Videogames

Dance With The Angels: The High Drama and Anti-War Sentiment of Ace Combat

In the early days of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, unconfirmed reports trickled out about a mythical “Ghost of Kyiv”, a single pilot at the helm of a MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet that was rumoured to have taken out several Russian fighters despite being impossibly outgunned and outmanned. It’s a fanciful idea, one that defies credibility, but is the kind of mythology that often inspires hope. In more ways than one, the “Ghost” seems like an idea ripped wholesale from one of my favourite game series, Namco-Bandai’s Ace Combat

As enticing as it might be to command a fish in a video game, there are few digital thrills comparable to taking control and deftly maneuvering a prohibitively expensive and complex machine in the form of an airplane. Microsoft’s long-running and ultra-popular (though unimaginatively named) Flight Simulator series springs immediately to mind, giving you dauntingly accurate and granular control over a virtual airliner and, presumably, the lives of dozens of unseen digital passengers. Flight Simulator can hardly be described as “action packed”, though, rewarding you not so much for the kinds of sick barrel rolls that would have your virtual  business-class patrons reaching for their airsick bags, but for a dishwater-dull uneventful flight between New York and London where you follow all the rules and get everyone there safely.

Ace Combat doesn’t quite mirror the complex controls of a fighter jet in the way that Flight Simulator does with passenger planes. Instead, it takes the approach of greatly simplifying those controls in an effort to provide a more fast-paced, arcade-like experience. In the more modern iterations of Ace Combat, this action-packed dogfightin’ fun is paired with a story that’s surprisingly layered and complex for what would normally be a clinical run-and-gun affair where you mindlessly shoot at illuminated squares on your heads-up display (HUD).  Most interestingly, for a series entirely focused on piloting expensive and cutting-edge killing machines, Ace Combat’s story (at least it’s modern iterations) has a decidedly anti-war sentiment running through it. 

In the Ace Combat games, you’ll always play as a single, nameless (outside of a callsign) pilot that can single-handedly change the course of a battle. You’ll often have command of–or are at least accompanied by–a couple of wingmen as well. The radio chatter both within your team and, occasionally, from your enemies throughout the mission is an important storytelling device, as you’ll hear your mates cracking jokes or exhibiting fear of what’s to come. There’s nothing quite like having your team cheer you on as you complete a difficult mission directive, and few things as unexpectedly heartbreaking as hearing one of your pals laughing it up before being blown out of the sky. It also feeds into the anti-war philosophy of Ace Combat by putting human faces and voices to the blips on your radar. It’s a lot harder to fill your dogfight opponent full of cruise missiles when you’ve just heard them expound on their motivations, and Ace Combat plays on this in several unique ways. 

The alternate universe of Strangereal

The setting for most of the Ace Combat games is a land called Strangereal, which (as the name suggests) is a slightly altered version of our own world that features various thinly-veiled stand-ins for real nations. Usea and Osea, the usual “protagonist” nations, are meant to represent the US and the UK respectively. Belka is pretty much Germany, and Yuktobania is more or less Russia. For some reason, Antarctica remains the same. The stories mostly take place between 1993 and the present day, during various pivotal wars and events in Strangereal’s alternate timeline. Strangereal has it’s own history, including a World War perpetrated by Belka, a Cold War between Usea and Yuktobania, and a devastating asteroid impact (called Ulysses) in 1999 which wiped out 500,000 human lives and radically changed the geography of Usea and the surrounding areas. The nations have extremely complicated politics, as nations do, featuring changing alliances and tenuous peace deals. There’s also a science fiction element to Strangereal where they have developed more advanced technology than we have, like the Stonehenge weapons system which was designed to blow up asteroid fragments but is later repurposed to shoot down planes instead, or the International Space Elevator which is used to extract solar energy and is similarly weaponized later. Both of these provide settings for various missions throughout the series and are key story elements that show how easily ostensibly-beneficial technology can be, and usually is, repurposed for nefarious means.  

