#playthis: ace combat
this one has been hard.
You ever climbed a cliff face, only to find yourself at a loss as to where to go? Here is this mountain, a massive thing, full of handholds to grab, but for the life of you, you just can’t find one.
That’s been an Ace Combat essay for me for a long time, and the reason? Well… because Ace Combat takes place in the sky, which is big, vast, and empty. There isn’t a lot to do up there. How do I tell you how excellent Ace Combat is when the gameplay is, well… not super varied?
Ace Combat works like this: you have a jet. You have the ability to speed up or slow down. You can do all of the basic jet maneuvers, like pitch up and down, roll right or left, or yaw right or left, though the simulation is not realistic enough to allow something like the Cobra Maneuver. You have missiles, which lock on to targets you select by pressing Y/Triangle on the controller, and will hit them if you have positioned yourself well and they are unable to evade. Sometimes you have a different kind of jet, with different stats or potential weapon types, which are better for certain targets. Sometimes, instead of dogfighting with someone, you are supposed to shoot a missile at a tank on the ground. You also have a gun (not very useful) and a special weapon (often very useful), which is sometimes a missile, sometimes not.
And that’s it, that’s the game.
That’s all there is to it.
Sure, sure, we could describe a first person shooter like this. It is a game where you can walk forward, backwards, left or right. It is a game where you aim with your camera. It is a game where you click on things with your mouse and they die.
But obviously there’s more.
When I wrote about Halo, I wrote about it like this:
The great secret about first person shooters is that shooting is secondary — heck, it’s right there in the name: first person shooter. The first-person perspective is paramount and benefits from motion. Playing an FPS is all about moving about and navigating a space. Long before you’re even considering clicking on guys until they die, you should be thinking about the space you’re moving in. Halo quickly entices you right into the fray.
Halo has, for lack of a better word, a dance. There’s a specific rhythm, a unique cadence to Halo’s combat encounters missing from a lot of games. The combat arena in Halo is a dance floor, and the short range of your assault rifle is an invitation to get up there and dance your heart out.
So you do. You’re Master Chief, the best of the best. You charge in and the gaggle of grunts is running around, trying to hide or flank and shoot you. The Elite enemy cares less about getting hit, but he’ll still roll around, occasionally getting close enough to try to punch you. You, for your part, can get nice and close and sock it to him, but if your shields are low, it’s advisable to back up and try again.
Sid Meier, the guy who apparently knew Robin Williams and took his advice to plaster “Sid Meier’s…” on the front of all the games he made, once said something like “a game is a series of meaningful choices.” You can look at the example above and see how that works.
In Ace Combat, gosh, I don’t know if I could say that. In Ace Combat, you basically speed up, slow down, turn tightly, and try to position yourself behind the other guy, then you fire two missiles (it’s almost always two) into his tailpipe. If he doesn’t dodge or use flares, bam, he’s toast.
When I tell you that Ace Combat is one of my favorite video game series in the entire world, you might struggle to believe me.
But it is.
In Halo, we have meaningful choices. We can dodge behind this and that, we chart paths, we use our tools to get enemies to move in specific ways in order to render themselves vulnerable. In Ace Combat, we are traveling forward, always forward, because we’re strapped to one or more jet engines, thundering at a billion pounds of thrust and screaming through the sky. There is no real cover because you’re in the sky and there’s no cover in the sky. You can’t strafe, you can’t just go picking up and swapping weapons because you’re in a jet engine, far away from base. You’re stuck with your basic loadout Cool moves aren’t really available to you, like getting behind the hunters in Halo with a pistol and one-shot bapping them until they die, because it isn’t about aiming, it’s just about achieving missile lock while you are thrust forward through the atmosphere.
Would it surprise you to know that Ace Combat 7 in 2019 more or less controls like Ace Combat 4 from 2001, 18 years prior? Even Halo has undergone more changes than the basic Ace Combat formula, because the nature of “person walking around on the ground with guns” allows a lot more spatial variety than “jet flying through the air around other jets.”
Why is Ace Combat so fuckin good?
A long time ago, I was talking to a friend about how games work for people. There was a game that mechanically good, but it was only set in environments that looked particularly samey. People didn’t seem to enjoy it that much. When you play a game like Warframe, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different enemies, but the game doesn’t feel distinct, because the enemies themselves lack meaningful differentiation, not just in mechanics, but visual design.
Consider Halo again:
In Halo: Combat Evolved, we have Elites, Hunters, Jackals, and Grunts. That’s it. That’s all we have. As you can see, those four enemy types are all meaningfully distinct. They have unique behaviors (grunts throwing their hands up and fleeing, elite shields glowing before the pop, hunters charging into the fray) and audio cues. Halo’s combat feels a lot better than Warframe’s in part because its enemies are considerably different from each other.
