Better known by its other name Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies, the fourth installment of Namco’s series of fighter jet games was released under a different name in Europe.
Ace Combat: Distant Thunder, as we shall refer to it from hereon because I am European so deal with it, is a game that, despite its age — and the fact it was the series’ first outing on PlayStation 2 — remains eminently worth playing today.
It’s also a relic of a different time, when flight simulators in general were a much more common sight on both computers and consoles than they are today… which in some ways makes it all the more noteworthy from a modern perspective.
In Distant Thunder, you take on the role of the otherwise unnamed “Mobius 1”, leader of a wing of fighters in the Independent States Allied Forces, or ISAF. As the action begins, the invading Erusian forces have all but taken control of the Usean continent using the superweapon known as Stonehenge, originally intended to shoot down asteroids that threatened to strike the planet. Over the course of a series of missions, it’s up to you, as Mobius 1, to turn the tide of battle back in the favour of the ISAF.
The Ace Combat series as a whole is interesting in that while it features real-world aircraft and weaponry, it unfolds in a completely fictional, distorted version of the world known as Strangereal. Strangereal has evolved and changed over the course of the various games in the series, but its background lore has been meticulously crafted to ensure it is a believable setting, and an ideal backdrop for the conflicts in which you find yourself.
Distant Thunder specifically is interesting for the way it chooses to tell its narrative. Rather than unfolding exclusively through the eyes of Mobius 1, the game’s cutscenes instead take the form of a fragmented letter written to Mobius 1 after the end of the war, from the perspective of a man who grew up in the war zone. The unnamed young man was just a boy at the time of Distant Thunder’s central conflict, but he nonetheless has an interesting tale to tell; one of fascination with an elite pilot from the Erusian forces known only as “Yellow 13”; one of resistance against seemingly insurmountable odds; and one of hope.
The fact the narrative unfolds in this way over the course of the entire game provides a very interesting way to frame the action. You see events “as they happen” by participating in missions as Mobius 1, but the young man’s narration and the heavily stylised images of the cutscenes show not only the impact of what you accomplish during the gameplay components, but also the very human side of war — an aspect which video games in particular often neglect in favour of nationalistic tales of derring-do against the evil of the hour.
The emphasis on the flashback cutscenes doesn’t mean that the in-game action has been neglected, however. On the contrary, Distant Thunder, even as a relatively early PlayStation 2 game, is immaculately presented, featuring slick, smooth and good-looking visuals as well as stirring, dramatic music and voice acting that complements the action well.
There are some incredibly powerful narrative moments that occur during the gameplay sections, emphasised by this beautiful presentation. It’s not really a spoiler to say that, as Mobius 1, your success in missions causes you to become something of a poster boy for the resistance against the Erusian forces — so much so that there’s a notable shift in everyone’s attitude towards you over the course of the game. At the outset, you’re just another plane in the sky; by the end, however, your plane’s distinctive markings highlight you as either a saviour or a monster to be feared depending on which side is observing you — and the radio chatter during the missions reflects this too, with enemy forces expressing genuine-sounding fear at your approach, and allied forces drawing strength and courage simply by your presence.
The gameplay itself is no slouch, either; eschewing out and out realism in favour of simplified flight dynamics and unrealistically huge weapons loadouts, Distant Thunder makes it clear early on that this is very much a game going for the movie-style Top Gun experience rather than a realistic simulation of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. Your plane’s incredible stock of missiles makes it much more practical (and satisfying) to launch a volley of two or more at a distant target, and the missions are varied and interesting — culminating in the game’s very own “Trench Run” as you attack the Erusians’ superweapon Megalith, accompanied by the most insanely dramatic piece of music I’ve heard outside of a JRPG’s final boss.
Distant Thunder isn’t a long game, but this very much works in its favour. The narrative is well-paced and doesn’t outstay its welcome, allowing for an enormous buildup of dramatic tension over the course of the complete story, released in a spectacular climax.
But the game doesn’t have to be over when you beat the story, either; there are an array of unlockables to seek out, ranging from a variety of different aircraft that you can purchase using the money you are awarded after a successful mission, to special paint jobs that can only be acquired by completing special objectives during missions or achieving particularly good ratings. Then you can go and do the whole thing again on a different difficulty, the highest of which takes the rather more realistic approach of only taking a single direct missile hit to down your plane.
Opinions may vary as to which of the Ace Combat games is the “best”. But Distant Thunder is certainly right up there with the best of them, and the trilogy of titles released on PlayStation 2, for many people, not only reflects the series at its very pinnacle, but also remains a collection of three extremely solid, highly playable and genuinely spectacular games today, nearly twenty years after their original release at the time of writing.
If that’s not the definition of a true “classic” of gaming, I’m not sure what is.
More about Ace Combat: Distant Thunder
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