The Playstation Era: Air Combat (1993, 1995), Air Combat 2 (1997), Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere (1999)

The earliest edition of Ace Combat, then known as Air Combat, was a fixture of arcades (remember those?) in 1993. Innovative and impressive for it’s time, Air Combat was housed in one of those sit-down cabinets that were mostly reserved for driving games. You’d sit right inside and command your winged murder machine with a flight stick. It was notably one of the first arcade games to render 3D polygons, using Namco’s innovative ‘System 21’. In 1995, Air Combat was ported to the first PlayStation console, offering the same gameplay (without the sweet cabinet) and a more robust campaign. This game, it’s sequel Air Combat 2, and Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere all feature stories where you’re pit against terrorist organizations and the plot is fairly thin, especially compared to the four games that would come afterwards. 

The groundwork of the series is laid in these original three games, though, and the exhilarating gameplay of spiraling through space (in Ace Combat 3, which is the only game in the series to lean hard enough into the sci-fi elements to send your plane into space, this is literal) while chasing down opposing pilots and giant ‘boss’ aircraft that are straight out of a science fiction movie is very much intact. Just as in the latest releases, you’ll still have to gauge just the right angles to approach enemy fighters to allow your missiles to hit home and carefully monitor your radio chatter for mission updates. But the story elements, though attempts were made to create branching pathways through the game’s narrative that give you some choice, just weren’t there yet. 

Ace Combat 5′s deadly beauty

The PlayStation 2 Era: Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies (2001), Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War (2004), Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War (2006)

The game that elevated the Ace Combat series from a good one to a legendary one is 2001’s Ace Combat 4, the series debut on the PlayStation 2. It was the biggest critical and popular success for the franchise and is the high water mark for the series. It takes place five years after the Ulysses asteroid impact that destabilized Usea and tells the tale of a child who watched his family be obliterated in an attack by “Yellow 13”, an ace pilot who is initially presented as the villain of the game. This is the first indication that Ace Combat’s story is moving in an anti-war direction, as we’re given nuanced character development for both sides of the conflict, expressing that those participating or affected by war aren’t necessarily good or bad, just on opposing teams. To this end, the player assumes the role of Mobius 1, arch-nemesis of Yellow 13, and a lot of the story is about how these and all the pilots featured in the game are mere pawns of larger governments. 

Ace Combat 5 isn’t quite the dramatic leap in quality for the game that there is between 3 and 4, but it’s still an excellent game by any standard. It tells the story of a rookie pilot named Blaze who’s caught up in the conflict between Usea and Yuktobania. Even though AC5 isn’t as groundbreaking as AC4, what I like about it is that there’s a lot more development of the peripheral characters, especially your wingmen and command structure, than the previous titles. Kei Nagase (Callsign: Edge) is an experienced pilot with lingering trauma from an attack early in the game which left her as the sole survivor. Alvin Davenport (Callsign: Chopper) is the brash comic relief of the team, but ultimately proves to be highly capable and valuable for morale. Hans Grimm (Callsign: Archer) is the youngest member of the team and needs more motivation than the others, but one of the rewarding experiences of the game is to see him develop into a very talented pilot by the later missions. The story in AC5 is full of twists, betrayals, and heart-rending casualties that really drive home the chaos and horror of war, perhaps better than any other game in the series. It’s where I fell in love with Ace Combat, and is one of my favourite games ever. 

Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War is a prequel to Ace Combat 5, and takes the approach of following a documentary filmmaker as he interviews a number of veterans of the eponymous war, tracing the origins of a legendary ace pilot named Cipher, whose role you assume. Cipher’s story unfolds through live-action, highly-cinematic cutscenes of these interviews that unfold throughout the game. allowing you to play through the pivotal moments in Cipher’s career. What’s most unique about this installment is that it puts names to even more of your enemies as you stare them down, changing the dynamic of dogfights a bit by making them more personal. It also introduces a kind of morality system, called Ace Style, which is determined by your actions on the battlefield. As you make decisions during missions – disarming enemies rather than killing them, minimizing damage to civilian targets, showing mercy on enemies that are attempting to flee – your status (and in-game reputation) will change from a merciless ‘Mercenary’ to an honourable ‘Knight’, or sit somewhere in between as a ‘Soldier’. This status affects how your missions play out and the types of aircraft you unlock as you progress, incentivizing not being a total crumb-bum out there. 

The PlayStation 3 Era: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011) and Ace Combat: Infinity (2014)

Though they’re nominally entries in the Ace Combat series, Assault Horizon and Infinity are more spinoffs than canon installments. Neither take place in Strangereal, instead explicitly taking place in our world. Certain events in both games mirror those of the Strangereal timeline, though, such as the Ulysses meteor disaster in the 1990’s that prompts the creation of the Stonehenge anti-asteroid weapon. 

Assault Horizon and Infinity were both generally well-received, though not nearly so much as the 4, 5, and 6th entries into the series. These two games upend the gameplay somewhat by introducing the Close Range Assault system which takes the control of the airplane away from the player and focuses on the weapons. In this way it really prioritizes the battle elements over the graceful maneuvering of your craft and feels like a completely different game in many ways. The frenetic pace and thoughtless run-and-gun philosophy (as well as eschewing AC0’s morality system) make Infinity and Assault Horizon feel like a Michael Bay take on the franchise. As a result of the increased focus on combat (as well as mechanics no one asked for, like taking control of the guns in an attack helicopter that’s being piloted by someone else) these games feel like a major deviation from the anti-war bent that the other games have. Assault Horizon and Infinity are fun enough to play on their own merits, but are separated enough from the Ace Combat model that I rarely go back to revisit them.  Assault Horizon does have one saving grace though – perhaps the most bizarre game ending I’ve seen, where you’re literally asked to press a button to throw your fist in the air.

The PlayStation 4 Era: Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (2019)

Ace Combat 7 is the most recent release in the series and fans like me were giddy with anticipation for it after a five year wait since the last (not great) installments. Skies Unknown builds on the previous Strangereal games in logical ways and even more than the beloved Ace Combat 4 and 5, really emphasizes the use of pilots and soldiers as pawns for international powers. In Skies Unknown, which takes place in 2019, you assume the role of Trigger, a disgraced pilot who’s confined to a penal colony and reassigned to a ragtag group of pilots called Spare Squadron, forced to complete missions under duress in order to gain their freedom. The story also follows mechanic Avril Mead, who learned to build and repair aircraft at her grandfather’s knee. Here, the anti-war subtext becomes text as we learn about Avril’s grandfather blaming the Osean government for her father’s death by sending him on a suicide mission, and trying to dissuade Avril from joining the military. Avril chooses to use the knowledge she’s gained from her grandfather to build her own plane, the F-104, which leads to her arrest and transfer to the penal colony, where she repairs aircraft for Spare Squadron in the game as they’re forced into more and more dangerous situations by their shadowy superiors. 

There’s an oft-repeated phrase throughout the Ace Combat games that says, “go dance with the angels.” In various contexts, it can mean almost anything from “good luck” to “fuck off and die.” It’s emblematic of a series that is often poetic and graceful, but whose core gameplay is most frequently about obliterating your targets on the battlefield. Ace Combat uses these action sequences and explosive set pieces to tell a series of surprisingly layered, dramatic stories about characters that are more complex and layered than a typical flight simulator or action game usually warrants. Over nearly thirty years, Ace Combat has built a world in Strangereal with it’s own history, mythology, and politics that feel nearly as real as our own. For that reason, Ace Combat remains one of my favourite game series ever. One where I’m encouraged to dance with the angels, whatever that means.

Note: You’ll probably notice that I haven’t talked about Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation (2007). This was an exclusive release on the Xbox 360 which I’ve never played. It’s generally considered to be a solid entry into the series even if it didn’t innovate much, but is the least-popular game in the Ace Combat canon since the Xbox consoles don’t have much traction in Japan, which is a major market for every other game in the series.

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Sachin Hingoo is prepared for takeoff, and is ready to dance with the angels!

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