Long-time fans of Ace Combat know the series has had a disappointing decade. It hit peak popularity during the PlayStation 2 era with Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, and Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War. These games mixed intense arcade-style dogfighting with dramatic stories. Stories that featured the human drama of soldiers and their loved ones as much as it did warring superpowers.
After Ace Combat 6 in 2007, the series changed direction, moving away from using the fictional nations set in the series' alternate version of Earth. Instead, games took place in the real world featuring locations like Tokyo, San Francisco, and Moscow. Blockbuster-style spectacle took precedence over fleshed-out characters, and the series attempted to mimic the style of popular modern military games--Assault Horizon featured a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare-style AC-130 gunship turret mission, for example.
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"A few years ago, I got a questionnaire to the users and got the worst answers," said Kazutoki Kono, producer of Ace Combat 7 and head of the Project Aces team. Kono was art director on Ridge Racer Type 4 and Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies before becoming the director of the highly lauded Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. He's been with the series ever since.
"Now we want to listen to the users' voice more closely so we can get back to the roots of the series: Strangereal." The name "Strangereal" (literally, "Strange" and "Real") began as a community term for Ace Combat's fictional universe in the PS2 era, but the development team quickly adopted it in an official capacity. When Ace Combat 7 was first announced, the Project Aces Twitter account posted: "Welcome back to the Strangereal!"
Kono seemed happy to leave the real world behind: "‘Real world’ is very easy to make credible, easy to believe. But there are so many constraints as a game. On the other hand if it's a hypothetical world, lots of additional setup is needed, but there is a lot of freedom within it." It's not surprising that the decision to return the series to a numbered entry is an attempt to publically signify the return to those roots, and hopefully stick with them: "It's our 20th anniversary, and that is sort of a milestone for Ace Combat," Hino said. "So, using '7' is really important for the brand, as it's setting our position for future direction."
How successful they'll be in recreating the spirit of Ace Combat is something we can't judge until the game's release, but there is one factor involved which might help their chances: the return of the lead writer from Ace Combat 4 and 5, Sunao Katabuchi. Katabuchi's credits outside of Ace Combat includes anime such as Kiki's Delivery Service and Black Lagoon.
"There’s one thought on the developer's side: As you play the game, you need to feel that you're growing in the story, and with the story," Kono said regarding Ace Combat's defining characteristics. "What makes Ace Combat 7 more exciting, interesting, and intriguing for us, is that with Katabuchi, we can weave the empathy of the human beings--the deep sensitivity, the feelings--into the game, and we can think about what war really is."
Using '7' is really important for the brand, as it's setting our position for future direction.
Aside from visuals though, how do you modernise and set your game apart when you're modelling it on a decade-old version, and past attempts to spice up the formula haven't had a great response? The team has said that Ace Combat's gameplay systems are simple in order to lower the entry barrier to its high-speed dogfighting and story, so when we asked, "What else?" the key innovation everyone pointed to was something seemingly innocuous: clouds.
"In the past we used overlapping texture plates to appear as clouds. But this time we created them using 3D models," Kono said. But as mundane as this might sound, the advancement in the series' cloud creation technology is not purely aesthetic. Kono explained that in creating levels for Ace Combat 7, the placement of fully-formed, volumetric clouds is an attempt to change the way players approach the act of dogfighting.
"In the open sky, when players get into a dogfight, they tend to just loop around and around all the time [in the process of evading enemy fighters]. But this time we can cut off that loop by giving aircraft an option of banking into a cloud to escape." In our short hands-on experience with the game, this did prove to be a quick and effective way to break line-of-sight, get someone off your tail, and reset the advantage.
Clouds aren't always good news, however. "You have to be careful because you don't just worry about the size of the cloud. In it, there’s a difference in wind currents, and the temperature changes." Staying in a thick cloud for too long could cause your vision to be obscured with moisture in cockpit view, your fighter could suffer icing which would cause you to stall, or you could crash into another plane. "Once you get out of the loop and into the cloud, it isn't always necessarily safe. Sometimes more dangerous. So what’s new is that judgement call and shift in strategy you have to make yourself."
It's heartening to see Project Aces attempting to recapture what made Ace Combat so critically acclaimed in the first place, but it's hard to fault the team for trying different things with the series in recent times. After all, this is a team who has made modern flight combat games for almost twenty years. Curious, I asked whether they had ever considered branching out into similar flight genres, for example, space flight combat like Elite: Dangerous.
"I've seen so many plans for making fantasy shooting experiences using the Ace Combat Engine," Kono said. "But none of them have ever been convincing enough for us to fully accept. I've seen about 20 or 30 concepts where players can fly a dragon. But it's so boring!"
So, the Project Aces team is sticking to what they do best right now. They're listening to their community and learning from the past decade, hoping to make the next decade something to remember. They spoke solely of their goal to give players easy access to the thrilling sensations of modern high-speed flight, crafting a moving storybook narrative to go with it, and they're working to make those key elements the best they can possibly be with Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. For the time being, the sky is the limit.
GameSpot travelled to Tokyo at the expense of Bandai Namco Entertainment.