Monday, January 3, 2011

Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War

Ace Combat 5 reminds me of a time when retail games dared to be unique. Nowadays if you see something that can truly be called unique, you probably downloaded it. Presented by Namco, The Unsung War is a military flight sim with arcade elements.


By “arcade elements” I mean that on normal difficulty each plane carries scores of missiles (higher-end ones come packing 70-80 of them), and have unlimited fuel and gun ammo. I’m not sure how realistic some of the turns and other in-flight maneuvers you can easily pull off in this game are, but I’d guess even with heavy training you’d come close to blacking out trying some of them in real life. Despite all this, the game doesn’t feel unrealistic. Go too high or too slow and your plane will stall, and begin to drop like a rock. Higher difficulties introduce limited gun ammo, and enemy missiles can tear you apart in under two hits. Each plane has a cockpit view, which is nifty feature. Basically, the game tries to be as realistic as possible without constricting gameplay. I think it succeeds in striking a proper balance for this purpose. And believe it or not, even with that many missiles, it’s easier than you think to run out. Carelessly firing them as soon as you have a lock, or trying to take on every enemy burns through your supply of ammo fast. I actually depleted my entire stock of missiles and special weapons one mission, and had to finish it chasing targets with my gun.


One of the cool things about Ace Combat is the realistic-but-fictional world that it usually presents; an alternate Earth where a different set of countries exist. The Unsung War begins on a peaceful island air base in the country of Osea. 15 years ago, an aggressive country called Belka made war against its neighbors Osea and Yuktobania (the setting of Ace Combat Zero, incidentally). It was a long and bloody battle, but in the end Belka was pushed back, and lost much of its territory. In a shocking move, Belka simultaneously halted enemy advances and brought a swift end to the war by detonating several nuclear bombs on their own land. But this is all told through the game’s opening cutscene; back in the present we meet Wardog squadron, stationed at the island base, and composed of Alvin “Chopper” Davenport, Kei “Edge” Nagase, and silent protagonist Blaze (who, naturally, is controlled by the player). They’re all flight newbies, and are training under their captain when Yuktobania attacks the base while declaring war on Osea. The game shows the player the war from start to bitter finish through these three pilots’ eyes as they rise from being “nuggets” to full-on flight aces respected and feared as the “Demons of Razgriz”. As the war progresses, they learn revelations about Belka, and the nature of war itself.


The story is pushed along primarily by dialogue delivered by near-constant radio chatter, and the occasional cutscene. You’ll hear your wingmen chat it up (and sometimes join the conversation, though only with yes or no answers), you’ll hear any ground or allied forces’ relevant conversation, heck you’ll often even pick up on the enemy’s frequency and hear them talk! I liked the constant talking. Not only did it add to the atmosphere, but also gave a bit of weight to each objective given, and each plane shot down. I felt a bit more motivated to provide close-air support for a ground squad when they were shouting into their mics giving sitreps even as I heard gunfire in the background. Alternatively, each kill on a rival ace squad is that much sweeter when you get to hear them react to one of their comrades going down, after audibly displaying such confidence entering the fight.


Gameplay of course takes place entirely in the cockpit of you chosen aircraft. Missions are acceptably diverse, including providing air support for ground and naval units, taking out specific enemy targets, and gathering intelligence via stealth infiltration. Many missions also offer optional takeoff, landing and re-fueling segments. Most of the time you’ll have 2-3 wingmen at your side, who can be given rudimentary commands using the d-pad. You can have them disperse, cover you, or actively engage the enemy, in addition to enabling or disabling their use of special weapons. I didn’t notice a lot of change in their behavior between the commands, but it did serve to immerse me a little further.


In between missions you’ll often be treated to a cutscene to move the plot forward, before watching the briefing on your next mission. You can also buy and sell planes during this time. There’ about 50 planes to choose from, if memory serves, and all of them have strengths and weaknesses (though there’s definitely a progression in “quality” planes). For example, while A-10 Thunderbolt excels at ground attacks, it’s not nearly as maneuverable as many other planes, and not suited to air-to-air combat. The F-22 Raptor (probably one of the best aircraft in the game), on the other hand, is absolutely superior at air-to-air combat, but you might think twice bringing it into a mission that will mostly focus on land targets. Furthermore, many planes have alternate forms, such as the air-to-air oriented F-14 Tomcat having the “Bombcat” alteration, which gives it much better air-to-ground capabilities.


In addition to a vulcan cannon and missiles, each plane also has a small stock of special weapons ammo. Special weapons, take on many forms, and often define the role of the plane carrying them. The XMAA carried by the Raptor is a set of air-to-air missiles that, in addition to having much increased range and tracking ability over normal missiles, can seek up to four targets at once. The bomblet dispenser releases dozens of little bombs for an effective carpet bombing run. SAAM is single missile with immense range that will seek its target for as long as you can keep him/her within its tracking circle. There’s even a jamming special weapon that can be used to disrupt enemy missiles.


As in any flight sim, the best aspect of the game’s graphics are the planes themselves, which are rendered lovingly. Instead of being static models though, they all have moving parts, such as wing flaps, air brakes, missile doors, and turbines. Unfortunately, objects other than you and your wingmen’s planes didn’t get nearly as much treatment. The ground, while looking realistic enough, tends to feature a lot of crude shapes are supposed trees, tanks, and buildings, and bland textures are definitely a mainstay. It definitely doesn’t detract from the experience though, and this IS a PS2 game, so maybe I’m even being a tad harsh coming directly from the current generation.


The audio on the other hand is definitely good. Most of the dialogue was fun to listen to in my opinion, though some lines or voice pitches did stand out as odd. The game includes both English and Japanese dialogue tracks as well as subtitles though, so no complaints here. The BGMs are a bit varied, featuring your typical militaristic themes during briefing and before takeoff. Once up in the air, you’ll hear anything from rock n’ roll to orchestral scores. It never feels inappropriate, but that might be because I was too busy shacking targets and dodging missile locks to care.


I’ve said just about all I wanted to say about this game. It was great fun to revisit it, and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a nice rental. An 8.5/10

No comments: