Friday, June 5, 2015

Let's Talk About Dogfight Mode

This is a nearly year-old post that's been sitting in drafts for a long time.  It seems fine so I figured I'd just put it out.

This past weekend I played through the majority of Ace Combat 6 for the first time.  It's really fun.  Speaking purely in terms of gameplay I think it might be my favorite entry in the franchise.  I've now played both HD Ace Combats (not counting Infinity, though I did also try that), which prompted some reflection.

Both AC6 and Assault Horizon bring something distinct and unique to the table.  With Assault Horizon, it's the Dogfight Mode.  I wanted to gather my thoughts on this controversial mechanic with a post.

I've been around the block regarding my feelings on this gimmick; at first I thought it was dumb, then I thought it was great.  Now, I just think it's okay.  Despite what I think a lot Ace Combat fans will tell you, DFM has both positives and negatives.  The best thing DFM does for the series is that it makes dogfights much more personal, and much more hands-on.  You're challenging another plane to a no-holds barred duel across the skies, and the very nature of DFM discourages others from interfering.  It also directly removes the infinite loops that dogfights could sometimes devolve into, as well as addressing the complaints of how impersonal and even boring it could feel to shoot at a target thousands of feet away.  The Bombing Run mechanic (a ground assault version of Dogfight Mode) also managed to make air-to-ground objectives engaging, where before they were generally tedious and boring.

The problem with DFM lies not with the mechanic itself in my opinion, but how Assault Horizon was built to accommodate it.  The game would break its own rules, bending over backwards to encourage you to use its new mechanic.  Take flares for example, which are introduced for the first time in AH.  Flares are a free get-out-of-jail card, allowing you to evade missiles in emergencies.  But you only have a handful of them, and they take very long time to reload (upwards of 45 seconds).  However, Assault Horizon features Flight Leaders, planes who achieve invincibility by being able to use flares constantly to evade missiles until you engage them in DFM.  While also functioning as an emergency escape mechanism for pilots being pursued, flares became a convenient way to force the player to use DFM.

At the most fundamental level, the flight controls became much floatier, which made lining up even the most basic shots a bigger task than it used to be.  The scale of the battles and number of enemies was reduced, and after AC6 we know that it's not an issue of hardware.  The answer then, must be DFM.  And it makes sense.  The thing to remember with this mechanic is that it inherently centers the gameplay around taking down targets one at a time.  This also probably explains the change to how multi-lockon missiles--such as the XMAA4s--work.  Whereas previously such weapons would lock onto multiple targets, one missile to a target, in Assault Horizon it's possible for multiple missile locks to overlap on an individual target, which means you could throw all four XMAA4s at a single plane.  Since you generally only need two missiles at most to down enemy planes this is a huge waste.  But in Assault Horizon, where you'd spend much of your time in the tunnel vision of DFM, this sort of change makes more sense.  If battles in Assault Horizon featured as many targets to shoot at as they do in Ace Combat 6, the game would become a slog; having to blow up that many planes one at a time in DFM would get repetitive.

So instead of simply scrapping it, can we fix DFM?  As I've already said, I don't think it's an inherently bad concept.  But is too much change required to make it work?  If we consider a game that otherwise plays like typical Ace Combat but features DFM, the 3DS game Assault Horizon Legacy draws the closest parallel.  That game suffered from enemies that would make impossible maneuvers to evade missiles, forcing you to rely on its Maneuvers mechanic (which would trigger a momentary cutscene as the game automatically positioned you perfectly to fire missiles at your adversary).  Perhaps a mechanic like DRM cannot coexist with traditional Ace Combat gameplay without hamstringing it.