Reviewed: December 31, 2004
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: October 26, 2004
Iíve been playing Ace Combat games since Namco started making them way back on the PS1 in the mid to late 90ís. Very few developers seem to have the desire to explore the niche genre of flight action games leaving Namco in a fairly lucrative position, and even though the various games in the ongoing franchise have all had a cookie-cutter air about them, Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War breaks away from the pack at Mach 3 and launches into gaming history with a sonic boom.
Ace Combat has always been about one thing; intense combat in the skies, but it has only been recently, with Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, that the designers have managed to integrate a compelling story into the mix. For those who have ever played an Ace Combat title, you are all probably quite familiar with the concept of flying around in circles, looping about, and feathering the throttle, all the while trying to line-up that distant enemy target just long enough to get a lock so you can fire off the traditional pair of missiles to take them down.
The core of the Ace Combat franchise remains, even in this fifth generation of the series, and yes, we have ground, sea, and even space targets, and of course no Ace Combat game would be complete without an underground mission that has you flying through twisting caverns. Yes, itís definitely more of the same, only now we have one of the most compelling narratives of any game I have played this year.
The story, which I wonít begin to spoil for you, literally kept me glued to the controller for extended gameplay sessions. It was just like reading a great book where you simply had to read the next chapter but in order to do so you had to earn the privilege by participating in a 5-15 minute mission.
Ace Combat is, and always has been about flying and Ace Combat 5 delivers upwards of 50 licensed planes for you to dominate the unfriendly skies. Early in the game you are assigned planes but later you will be able to purchase additional craft as you earn money and unlock new models. You will also be responsible for purchasing planes for your wingmen as well.
There is an intriguing ďexperience pointĒ system in place that slowly fills a meter for each plane you fly. The more enemies you shoot down the quicker this bar fills and eventually unlocks new planes in that particular technology tree. Naturally, these are some of the best planes in the game so your loyalty to any particular aircraft is well rewarded; although some missions dictate you fly a certain type of plane.
Each plane has several attributes though youíll likely only be concerned with the number of missiles and special weapons on each. These numbers often tie directly into the stats for air and ground combat effectiveness. Each mission is rated based on the number of air and ground targets and certain prerequisites are set during the mission config procedure. Later in the game you will get to select your plane as well as the planes of your wingmen, and these stats are combined. If you pick a bunch of planes that are only suited for air combat and there are ground targets you will get a warning indicating such, and while you can override this warning, itís best not to.
A few other plane attributes that are worth taking note of are defense and speed. If you are flying into hostile airspace youíll want a high defensive stat so you can suck up some damage, and speed is important if you are on a timed mission and need to reach your waypoints on or ahead of schedule.
You now have limited control over your squadron through wingmen commands. This is the same D-pad command system LucasArts has been using for years and gives you instant access to four commands that allow you to disperse your team or have them form up on your wing, cover a target or fire at will.
The only drawback to the command system is that you cannot control individual pilots or force them to use special weapons. Even designating a target is problematic since you must select the target first then issue the attack order. Itís just as easy to zip off a few missiles of your own while the target is already in your sight. Only at the end of the game when you view the final stats and see just how few enemies your AI teammates shot down will you realize their inclusion was more for effect than effectiveness.
Also, during the missions, you will be encouraged to interact with your team, or perhaps ground control, through a series of YES/NO questions. Almost all of these ďbranchingĒ points are purely superficial. It may steer the dialogue down one path but there are only two instances in the game where picking YES or NO will actually branch the mission tree down an alternate path, but that path is only for one mission and then you tie back into the main story. There are a few other instances where your wingmen might request permission to ďbreak offĒ and if you answer YES it works the same as selecting the disperse command with the D-pad.
While the game looks just as good as any military flight simulator the gameplay is unmistakably action-oriented. Yes, it is possible to stall your plane, and landings and take-offs are optional (but you are rewarded with extra points for doing so), but that is about the extent of the realism as far as physics and flight dynamics.
Ace Combat 5 plays extremely well with the DualShock. The left stick controls the plane while the right controls your viewpoint. The shoulder buttons control throttle and rudder, and I was most surprised to find the rudder actually came into play for once, especially in carrier landings, the canyon mission, and the underground facility.
The triangle selects targets and is also pressure sensitive to zoom in on the selected target. This is about the only way to see what you are shooting in Ace Combat. The square button toggles between radar and map and is also pressure sensitive allowing you to zoom the map. The X button fires your cannon while the circle shoots the currently selected missile or special weapon. Itís all fairly standard stuff for any veteran of the series.
The R3 allows you to cycle through three views, all of which are extremely pretty and playable. The chase view gives the game a definitely arcade flavor allowing you to see your plane and all of the fully functional control surfaces. The HUD view is probably the most traditional view and puts you on the nose of the plane with the HUD overlaid on the screen. This definitely gives you the best view of the action. The final view is a cockpit perspective that totally immerses you in the experience. Itís also a bit restrictive in a realistic and possibly claustrophobic way.
Ace Combat 5 can now be played with a specially made HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) control system. While I didnít have the luxury of playing with this particular model I do have a few joysticks at my disposal and in my opinion, the game just isnít ďsimulationĒ enough to warrant such an extravagant controller. I supposed if you combine this HOTAS with the cockpit view you might have the illusion of a combat sim.
There is an informative (and optional) 14-lesson tutorial that will introduce newcomers to the joys of flight and offer a nice refresher course for previous Ace pilots. These lessons are nicely laid out in a fashion where you get verbal and visual instructions much like real pilot school, and then you get to try the move yourself. All the lessons build upon previous skills until you complete the final training.
As far as difficulty, there were only about four missions that actually tripped me up and nearly all of them involved ďprotectionĒ. Once you learn to not get distracted or baited by the enemy and stick with your primary goal these are no longer a problem, although one mission where I was charged with protecting a giant ramp used to launch materials into space from an endless swarm of cruise missiles coming in from all directions still tests my skills to this day.
The game does a great job of mixing up the missions while keeping everything tightly integrated to the story. There are no out-of-place missions thrown in for the sake of having something to do. One minute you will be escorting a battle fleet and the next you will be taking recon photos from an F-117 Stealth Fighter. There are a few boss battles and even these are extremely well done, and quite believable given the gameís near-future timeframe. Stealth sub-carriers and giant orbital flying wings arenít too farfetched.
Perhaps one of the coolest elements that made its way into the gameplay, at least during the early and mid sections of the game was the new ballistic missile the enemy was using that created a massive EM spike neutralizing anything below 5,000 feet. Whenever this weapon was launched you had a 10-second countdown to climb above the blast range or it was mission-over.
Little things like that definitely keep the gameplay diverse and challenging and help you forget you are simply flying around in circles mashing the circle button for several minutes until all the red boxes are gone. Even the popular canyon-run mission is back, only now itís more like a maze exploration and you must clean out the enemies without flying above the canyon walls.
All the while the intense story, rife with plot twists and intrigue will keep you pushing on through the thirty-some missions. And when you have finished the 5-6 hour campaign game you still have a meaty arcade mode that will test your piloting and combat skills in a multi-branching challenge of shooting down a fixed number of enemies within the allotted time.
I was surprised, but not terribly disappointed, that there was no multiplayer offerings, neither online nor two-player split-screen like the previous installment. I never played the multiplayer mode that much when it was offered so no great loss, although I would like to see some type of online combat in future installments. This game just begs for some online competition with multiple pilots.
I donít think you can make a more realistic looking flight game than Ace Combat 5. Simply put, this is photo-realistic and the only way itís going to get more real is if you enlist in the Air Force. Using satellite imaging, you get the absolute, most authentic terrain Iíve ever seen on a console title. The screenshots donít lie. It really looks that good.
As always, the game has a definite tilt towards high-altitude combat so the illusion doesnít work as well when you drop down to the deck, but the textures still hold up and there is a lot more 3D objects like buildings, towers, trees, etc. and they are tangible objects, meaning you can hit them and crash. One such mission actually has you shooting down electrical towers to clear a makeshift runway.
Dog fighting in the city, twisting through man-made canyons, skimming under bridges or swooping over snowcapped mountains or navigating a twisting jungle river is an exhilarating experience unmatched by any other flight game on any console system.
