Namco started an aerial phenomenon with Air Combat
on the PSX somewhere around eight years ago. Since then we've seen the long running flight action series move through a few subsequent iterations and onto the more powerful PlayStation 2 hardware. This is where Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies
was born in 2001. There's no denying that title's quality just as there is no denying Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War
is a darn good videogame. But then that's probably because they're both so similar to one another.
If it looks like a duck.
Unsung War is a ridiculously attractive PS2 game, which is odd considering that during 99% of flight time, the player will never be able to tell an enemy fighter from a flying black line simply because they're all so far away and so small. Nevertheless, it just looks right.
Ace Combat 5 features a remarkably polished, solid, smooth, and flicker free graphics engine that renders vast, detailed landscapes with foliage that naturally blends in and out of the terrain. The environmental texture detail has also been upped considerably. While it still lacks the quality seen in the latest PC and Xbox titles, Namco is definitely pushing the little PS2 way beyond its previously perceived limitations.
It's not just a kind of advanced polygonal and texture detail that impress. Ace Combat also features a robust effects engine that creates some dazzling dynamic weather and lighting effects such as a setting sun and an industrial brown haze that's thick, thin, and nonexistent depending on where you are in relation to the swirls of smoke. There are also clouds that hover and drift over the land and sea, dropping sprinkles, showers, and heavy rains. It makes the world believable and invigorating. Depending on the level, the game could look fuzzy, dark, clean, crisp, bright, or just normal.
Explosions and missile trails have also been bumped up and are now thicker, meatier, faster, and more elaborate. But, Unsung War still looks like the Ace Combat duck. While the advancements will be appreciated by the scrutinizing eye, the casual gamer will still wonder why the cockpits still feel a little static. Planes all animate properly with rudders and canards and jet intake things, but the internals of the cockpit feel preset and immovable. They do reflect the soft glows of the current lighting scheme, but nothing ever moves and there is no bob, which makes jet interiors feel a little more like cutouts than models, even if you're actively using the POV stick to whip your pilot's head around. Had Namco taken some cues from the Colin McRae and RalliSport games, as well as from Crimson Skies PC or even Metroid Prime, we might have had a more exciting cockpit experience with splashing rain and sun glare and so forth.
If it walks like a duck.
That last bit focuses rather heavily on the cockpit mode, but that's only because playing in the cockpit is arguably the most enjoyable way to experience Ace Combat 5. First-person with HUD but no cockpit is definitely the easiest way to play, but that creates one problem. The game's target lock function (when you hold triangle to focus on a specific enemy), not only swings the camera over to that enemy, but also zooms in on their position, depending on how hard triangle is depressed. This pressure sensitive target lock only malfunctions in the cockpit free first-person mode and it's a real nuisance because it makes it nearly impossible to effectively track any enemy in a snap.
The only other real problem with gameplay is the ineffectiveness of specific wingman commands. The biggest addition to AC5 are the wingman commands, but ordering a buddy to toggle his special weapon on and off is totally ineffective and the only way to properly command troops in any fashion with this very limited setup is to repeatedly order them to do the same things over and over again. While it's not the most intuitive way to handle wingmates, it isn't terribly broken. Atop the squad control, Unsung War also offers some aircraft carrier landing and takeoffs as well as mid-flight refueling. These little side games come between missions, but never take the place of them, nor do they appear all that often, so...meh.
Other than the aforementioned additions, the rest of the gameplay is strikingly similar to Ace Combat 4 and, honestly, just about any other Ace Combat -- the game still walks that fine line between overtly arcadey rubbish and inaccessible hardcore simulation, anyway. That is to say it's smooth and offers novice and normal control (normal using bank, yaw, and pitch), but isn't anything super advanced or super dumb.