“But Doc,” you might say, “Warframe has an Ancient with a grappling hook that paralyzes you and an Ancient with an aura that buffs enemies.” While this is true, those enemies lack visual distinction to make it easy to process who they are before you begin combat. There’s a chunkiness to Halo’s combat that means you’re making choices in a way you can’t do with a game like Warframe or, yes, Ace Combat, where the way you engage with enemies is limited to two weapons with lock-on and your gun.
In Warframe, you can jump all the way across the arena,but that’s not the case in Halo, where limited movement options and chunky enemy variety force you to consider your space. Not too fast, not too slow. A red elite is stronger than a blue elite. We learn this pretty quickly. Grunts armored up in black with glowing green fuel rod cannons are much scarier than a normal grunt in orange armor shooting a pink needler shot.
A game designer buddy of mine once said that in Halo, you could look at a single screenshot and know how to play immediately. Even the enemy projectiles are visually very easy to understand, and it’s something that Destiny does now (though Destiny has other problems we won’t get into now).
“Doc, why are you talking about Halo and Warframe instead of Ace Combat?”
Game design theory is sometimes most visible when we’re learning lessons that can be applied everywhere, so understanding the impact of design decisions outside of their expected context can be useful. It lets us focus on the theory over the implementation.
So the point I’m making here is that if you put two games next to each other, and one is objectively more mechanically varied than the other… players might not feel it. Feeling goes way, way, way beyond simple mechanics. While mechanics are crucial to making a game good, one game with an objectively broader set of mechanics can feel less varied than one with objectively fewer mechanics because the less varied game is more psychologically successful than the more varied game.
As game designers, we often think we occupy a place of primacy in game development, much like programmers think you don’t need anyone but a programmer to make a game (and then spend all their time fiddling around tweaking mechanics and playing with code for fun instead of actually shipping). We often have some sense of ‘textbook’ video game design, but player psychology is often ignored.
“Hold on there, I think about player psychology a lot!” Well, yeah, but most player psychology discussions seem to be rooted in textbook “if you do this, players will do this,” thoughts that reduce players into programmable entities, which they most certainly are not. I’ve seen a lot of people offer ‘game design tricks’ that seem more like a terrible misread of why players reacted the way they did to designer choice, or baseless speculation about player activities based on what the designers wish players would do.
An example of this is the game Evolve. They designed their game so players would play a specific way. In the studio, they played the way they wanted players to behave. At conferences, they were always there, making sure people played the way they wanted them to play. When the game shipped… no one did.
As a consultant with a lot of experience in this, I would’ve told you that a game where 4 players going up against 1 player makes the 1 feel alone, which is bad, unless the 1 is much more powerful than the rest, like, say, Jason Voorhees (which is why Friday the 13th and Dead By Daylight are the only successful 4v1 games out there). When it’s meant to be competitive PVP, unless players are actually in the right headspace, the game isn’t going to work out. Basically, 4v1 works best as a game of tag, not as a game of PVP.
(there’s also the fact that a lot of people treat ‘player psychology’ as ‘ways to use classical conditioning to condition players to play games as a habit,’ which does work on some people, and appeals to the kind of businesspeople, designers, and programmers who want humans to be predictable and follow formulas, but tends to cause a game to rot and create player burnout, which is another issue entirely)
When I’m talking about psychology, I’m talking about headspace.
So let’s talk about Ace Combat
Most of my games writing focuses on the ways we use mechanics to create mood. With Ace Combat… that gets a lot harder, because Ace Combat’s mechanics, while tightly tuned and great at providing the experience they set out to offer… aren’t really what make the experience emotional.
In our Halo example, we talked about enemies who look, sound, and behave differently. Okay, okay, but Ace Combat is all about just fighter jets, right? Not only that, but you’re often so far from those fighter jets that it can be challenging, if not downright impossible, to visually identify those jets. Unless you’re really close, all you have is text.
Now, if you’ve played Ace Combat, you know you’re already moving at unrealistically slow velocities designed to feel fast so you can see your enemies — real aerial combat takes place at ranges far beyond visual identification, often hundreds of miles away, which is why the extremely-good-at-long-range F-15 Eagle is the most successful fighter in history — because Ace Combat is not a flight simulator at all, it’s an aerial combat game. It’s not trying to emulate the physical act of flying fighter jets, it’s trying to emulate the experience of being a fighter pilot.
“Okay, but there’s another series called ‘Tom Clancy’s HAWX’ that uses the same mechanics, has comparable visuals, and is basically the same game. Why do you love Ace Combat and merely tolerate HAWX?”
