Combat's style is, well, the aces. The confrontations with the infamous pilots of the series are always the highest points of the games. Ace Combat Zero in particular is based around the concept of "knights of the sky" with each ace squadron having their own theme music and some sort of knightly virtue of one kind or another about them. You yourself also have an honor system wherein the more you destroy, the more money you'll make, but your "honor" diminishes.But the defining moment of Zero is the one that really shows what is so damn great about the series, the final encounter with your former wing man, Pixie. The music that accompanies it is fucking excellent to say the least. Also his plane has a laser cannon on it, so yeah, that's not something you're likely going to find in the latest DCS.
This is still one of the most superb pieces of music from the series.
So in all, I'm generally excited about Infinity barring that fuel system. I had a lot of fun with the multiplayer mode and while it will likely be short, the campaign should at least serve as an interesting "best of" collection of missions. But I still wonder about the future of the series. Will Bandai Namco let Project Aces continue doing their thing until Kazutoki Kono has had enough, or will they attempt to force this series to become highly marketable? I fear for the latter, as that seems to be their current MO, but I just don't see a game that has even the slightest bit of flight-sim elements in it ever becoming a really big series, at least not anytime soon. But at the end of the day, as long as it isn't in the vein of Assault Horizon, I'll take what I can get.