The CG cutscenes are gorgeous, but when the gameplay looks so photo-realistic they actually arenít as impressive as they should be. Normally cutscenes represent the highlight of the visuals in a game but not in Ace Combat 5. Still, the scenery and character models are exquisite and some of the larger sequences that involve entire fleets of ships or numerous squadrons of planes are most impressive. The opening movie lasts nearly as long as the first two missions, and while itís captivating it also shows a few possible spoilers even though they are taken out of context.
The plane models are dead-on with so much detail youíll think you are watching the History Channel. Every control surface moves and affects the planeís path as it should. The same attention to detail also went into ground targets like tanks, APCís, SAMís, buildings, and just about any other 3D object that isnít part of the photo texturing.
There are real-time lighting and shadows and tons of special effects like fiery explosions, blinding EMP bursts, and wispy rocket trails. You even get the cool red-purple-blue glow from your afterburner. Weather effects are realistically modeled and include rain, snow, fog, and various levels of cloud cover that all directly affect your visibility.
The entire presentation is wrapped up nicely with excellent pre and mid-flight mission briefings that show your mission plan in 3D wireframe. This same wireframe is then used for post-mission playback and you can actually see every move you, your wingmen, and the enemy made, all laid out with color-coded ribbon trails. Of course all of the video playback modes are available so you can relive the mission from numerous angles including chase, cockpit, wingmen, flyby, and target cams. I was impressed the game managed to save the entire mission replay, but also a bit disappointed I couldnít save those replays to my memory card. Iím sure they were much too large.
For having the title, The Unsung War, there is a lot of singing in this game. Well, not really, but there were at least three missions that involved singing, either from people in the football stadium, from the pilots of the final mission, or the haunting choir music of a sunset sea battle. The rest of the musical package was a flawless mix of militaristic rock that really gets the pilot juices flowing, especially the opening number, ďBlurryĒ, by Puddle of Mudd. This was not only unexpected, but probably the best possible choice for music for the opening montage. Puddle of Mudd and Ace Combat go together like Kenny Loggins and Top Gun.
Sound effects are minimal at best, mainly the whoosh of rockets and missiles, and the odd sounding buzz of the machineguns. The explosions are good and loud if you are close enough to the blast but most of the time you are lucky to see or hear the results of a successful strike. Of course, the sound effects in the cutscenes are all topnotch and the entire package is delivered in a Dolby Pro Logic II mix.
The dialogue is excellent, both in content and delivery and this has to be one of the best localizations I have heard in years. The self-narrated story is done very well and all the major characters not only deliver they lines with total professionalism, their voices even match their character design. The in-flight chatter can get a bit distracting and even annoying, but Iíll admit it kept things lively.
Imagine my surprise after five days and 18+ hours of gaming when I looked at my finishing stats and saw the campaign had only taken me 5h:38m. Iím pretty sure there wasnít 12hrs of movies (this isnít Metal Gear Solid after all), so that means I played some of these missions several times, and this was on the Normal skill setting.
At the end of my first pass through the campaign I only had about 75% of the planes unlocked, but once finished you can replay the game including the earlier missions using the more advanced planes you have already unlocked. The designers are banking on this by rewarding your diligence with newer and better planes, more than 50 in all.
The Arcade mode also offers a significant challenge and will keep you playing for extended periods of time. All told, you can easily get 20-30 hours out of Ace Combat 5 before you even start to consider playing another game. As for the branching mission tree, if you know the branch point and are saving your game after every mission it shouldnít be too hard to explore the alternate paths without having to replay the entire game.
Heavy on action and heavier on story, Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War is without a doubt the finest flight combat game on the PS2. Had it offered any type of multiplayer I would extend the kudos over into the Xbox universe, but Crimson Skies still reigns supreme on that system.
Sim purists might not find everything they are looking for but the cockpit cam combined with the HOTAS control system makes a valiant attempt at total immersion. For the rest of us just looking for an intense combat game that has you ruling the skies and dominating the ground, look no further than Ace Combat 5. Youíll be singing the praises of this Unsung War.