Like I said, we’re talking about headspace.
Think of it like this: if you’re an artist, and I say “hey, our game with a realistic art style needs a grandfather clock,” you will make an admirable, realistic grandfather clock. If you’re an artist, and I say “hey, our horror game with a realistic art style needs a grandfather clock,” I bet you’re going to try to find ways to make that clock spooky, even though we’re still making a game that looks realistic.
When we make horror games, we understand that the chills don’t just come from the mechanics, they come from the aesthetics. You can’t make a successful horror game that’s just set in a whitebox environment (unless you tell people “I’m making a horror game set entirely in a whitebox environment,” at which point some journos and youtubers will probably take notice and the placebo effect will make them feel like your game is scary, but that’s a separate issue). You use the aesthetics, the sound design, the context of the story, and a bunch of other factors outside of just game design to make the game feel scary.
Game design is the art of getting players to take interesting actions.
It is, in other words, the art of getting players to feel the way you want them to feel so they do the things you want them to do.
What’s more emotionally compelling: a game where you have a gun and are standing in a blank whitebox room and you have to shoot the default unreal engine character model, or a game that’s starts with you living through the beginning of Conan the Barbarian’s village being massacred when he was a young boy?
Which game would make you want revenge?
Emotion is what makes games engaging.
It’s one reason why games with genuinely not-that-great mechanics like Red Dead Redemption are so compelling to people — mashing A to run with clumsy characters that can literally run in a circle to the left instead of adjusting 2 degrees to the right when you push forward on the stick and aim absolutely miserably isn’t what made that game so exciting to most people, it was the super compelling story and character relationships.
Games that are good enough mechanically (and have great sound design — every game I dislike that’s super popular has impeccable sound design, that has a huge impact on people; in film school, they actually forced us to use silent films so we would have to learn about lighting and staging before relying on sound to make people feel the things we wanted them to feel) can get by a lot if they can get you in the right headspace.
So, how does Ace Combat handle this?
My Least Favorite Tool
Back round 2007, a debate raged about the best way to tell a story. Well, I say a debate; as I recall, it was more of a one-sided shouting match of people claiming that video games without cutscenes were so much better than games that had them. Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Bioshock were big examples of this — big games where you stopped and watched things happen to you dynamically rather than watching them occur in a video file that played while you couldn’t interact with the experience.
I agreed then, and in theory, I still agree today; I’m working on a video game that’s supposed to be announced this week, and we’re doing our best with what little budget we have to try to change how interaction works with narrative.
See, I’m not totally convinced that standing still and watching a bunch of people do stuff while you fiddle around with physics props is a great way to tell a story. In fact, I think a scene like A Red Letter Day from Half-Life 2 would’ve been a lot shorter if it had been a cutscene, and the experience wouldn’t have suffered at all for it. If anything… it would’ve been improved, I think.
There’s this really interesting anecdote from the development of Homefront that sticks with me.
When I was working on Homefront, we brought in John Milius (filmmaker of Conan the Barbarian fame) and we showed him our single player prototype, a standard walk-and-talk through a post-apocalyptic community. It was meant to show what the player’s experience might be and that we could handle cinematic storytelling seamlessly intermingled with gameplay. He kept suggesting that we cut between moments — that we shouldn’t be spending time walking down stairs where nothing happens, that it had to be way trimmed down; but we insisted that he didn’t understand. “That’s not how games work, especially First Person Games — they’re contiguous experiences. This is what players expect, and it’ll break the immersion if you do it any other way. I mean maybe in film, but..”
Turns out we were wrong.
I have a similar anecdote, coming from the opposite direction.
When I was in film school, I suggested doing a long take during a brainstorming session for one of our projects. It was the wrong call — absolutely the wrong call — but I hadn’t seen the set or worked out the practicality of doing the shot. As soon as I arrived, I realized how boring the shot would be and tried to dissuade our director from doing it, but he’d had his heart set on a long take, and he filmed it himself and even locked us out of the editing bay to make sure it stayed in.
We got last place in the film festival.
Contiguous moments aren’t… really… good. There’s value to being in a space, but maintaining interest when you’re just traversing a space can be hard. Think how many times you’ve watched someone on the tv walk out of a room and suddenly they’re at their destination; sure, it’s not realistic, but realistically, does walking up two flights of stairs actually make the story better?
More often than not, no, no it does not.
Now, me, I like to put cuts in my games, and that involves a whole new set of rules — a great place to cut is when transitioning through doors, because that’s a space where the human brain resets, in a manner of speaking (it’s why you can walk into a room and forget what you were doing), as well as because people inherently associate doors with transitions. Other games — even Half-Life — have done cuts like, say, getting knocked out or teleported.
