BE WARNED; THAR BE MILD SPOILERS
My god what a mess. It’s a pretty mess, but compared to the almost impossibly well made Ace Combat 5 and the gritty Zero, Ace Combat 6 is an incredibly hard fall for the series as far as i’m concerned. It literally breaks my heart.
But let’s rewind.
Ace Combat is three things since it’s proverbial rebirth with Ace Combat 4; It’s sci fi, it’s army hardware porn, and it’s the de facto standard for how arcade flight sims should be made. It’s a series of games known for their top notch production values, elaborate storylines and constant flirtations with obscure narrative techniques.
Ace Combat 6 is the first non-Playstation outing for the series. It’s also the first next generation Ace Combat, and the Xbox Live demo has had me tearing out my hair in anticipation. After all, after 5 and Zero, both crammed with interesting storytelling and creative set pieces, who can imagine what these dudes can come up with given next gen hardware?
Well, it turns out they pretty much phoned it in. This is a game about pretty graphics and moving the series formally away from Sony hardware, very little else.
Graphics are ridiculously pretty, with huge draw distances and massive battles, and clouds and contrail effects you pretty much believe as you play.
It’s rock solid Ace Combat. The gameplay is pretty much exactly what you expect, which is a good thing. The core mechanics of flying around shooting stuff are precise and thoroughly enjoyable. The lack of analog buttons for rudder and other more obscure mechanics do little if anything to hurt the gameplay. Flying around shooting stuff is awesome.
Breaking the missions into larger scale battles divided into operations you can pick and choose from on the fly is great and makes missions feel less scripted. Earning allied support by completing operations, letting you use the allied attack and allied cover options is also great incentive.
The new allied attack/allied defence mechanic is fun and makes a lot of sense in the game’s larger scale battles. As you complete operations, forces delegated to that operation will begin following you around the battlefield, and can carry out coordinated attacks by holding up on the d-pad. The result is often dozens of missiles flying at the enemy at the same time, and the satisfaction never really diminishes.
The voice overs during flight are still uniformly top notch. It’s simply impossible to be bored playing this game; even simply flying from A to B will typically give you some semblance of narrative advancement.
So the core of Ace Combat gameplay is nudged forward a tiny little bit, the presentation is great, and it makes some worthy next-gen-ish additions to the formula. Where it falters though, and dramatically, is in providing a context for that formula.
The single worst narrative of any Ace Combat game to date. Again attempting an unconventional approach, Namco have chosen to omit the player character from the narrative in general, and instead focus on a set of side stories involving other characters caught in the conflict, including a distraught mother looking for her annoying little cloneborg daughter, a handicapped enemy commander, a tank crew looking to rob a bank and so forth. The problem with this is that the storyline is spread too thin. The game takes place over 15 missions, and none of the actual in-game narrative push advances any of the storylines of the characters shown in the meandering cutscenes that separate missions. As a result, trying to tell such a wide set of stories in such a short span of time makes each story completely unmemorable, winding up essentially as non-sequiteurs to the simplistic yet at the very least coherent story that propels you from mission to mission. You play an arcade shooter flight sim for one moment, then you’re forced to sit though uninteresting melodrama about uninteresting characters that are never allowed the slightest chance to grow on you.
Worse yet, the voice acting and writing for the cutscenes are mindblowingly poor, especially coupled with the enthusiastic and fun voice work on display during gameplay. Abysmal lines delivered by bored actors portrayed by plastic mannequins (rendered in real time with decidedly mixed results) certainly don’t help you get involved. A lot of the time, you simply want these boring melodramatic characters to shut the hell up. And, as some have said before, what in gods name is up with the ridiculous “dance with the angels” line? It doesn’t sound good, and never makes sense in the context uttered. But i digress.
Let it be said that i am no enemy of melodrama. Ace Combat 5 and Zero really pushed my tolerance, but their narratives were never spread this thin and applied with so little conviction. Even the insane live acted documentary style cutscenes of Zero had real heart, and Ace Combat 5 even managed to make me sit through the credits genuinely happy. Hell, when AC5 made me sit through a long mission where most of it is made up from various squadrons joining yours, singing a peace anthem in wailing false radio voices it was incredibly hard to feel offended by it as much as you wanted to hug the insane people who would subject you to that kind of rampant heart string yank wish such enthusiasm.
Ace Combat 6, however, falls on its ass literally after the first mission, and never recovers.
The last nail in AC6′s narrative coffin is the incredible simplicity of the actual campaign arc. Some dudes attack and occupy your country. You counterattack and take back your city (it turns out there is only one city in this country), they counterattack (weakly). You beat them again. The end. Considering the sprawling complex mess of the AC5 campaign, which had branching missions, shifting allegiances, and a near infinite onslaught of sci-fi monstrosity bosses and minibosses, AC6 simply doesn’t appear to give a rats ass about anything, and gives you a set of plain excuses to have planes in the air.
Speaking of those sci-fi elements, there are two in AC6, only one of them are remotely fun to fight, and neither require anything special from you. Nothing like the constant divebombing of the Scinfaxi submarines in AC5, or the downing of the Arkbird. The game’s set piece count also end with those two battles. Where AC5 wisely saved the tunnel flying and other “xtreme” stuff for the end, AC6 drops it in there like it’s every day’s business to go flying little jaunts into enemy bases. There is no impact, no triumph, and no holy shit moments. None, zip. It’s all in a day’s work.
When Ace Combat 6 ends, it ends too soon, without even having become remotely challenging, and you’re sat there scratching your head wondering where the rest of the missions went.
Ace Combat 6 is a great engine and some great gameplay wrapped in an abysmal narrative that somehow drains it all of charm and purpose. When it makes you go “Oh come on” it is never with a smile, and when it ends you want to go up to whoever wrote the manuscript (there were something like 8 of them apparently) and just shake them to bits over how they botched it.
As someone who played the games for sci-fi army wank shootery second, sci-fi army wank melodrama first, i can’t recommend this game at all on the basis of its storyline. It is truly preposterously bad, and a huge step back for the series.