Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ace Combat thoughts

I've been looking forward to Ace Combat: Assault Horizon for a while now. My anticipation has only been heightened by the fact that Ace Combat 6, cruelly, was an Xbox 360 exclusive that I've yet to play. (You broke my heart, Namco. You broke my heart.) This is one of those rare times in which I attempt actual commentary on a game, so you've been warned.

Some longtime fans of the series of lamented the fact that this game is set in the real world rather than the imaginary planet, Strangereal, that has been the setting of most other Ace Combat games. I sympathize with that. I've always liked the alternate world of the ace combat games, especially because it was a setting that allowed the developers to set stories in a world where military technology was mostly recognizable from our own modern day and then throw in the occasional  orbital coilgun or undersea aircraft carrier. It's harder to get away with that sort of thing in a game about modern combat aircraft that's actually set in our depressingly coilgun-impoverished real world.

Note that I haven't yet played the new game and have avoided spoilers, so for all I know the plot of Assault Horizon involves fusion-powered flying aircraft carriers that can cloak like a Klingon Bird of Prey or a lens in outer space that can set cities on fire with focused sunlight or aircraft being burned out of the sky by nuclear-pumped x-ray lasers. In which case the above is moot.

On the other hand, I think the change might be a good idea. One of the problems with having more and more games set in Strangereal is that having (mostly) recognizable modern military technology creates a fairly limited window in Strangereal's history for games to be set. With the exception of Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere, all of the Ace Combat games have been set between the years 1995 (Ace Combat: Zero) and 2020 (Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception). We already know the planet's geography, more or less, and so there are also a limited number of places in Strangereal for wars to be fought and a limited number of countries to be belligerents in them.

Every new Ace Combat game needs a war placed within those constraints, preferably- especially if it's in the mainline series and not some spin-off- in a conflict of respectable size that has not yet been the focus of a game so that the player isn't sitting in the shadows of previous heroes. There's a reason the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of Darth Vader and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi wasn't followed up by Star Wars Episode VII: Boring Post-War Outer Rim Peacekeeping Operation. (Unless you count the Jedi Academy Trilogy, anyway.)

The problem with this is that for each additional game you have to cram another large conflict into that same few decades. There are reasons, in the Ace Combat back story, for Strangereal to be suffering a much greater degree of large-scale warfare in its late 20th and early 21st centuries than our own has had, but the overall tone is generally hopeful. There's only so much unpleasantness you can cram into that quarter-century before the overall tone of the setting shifts from “a world much like our own wracked by conflict and upheaval as people fight for a better future” to “blood-soaked abattoir where the only escape from the unending violence and horror of existence is death,” and I'd rather see Strangereal stay on the brighter side of that line.

Oddly- because the appeal seems so obvious in retrospect- it was only just now, as I started thinking about the implications of the time frame of the Ace Combat series that it occurred to me how much I would like to play an Ace Combat game set in Strangereal's early-to-mid-twentieth century. If you're a fan of the series, just imagine it: Zeppelins. Biplanes. Triplanes. Quadruplanes. Massive bombers bristling with gun turrets as tiny fighters dart around them. Gigantic artillery. Sub-orbital bombers. Ornithopters. Autogyros. Ridiculously large tanks. Zeppelins, because they're cool enough to mention repeatedly. Rocket-powered fighters. All in the same alternate world where wars fought in the 1990s involved, among other things, batteries of railguns capable of shooting down objects in outer space and a gigantic laser that could hit targets over the horizon by reflecting off of giant orbiting mirrors.

This must happen.

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