But you can’t really do that in a game about fighter jets, because, well… it’s a game about fighter jets. Not a lot of room for cuts when the whole point is flying.
While I still think it’s best when a story is communicated through gameplay, sometimes… well… sometimes, a cutscene is what you need.
So along comes Ace Combat, giving you human faces and human body language in a way the gameplay can’t, because the gameplay is about fighter jets shooting each other in the face.
Ace Combat 4’s cutscenes are telling the story of a kid who lives in occupied territory and the barkeep’s daughter, who tries to plant explosives and gets caught.
But, hey, cutscenes can’t tell the whole story. Ace Combat makes up for a lot of its inherent limitations with a one-two punch of constant radio chatter — and I do mean constant, from friend and foe alike — and great music. Check out the destruction of SOLG at the end of Ace Combat 5, for instance:
Years ago, I saw a video of a child celebrating his first birthday; when his parents tried to get him to blow out the candle, he tried to eat it instead. They panicked. For a second, he laughed, but when he realized they were scared, he got scared too. Everyone works like that; mood is infectious. Body language is a great way to convey tone and mood, but in the absence of that, radio chatter really helps sell a sense of urgency, whether it’s soldiers trying to hold out until air support (you) arrive and cheering with relief when you do, or your wingman sounding tense as the two of you try to spot your downed comrade on the ground during a rescue mission.
Games like Halo or Warframe tend to keep the chatter to a minimum — they might have a few lines like “my Warframe is strong,” or “let’s go on the offensive,” but that’s about it. In Ace Combat, the dialog is constant without being overbearing, setting the mood and tone beautifully.
Much of the chatter comes from fellow pilots, both friend and foe. Enemies enter the fray, all cocksure, boasting about how they’re going to take you down. Arrogant commanding officers with no real taste for battle yell at you. Your fellow pilots call you a murderer and a traitor (in Ace Combat 7, you get framed for murdering The President and get thrown into an expendable crew of prisoner-pilots, fighting to earn your freedom through aerial combat).
And you know,
You fucking know,
You’re gonna prove them wrong.
So you do. Time and time again, you prove to your comrades that you’re the best, you shut that arrogant commanding officer up once and for all, and you make your enemies flee in terror at the mere mention of your callsign.
Ace Combat whips up caramaraderie entirely through radio and gameplay, with characters reacting to your impressive kill count and badass maneuvers, and then paying that off
Take “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” a late mission from Ace Combat 6; you’re outnumbered, alone, stuck behind enemy lines, fighting desperately just to cross the border, but beginning to realize there’s no way you can make it back. It’s over. You’re finished.
“This is Avalanche. Garuda team, thought you could use some cover.”
And, just like that, one by one, allied squadrons disobey orders to come save your ass.
There’s nothing quite like taking on Pixy after he betrays you and murders your wingman, or blasting SOLG out of the sky, slowly realizing that the 8492nd Squadron isn’t real and everyone thinks you murdered those children, or following Pops under the radar while listening to your former commanding officer demand you be shot down. When Brownie loses her absolute shit as Mr. X stalks and toys with her, or when Mr. X murders Wiseman, or when Edge gets hit by a SAM and you have to go look for her… Ace Combat is defined by its chatter.
There are moments when the gameplay clicks; I remember watching a friendly radar ping turn enemy all of a sudden, as my escorts turned murderous, or watched as some enemies in another level became friends. Sometimes, you just watch a single ping on your radar disappear as your friend’s jet goes under, and it hits like a truck.
Ace Combat’s dialog has a tendency to hit hard because it’s dramatic as fuck; they’re always setting the stakes, always making sure you want what you’re supposed to want. It isn’t exposition — the game isn’t just explaining things — it’s when characters are shouting shit like “So, I see you’ve finally found a reason to fight!” or “this twisted game needs to be reset!”
Over the top?
But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This is all backed up by the excellent soundtracks, which are absolutely the best in video gaming. They’re so good at conveying the emotions you should be feeling at just the right moments for you to be feeling them.
Back in film school, our early lessons saw us banned from using any audio or color. When we asked why, our instructors told us that they wanted us to learn how to shoot first, or we’d rely on sound as a crutch. It’s so easy to make a scary sound and startle your audience, or play a heroic song and make someone’s heart swell with pride. We had to learn the basics before we got to play with that power.
Ace Combat plays with a lot of that power.
I mean, this is the theme song for your nemesis in Ace Combat 7, Archange:
Isn’t that just absolutely baller?
Or, hey, what about Daredevil?
