When Ace Combat 4 was initially released, its sales were lukewarm (at best). Within a few months, however, word of mouth had gotten out about the game's lush visuals and white knuckle dogfighting–propelling it to million-seller status. Namco had been on the verge of writing off the series, but thanks to the surprise success of the fourth installment, the company instead decided to commit resources toward a fifth Ace Combat game, which after more than two years in development is finally nearing release.
The latest game is called Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. Namco recently passed along a work-in-progress demo to us here at PSX Extreme, so we thought we'd bring you up to speed on what is shaping up to be one of this holiday season's must-buys.
Right off the bat, we were impressed by how video clips, CG rendered scenes, and game-engine chase cameras were used to put together the game's opening story. The scope is grandiose–a flurry of people, places, and environments are thrown at you just in the opener–which, if previous Ace Combat games are any indication, means that every mission in the campaign mode will have a lengthy, plot-heavy intermission to go with it. The events in Ace Combat 5 take place in the year 2010 and revolve around the ongoing tensions between two fictional rival nations–Osea and Yuktobania. One day, a gigantic unidentified aircraft appears in Osea's airspace. The 108th Tactical Fighter Squadron is scrambled to intercept the mysterious UFO, but is totally wiped out before information can be passed along about the interloper's construction or country of origin. Just as quickly as it appeared, the killer UFO disappears from radar. Osea's airforce is left with only a few straggling pilots and war is declared with Yuktobania.
Fans of the previous game's third-person narrative style will appreciate that Namco has used the same technique in the latest game. The main pilot is a character named Blaze, but–while players will get to witness many interactions between Blaze, his wingmen, and their superiors–much of the story is told through the eyes of an independent news photographer. The photog gets to see both sides of the conflict first-hand and his perspective allows the player to know things that they normally wouldn't if the story were presented solely through Blaze's eyes.
Namco's press materials suggest that the story mode will feature more than 30 missions–ranging from air-to-air combat, air-to-ground fighting, air-to-sea assaults, rescue, and recon. The aircraft roster is shaping up to include more than 50 real and fantasy aircraft, including space shuttles and military prototypes. The demo we received allowed us to choose from three aircraft (F/A-18, F-14, and F/A-22 prototype) and tossed us right into a seek-and-destroy mission.
For the most part, Ace Combat 5 plays like Ace Combat 4 did. The analog sticks and L2/R2 adjust steering, nose, and yaw, while the X and O buttons control the plane's machine guns and missiles. This isn't a simulation, so players can't drop the throttle to zero or crash into the ground (unless it's a near-ground mission or an enemy shoots you down). A HUD cursor lets you know if your guns or missiles are locked onto a target. One change we did notice is that the color of the HUD cursor no longer designates the importance of a target. Now, the color of the HUD cursor tells you how much damage an enemy aircraft has.
Another change–and perhaps the most significant–is that Ace Combat 5 lets players take charge of supporting wingmen. In previous games, you had to hope that the CPU went after the appropriate target and didn't get itself killed. Here, we were able to boss our wingmen around by pushing different directions on the digital pad. Tapping right or left makes them form up or disperse, and tapping up or down commands them to attack primary or secondary targets. The demo mission only had a handful of tanker aircraft and a few support fighters, so we didn't get to use the wingmen too much, but from what we can tell, they're smart enough to eliminate targets on their own and to evade when fired at. What we like most about the wingman aspect is all of the radio chatter that goes along with it. Squadmates will often chime in with some witty comment, usually at your expense, or carry on small conversations with one another while dogfighting Yuktobania's forces.
Many people fell in love with Ace Combat 4 because the graphics were so jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Ace Combat 5 features the same kind of sharp lines and busy environments, but kicks everything up a few notches. The airplane models are freakishly detailed, right down to fully-articulated flaps, gears, and hard points. The PS2's horsepower is put to good use generating things like engine contrails, heat backwash, and a hydraulic exhaust effects. It's neat how the screen warps slightly and the engine quiets down when you break the sound barrier–just like it would if you actually were flying too fast for noise to keep up. Enemy planes show evidence of damage when they're hit, and, if you knock one out of the sky, you can watch it plummet in a smoky heap until the debris hits the ground. We were impressed that the trees and buildings on land didn't blur or become pixilated no matter how close we flew. The clouds and weather seem to be dynamic as well. We've now flown the demo mission in clear skies, thick clouds, and in a mild rain shower.
What isn't clear yet is exactly what modes and bonuses there will be besides the story campaign. In Ace Combat 4, new planes were unlocked by finishing missions and shooting down specific CPU aces, and players were able to replay any single-player mission once they completed it in the story mode. Our contact at Namco says that Ace Combat 5 will be setup much the same way, except that there will be multiple bonus missions and a dozen or so maps set aside specifically for two-player split-screen dogfighting.
Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War is set for release in the US and Japan on October 25, 2004, and in Europe on December 31.