It’s very rare nowadays to play a title that astounds you, remember the first time you played Shadow of the Colossus or Monster Hunter? Well I had a moment like that when I played Ace Combat Distant Thunder (or Ace Combat Shattered Skies for you yanks) for the Sony PlayStation 2. I know you’re finding this hard to believe and trust me that I was not expecting a game-changing experience from my local bargain bin but rest assured, Ace Combat 4 (let’s just call it that to avoid localization problems) will leave you with that oh so satisfying tingling in your stomach when those credits roll.
The Ace Combat series began waaay back in 1992 in arcades where it made quite a scene as a dogfighting simulator in arcades but it was only in ’95 that players got to take the action home with them with Ace Combat for the Sony PlayStation. Don’t remember playing it? Well that’s because it was renamed Air Combat in the west for reasons best known to the localization team. The game was a hit and sparked many, many sequels up until today with the recent Ace Combat: Assault Horizon for Ps3 and Xbox 360, which is itself well worthy of praise but let’s stay focused here.
The Ace Combat series is (with a few exceptions) set in an alternate reality version of Earth, that is to say landmasses and countries are all fictional but the planes featured are real licensed aircraft. This metamorphosis allows Namco to create fanciful scenarios to fuel their games without picking sides or treading on anyone’s toes. You may think of this as a hindrance but aren’t you, like me, bored to death of fighting Russians and Afghan soldiers as a brave American? The result is somehow more relatable as you aren’t as readily invested in either side of the conflict, being jaded against one or the other by Hollywood films or the media. Characters and nations are depicted in a very human and honest way and you soon find yourself enveloped in the plot, wanting so much to keep playing to the end.
Flying in Ace Combat 4 is a wonderful mixture of simulation and arcade controls that are easy to get to grips with but very rewarding to master. Control schemes cater to people of all skill levels and before long you’ll be streaking across the skies at hundreds of miles an hour and dropping huge payloads of ordnance onto hapless targets below. There are action replays of all levels so you can relive your favorite moments and see them from cinematic camera angles and when flying you can choose first person, third person or cockpit views so hardcore players can take their planes in for the kill in true top gun style.
Flight sim fans will be delighted to learn that you can manually perform take-offs and landings during levels in order to repair your plane and restock on ammunition. Whilst some players might find this mundane it is a fantastic test of your flying skills and requires a steady hand. Sounds too fiddly or too much work? Namco have you covered as you have the option to skip these sections and get straight to the fight, they really are ticking all the right boxes for this reviewer.
Completing missions with high kill tallies rewards you with cash to spend on new planes and weapons between missions. Before long you’ll have an impressive roster of aircraft and with the help of in-depth briefings you’ll be able to pick the ideal one for the mission ahead. Helping ground forces to storm the beaches? Take a bomber. Need to escort a civilian plane through hostile skies? You’ll need your best fighter plane for that one. There’s seventeen campaign missions and more bonus missions to choose from so you’ll have plenty of chances to try all the planes and pick your favorites in each class.
Missions are wonderfully varied and entirely enjoyable. As you blast through them, you’ll be praised for kills and informed of the locations of threats and targets by your squadmates via an impressive amount of radio messages. Important events unfurl in real time, meaning that the plot isn’t all confined to cut scenes and that you have to keep on your toes as what happens in the skies isn’t always what you were told in the briefing.
Moving on to the real meat of the game, the story! Ace Combat 4 is set on the fictional continent of Usea after failed attempts to destroy a meteorite on a collision course with the planet rain down smaller chunks of meteor, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Eursea, a particularly militant country within the continent, use the ensuing turmoil to seize stonehenge (a powerful long-range missile base built to deal with the asteroid) giving them a very potent weapon with plans to control Usea. Responding to this threat, many smaller countries of Usea ally their forces and create the Independant States Allied Forces (or ISAF for short). Stuck in the middle of this conflict is one little boy whose family was killed when an Eursean fighter pilot brings down an ISAF jet on his home. Shocked, the boy spots a yellow “13″ emblazoned on the Eursean fighter as it circles overhead to confirm the kill.
The narrative of Ace Combat 4 is told by voice-overs from the now grown-up boy, explaining how he hated the occupying Eursean forces and had to play the harmonica in a bar for tips to provide food for himself and his drunk uncle (it really tugs at your heart strings). One fateful day, a group of Eursean pilots relax in the bar, boasting of their kill tallies when the boy overhears that the leader of their group is the infamous yellow thirteen, the man responsible for his becoming orphaned.The boy eventually becomes attached to the man, seeing him as a strong dependable leader and honour-bound soldier who believes in fair play, even in battle.
The twist to the story is that you, the player, are fighting on the side of the ISAF as a fighter ace with the callsign “Mobius one”. As you progress through the campaign you square off against the Eursean Yellow Squadron, attempting to thwart your plans to sabotage their invasion. Upon shooting down varios members of the squad, you watch the fallout from the boy’s perspective. Thirteen is slowly being torn apart by the loss of his squad and, after one fateful mission in which the player kills his wingman and childhood friend, confides in the boy and tells him of the time he met her.
This humanizing of the enemy adds much more weight to the act of pulling that trigger, as we become more and more aware that the better you do, the more this man will suffer. We become painfully aware that we aren’t fighting faceless evil people but men and women with friends and relationships, soldiers caught up in a political war they might not have any investment in.
During the penultimate mission, after a long and arduous fight that sees the player aid in capturing key enemy personnel, the Eruseans scramble Yellow Squadron for one last-ditch attempt at victory. After the battle is won we are informed that Thirteen’s plane was shot down during the conflict. We don’t know if it was Mobius one or one of your squadmates that caused it but I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I had done it. It was a terrible feeling and a very powerful moment in the storyline, it made me feel dirty. The final mission was still ahead of me and my mind was elsewhere and when the credits eventually rolled I felt sad that I snuffed Thirteen’s life out so suddenly. In a symbolic nod to the brave pilot, Namco subtly placed thirteen yellow jets on the enemy’s team during the final mission.
So wrapping up, my expectations for Ace Combat Distant Thunder were understandably low but being bombarded with top-notch controls and interface, challenging and adrenaline-pumping missions and a truly heartwrenching storyline left me with no choice but to praise it here in this retrospective. I was never a huge fan of flying games, recently playing through the mediocre Tom Clancy’s Hawx series and the fun but flawed Blazing Angels titles on my 360, but this game made me an instant Ace Combat fan and renewed my faith in meaningful military storytelling. Bravo Namco, bravo!
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