The city is burning.
Pillars of smoke stain the sky, cutting black scars into a perfect blue backdrop.
The chaos of war screams all around you in the form of missiles, bombs, drones and machine gun fire. They cloud your field of vision, but you ignore it. You’re on a mission.
Command says you have to take out the bomber squad before they complete their run, decimating the population and making this city under your protection just another casualty of this senseless war.
You cycle the bomber into your targeting reticle, looks like it’s below you. You airbrake and dive, stall warnings screaming at you as you push your F-16 to make the run in time.
You switch to your long range missiles, good for slower moving targets, and wait for the reticle to change from green to red, letting you know that it’s locked on and ready to fire. You launch the last two of your distance rockets, watching as the B-52 in your sights turn into a melted ball of slag falling to the ground below.
Computer says it’s at a high altitude, with a fighter escort, so you rotate your plane and pull the nose up hard, covering your plane in cloud vapor as your plane gains altitude. The squadron comes into view, a flying V formation with 2 escort MIG’s in the back.
Before the guard planes even have time to break away, you have two missiles flying up the exhaust of one of the MIG’s and machine gun fire cutting the second to ribbons. With the escorts out of the way, you toy with the final B-52; matching it’s speed and peppering it with machine gun flack, seeing how much damage the great beast can take before it too bellows flame and begins its meteoric descent.
A victorious blue banner pops across your Heads Up Display saying “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”, and the world fades to black.
Congratulations kid, you beat the tutorial.
And this is the exhilaration gaming can achieve. This what it’s like to play Ace Combat.
Ace combat is a franchise absolutely filled with little moments like this, where you can really lose yourself in the role of an ace fighter pilot, pulling off death defying stunts thousands of feet above the ground. The series became famous for its wacky plot and (rightfully so) for its phenomenal music, but one thing I feel gets lost in describing the vibe the game gives off.
The series plays into the power fantasy of your portrayal as “A dogfighting god of death”, so as you progress through the story, the enemies you fight begin to talk about you over radio chatter, turning your piloting career into mythic legend before your eyes. In AC5, this culminates in your squadron being renamed the “Daemons of Razgriz”, named after a folklore fairy tale about a vengeful daemon who destroys the world. In AC7, you become your squads good luck charm, leading to the phrase “Stick with Trigger and you’ll make it through”.
The feeling of the game acknowledging how good you are is a pretty unique experience, and even though it’s clearly baked into the game, it lends nicely to the atmosphere of being the most dangerous thing in the skies, and the these touches are tonally scaling with the difficulty scaling between levels.
Another thing often left out when the franchise is discussed is its gameplay diversity. While the games themselves are pretty short, they pack each mission with so many varying tasks and challenges, you rarely get a chance to catch your breath, or get too comfortable with the game before things change on you. In just one mission early on in AC7, you are flying in-between radar sensors on a stealth mission, pivoting into a race against time to clear out ground anti-air defenses to make way for a helicopter to land, then juking back one last time to fight off waves of aerial drones while defending a damaged friendly plane. This frantic format extends to about 75% of the missions, and really adds to the brisk pace of the game.
A good Ace Combat title will last you about 20 hours, depending on difficulty and bonus investments, of course, but never is there a single minute in that time where you feel like you are playing filler content. Stages are crafted with care and great attention to detail, and the challenges you come up against are varied and difficult, with some truly memorable set-pieces thrown in along the way.
If you are looking to get into Ace Combat, there’s no need to feel intimidated by it’s vast number of entries. It will always be recommend to start with “the golden trilogy” first and foremost: Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War and Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War for the PlayStation 2. That era is the high water mark for the series, and is the reason Ace Combat is still talked about today to the extent that it is. Following that, AC7 is a great jumping on point as the latest in the series. It’s readily available and actually holds up well on its own. Just don’t touch Assault Horizon. Please, and you’re welcome. This franchise absolutely deserves your time if you want something with personality and is more than a flight simulator.
LONG LIVE BELKA!