Tony Wilkins reviews the first of one of his favorite video game series.
OK I will get this off my chest right at the start – I hate the Afterburner series. I know that they have become arcade classics but it was a relentless shoot ’em up; A glitzier version of countless Atari games where you control a tank/gun/etc and shoot at hordes of enemies. BORING!
So when the Playstation arrived and with it came Ace Combat (Air Combat as the PAL version was called) I had my doubts. I feared another Afterburner clone like the Mega Drive’s G-LOCK. Then I saw the trailer which was actually the opening movie and boy did it look good. The opening video is excellent given its early Playstation era origin. It is smooth, clear and exciting. Suddenly I was excited about the game and had to play it. I wasn’t disappointed. Instead of a horizontally scrolling game shooting formations of enemies like Afterburner I was treated to a fully 3D environment with a variety of enemies. I was hooked and my love of the series grew and grew right up until it nosedived with Ace Combat 6 on the X Box 360 but that’s another article. Right now I am concentrating on the first installment.
From the retro gamers point of view how does Air Combat hold up today? Well the truth is you can tell it is very early Playstation era in its gameplay. The controls are a bit clunky at times and I don’t think it really pushes the Playstation far beyond what was achieved by the SNES. There are two settings for the controls one of which gives you full control over pitch, yaw and roll while another is for those who find this setting difficult. In all honesty I found this NOVICE setting extremely frustrating as the aircraft doesn’t always roll for you and this leaves enemies racing underneath you. My advice is spend a few minutes getting used to the EXPERT setting I assure you it will be worth it.
The 3D environments remind me a lot of Star Fox in their layout but keeping it in context it is still pretty good. My biggest criticism of the environments is depth perception. If you are flying low you can suddenly find you have crashed without realizing how far away the ground was. One thing me and my friends absolutely loathed was the two player versus mode in which you fight it out in a giant crater that you can’t escape – WHY? You spend more time trying to avoid the crater walls than actually fighting it out which would have been much more fun. Fortunately this never made it on to any of the other games.
The aircraft themselves have a swanky paint scheme which I wish was an option in the later games purely for nostalgia purposes as it does look pretty cool. For those who wanted a more traditional scheme for their aircraft there was a cheat code available to return them to their pre-purchase colours. The aircraft handle quite well although I sense some of the earlier aircraft have been deliberately stiffened to make the more advanced aircraft feel better. Pulling up almost always induces a stall at 90 degrees but you find ways around it by remembering to turn as you climb and keep the nose around 80 degrees with the power up. The aircraft have just one type of missile and this can be used for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Targets have varying degrees of armour so your main targets will require more hits than just your bog standard enemies. Failing that you can resort to your guns to finish them off.
I would have liked the story to be more involving somehow. This game established the elite mercenary theme for the series that remained for most of them only to get abolished altogether when it hit the X Box 360. Basically a civil war has erupted in some undisclosed country and you are one of the world’s premier fighter pilots who have been hired to turn the tide. I found it interesting as it reminded me of Area 88 one of my favorite animes and I wish there was more to it but that’s a minor criticism if I was honest about it.
In conclusion Air Combat was a breath of fresh air to the console flight sim genre (in that it was close to the combat PC flight sims as you could get). The games that followed this one in the series were marked improvements but this remains one I remember fondly if only for the fact that it gave us a taste of what was coming.