(at this point, I could tell you about The Liberation of Gracemeria, The Unsung War, Dual Wielder, and Zero, oh my god, Zero… but you get the idea, right?)
The Thing About Strangereal
I’m not gonna lie, this piece has been a struggle to write, because talking about it takes me out of my element; so much of what makes Ace Combat good is stuff that wouldn’t work nearly as well in other games. The team knows how to craft a fuckin yarn, let me tell ya.
And there’s a reason for that.
If you go to Steam right now, you might be tempted to purchase Ace Combat Assault Horizon. Don’t. The soundtrack is stellar, like it always is, but Assault Horizon is set in the real world, and that’s the mark of a bad Ace Combat game.
Back with Ace Combat 4, Project Aces, the internal Namco team responsible for developing the series, came up with the idea of a world called Strangereal. While it’s roughly analogous to ours, it’s not close enough to map perfectly. This is great, because it means there’s no worry about running afoul of any real-world governments or superweapons like the Aigaion that serve as the series’ boss battles:
(it’s a mobile aircraft carrier/icbm platform)
Strangereal uses mostly-real airplanes, set in a world much like our own, with completely different nations, history, and geography. It lets us focus on the drama of the narrative without making any really awkward mistakes. I know of someone who made a modern military shooter with a level set in their hometown; I know someone else who also calls that place home and considers this a grave offense. Different people want to be represented in different ways.
Ace Combat, by being alternate-universe speculative fiction, sidesteps all the hangups and potential offenses. It gets to talk about human concepts like heroism, the military-industrial complex, patriotism and jingoism, and so much more, but because it’s done through a layer of abstraction, it’s easier to be clearer about the point, rather than getting mired in the details.
I know some people who have an intense desire for all fiction to be about current events and the real world, but I firmly believe those people are mistaken. I think often of Vonnegut:
During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.
I think it stems from a lack of imagination; all art is made for the human experience. All of it. Every single work of art is expressing something. It came from somewhere, it says something about us. But sometimes, you need to listen. When that awful Tim Roth show (he was great in it) Lie to Me was airing, I watched a bunch of it while I was at the post office. They had an episode that was about the Blackwater private military company (you might remember a lot of tv shows had episodes about shady PMCs about a year after that was a big deal in the news, because it takes time to make art). While I oppose PMCs, making a bunch of TV show Very Special Episodes just regurgitating headlines within the context of the narrative didn’t really say a whole lot about any deeper human emotions or needs.
I hate to say it, if only because some very passionate people may get upset with me for it, but… well, I think setting art in the real world is kinda overrated. Repeating what you see in the news isn’t the same as trying to explore why we do things.
I talked a lot about Tarkovsky in my piece on Death Stranding (it would mean a lot to me if you read it), because he’s such a big influence on my artistic inspirations, but I’d like to do it here too:
The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
In his book, Sculpting in Time, he talks about the purpose of art a lot. He keeps hammering on this point: art is about preparing you to become a better person. It’s not didactic. It’s not just a mirror. It is a transformative process. Art is a means of growing as a human, not simply being told what we already know or accumulating more knowledge. The best art is that which moves our souls.
I don’t necessarily know if Ace Combat is a game that does all that lofty stuff, but I think that being set in Strangereal allows it some distance from the real world so we can focus on the core of the feelings we need to get through.
See, sometimes art helps you through feelings you need to process, and sometimes, as silly as it is, feeling inadequate or being betrayed are feelings we need to process, and playing games like Ace Combat can help with that, ’cause they explore those emotions in a safe environment.
Big Smart Topics are always the thing that the left-brain clamors for, but our overall emotional health needs art that covers the other stuff too. Ace Combat tries to cover both. I’m not really interested in writing about that right now; maybe one day. I just want to present the belief that a world-that-isn’t-ours and the incredibly heightened emotional stakes of Ace Combat let it provide something not many games do.
Sure it’s a bit silly.
Okay, whenever they say “go dance with the angels” or listen to Puddle of Mudd’s Blurry, it’s really silly.
But it sounds like this:
And it feels like nothing else I’ve ever played.
And it’s all because Ace Combat, first and foremost, is a game series rooted deeply in human feelings and emotions, and it achieves so much of that outside of its mechanics.
#playthis is usually written regarding a single game. In this case, I can personally vouch for Ace Combat 4, 5, 0, 6, 7, X: Skies of Deception, and Assault Horizon Legacy+, which is a remake of Ace Combat 2 for 3DS, retconned to be set in Strangereal. I hear good things about 3. Assault Horizon for PC/360/PS3 is a totally different game and absolutely awful. But Legacy+ is really fun.