Even though we're more than happy with the familiar fundamentals, we'd have liked some more varied missions. Throughout the game there are still escort runs, search and destroy ops, and massive vehicle takedowns that resemble boss fights. Though the general "fly inside of this big thing because it's hard and cool and reminds us of the Death Star" gameplay mechanics remain unchanged, Unsung War does make these similar types of missions substantially more enjoyable than ever before. Late into the game you and your squadron have to navigate a perilously tight canyon that resembles a maze. The objective is to clear out the enemy so that a friendly unit can make its way out of the canyon unharmed. At the very end of the mission, a squadron of jets zooms in. Surprises of the sort are typical of the series and most other action games, but it's more impacting in Unsung War because the enemy squadron has an actual place in the storyline and interacts with your characters and their nation. Little touches like these (personable, familiar enemies of some plot significance), make the action a bit more intense. It's just nicer to fight reappearing Aces that tie into the story as opposed to Jet #1, you know?
Twists are usually appreciated and rarely screw around with the game, but there are two specific instances where you'll probably die and have to restart. One involves shooting windmills that spontaneously appear on the radar (because a plane needs to make an obstruction-free emergency landing). The other trial and error twist takes place later into the game provided you're foolish enough to first equip yourself with an air-to-ground fighter and then even more foolish to attempt to fight off a few dozen heavily armed F/A-22s instead of running for your life.
Dramatic gameplay-centric twists like those mentioned above happen quite a lot. Namco really did a fantastic job of tying the narrative (complete with tons of CG and in-game cutscenes and radio chatter) directly into the gameplay to make both aspects of the title that much more enjoyable. After a handful of Ace's 30 or so missions (about six hours of campaign play), you'll really begin to recognize your party's distinct traits. This is both extremely cool and kind of bad.
If it talks like a duck.
The constant radio chatter is pretty involving and creates a seriously hectic feel even if the occasional yes / no answers don't change the outcome of missions, but some of the chatter makes little sense in the context of any given sortie. As an example, people will often complain of enemy fire and invasion when you've pretty much wiped the floor with the opposition. There's also a problem with the main characters because they suck.
Chopper is the typically arrogant, brash, jerk of a pilot who says a lot of stupid things. Archer is the meek one who happens to be unsure of his talents. Edge is the broody Japanese girl who writes some sentimental crap in a book and pretends to be all ultra tough. And you are the silent cipher. The problem is that the characters that do speak rarely say anything truly invigorating. They're poorly voiced and sound too blasé to be jet pilots. When they're not comatose, they come off as whiny pacifists, bored with "the stupid war." Much of their conversations are then either contextually inappropriate, "Help me because you've already killed everyone and the sky is clear and I'm an AI script that doesn't know any better," or downright aggravating, "To hell with this war! I hate Doritos. I'm going to complain some more and whine like a little punk." It gets a little infuriating.
Kindly, Ace 5 makes up for Captain Snow and Captain Chopper's idiocy by at least recognizing the accomplishments of the player and his or her squadron. It's not like Wing Commander where Maverick and Bossman would single-handedly slaughter an entire Kilrathi armada only to have admiral Tolwyn warn them that the Confederation is losing the war and the next time they fly out could be their last. It's as if Ace Combat 5 was thinking the same thing we always have been: "Why doesn't command just unleash us because we kill everything?"
The Wardogs, and the squadron they eventually evolve into halfway through the game, become feared, highly respected pilots. The player character, Blaze, is especially revered and often referred to as the Ace of Aces, a man that strikes paralyzing fear into the hearts of the enemy. This nod to the player's accomplishments really adds a sense of worth and reward to progressing through the singleplayer campaign, which is engaging on its own.
It's a super duck!
Once the campaign ends, there will still be plenty to do in Ace Combat 5. The Arcade mode takes the famed Mobius attack craft and pits it against progressively more challenging setups of enemy attack waves. But the real longevity comes through replaying the campaign (entirely or through single free missions) to build up the kill ratings of planes you've acquired, which happens to be the only way to unlock new planes. Had some real multiplayer of any kind been included, collecting the planes might have been even more enjoyable.
Even without the immediate improvement online play offers, Unsung War is still like one big super Ace Combat duck. It's the same base game with enough changes to make the action interesting. Then you have a more involving campaign thanks to a more developed storyline, which finds itself tightly integrated into combat.
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