PS2 Essentials: Ace Combat: Squadron Leader

The Ace Combat series is a jewel in Namco’s crown that people sadly seem to forget about quite often — though hopefully the seventh installment due early in 2019 will rectify that to an extent.

The series mostly stretches across the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras, with a less well-received (but still enjoyable) spinoff installment in the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era. For most, the series’ peak was with its PS2 installments; opinion varies as to which one of these is really “the best”, but they’re all very much worth your time.

At the time of writing, we’ve already talked about fourth installment Distant Thunder (aka Shattered Skies), so today let’s take a look at the fifth game, known as Squadron Leader in Europe, and The Unsung War elsewhere. It’s a good ‘un.

Ace Combat 5 (as we shall refer to it hereafter) was first announced in 2002 at the Tokyo CG festival as part of a presentation on then-modern computer graphics. Ace Combat was an apt choice for this presentation, as the series remains surprisingly good looking to this day and upscales rather elegantly onto modern televisions.

The following year, Namco launched a website promoting something called “Project Aces”. This was initially assumed to be a working title for the new Ace Combat game, but was later revealed to be the name for the team who had, to date, brought the world four excellent air combat games, and who was now working on a fifth. Ace Combat 5 was the first game to directly credit the team as such.

Despite the series always being rather arcadey and unrealistic in terms of its handling (particularly with regard to weapon loadouts), Project Aces was keen to give the new game an authentic feel. As such, they partnered with a number of aircraft manufacturers to make in-person examinations of the planes that were set to feature in the game. On top of that, they made use of satellite data from Japan’s Space Imaging Corporation to help develop the game’s environments, which contributes to its realistic visuals.

The aim with Ace Combat 5 was to distinguish itself from its predecessor by giving the player a more personal connection to the story. While Ace Combat 4’s story had primarily been told from the perspective of an outsider observing the conflict from on the ground, the intention for the new game was to make the player feel more involved, and to feel a sense of attachment for their wingmen. As such, while much of the narrative is still narrated from a third-person perspective — this time with a freelance reporter covering the activities of the player-protagonist’s squadron — there’s a much greater feeling of “immediacy” to the story; the sense that this is happening “now”, rather than its predecessor’s sense of “looking back” on a conflict of the past.

The game opens with something of a trial-by-fire for its main protagonists, as the majority of pilots based at their island headquarters are killed by unidentified aircraft. Not long after the survivors’ attempts to figure out what happened in this devastating attack, their squadron leader is shot down and goes missing in action, leaving the player-protagonist “Blaze” to take on command of the group of plucky rookies. From here, there then proceeds a series of missions that chronicle the outbreak of war between the Osean Federation and the Republic of Yuktobania, and the role of the player’s “Wardog” squadron in resolving the conflict.

Oh yes, if you’re not familiar with the Ace Combat series as a whole, most installments don’t unfold in the real world. Instead, the setting is “Strangereal”, a world clearly heavily inspired by and drawing parallels with our own reality, but without mentioning any real-life locales. Strangereal has some astonishingly detailed lore and history if you care to look into it, and this has been explored both within and outside the games over the years.

Part of Ace Combat 5’s narrative involves the myth of the “Razgriz”, a mythological creature that forms the basis of an in-universe fairy tale known as The Blue Dove and the Princess. According to the legend, Razgriz represents the paradoxical duality between dark and light, good and evil, heroism and villainy. He is depicted as a demon that summons a devastating tempest that lasts for 70 days, laying waste to a land perpetually wracked by war… but it is said Razgriz was also a traveler who visited the land after the storm subsided, helping it to heal and its citizens to rebuild.

The myth is interpreted in a number of ways over the course of Ace Combat 5’s narrative, initially as a sort of generic “boogeyman” figure, with characters comparing powerful superweapons to the legendary demon. As the game progresses and Wardog proves its skills to a formidable degree, however, the squadron starts to be both worshipped and feared through comparisons to the story; after a certain incident, the team even goes so far as to deliberately rebrand themselves as “Razgriz Squadron” — both to intimidate their enemies and bring hope to their allies. This mirrors the symbolic role Mobius 1 comes to play in Ace Combat 4: someone to be feared and respected, and a key figure in the ongoing conflict.

The narrative of Ace Combat 5 has many interesting twists and turns, and there are a number of points at which the story can branch off into a couple of alternative missions based on the player’s response to a seemingly innocuous query from a wingman. The story tends to rejoin the critical path after the missions that specifically mark these “split points”, but they can provide alternative viewpoints on what is occurring across different playthroughs of the main campaign.

The increased emphasis on the personalities of the player’s wingmen has an impact on the structure of the game’s missions, too. In one, for example, you’re attempting to track down a crash-landed comrade before the enemy forces get to her; considerable tension is added throughout this mission by the fact that you can hear her over the radio running through forests, hiding from enemies and firing her gun at those who have come looking for her. The game is full of events like this, with some spectacularly dramatic moments coming about as a result of you feeling like you’re part of the squadron rather than just a generic pilot.

And, in true Ace Combat tradition, there’s plenty of drama throughout the gameplay, too. In one mission, you frequently have to quickly climb above the height of a dangerous submarine’s burst missile attack; in another, you have to suddenly respond to horrific events after what should be a victorious flypast goes terribly, terribly wrong. And, without spoiling anything, let’s just say the last mission lives up to the series’ high standards of spectacular finales, featuring absolutely incredible music that is sure to send shivers right down your spine.

In gameplay terms, things haven’t changed fundamentally from Ace Combat 4. Your plane can still hold far more missiles than a real aircraft can, allowing for satisfying Top Gun-style volleys to be unleashed during aerial combat. The emphasis is very much on snappy, responsive, arcadey fun rather than realism, but that’s firmly in keeping with the overall “exaggerated” feel of the game’s presentation.

Where the variety comes from is in the actual design of the missions. It’s pretty rare you’ll have a simple search-and-destroy “kill everything on the map” sort of situation; sometimes you’ll be having to keep beneath a certain altitude to avoid being spotted while you sneak up on a target, in another you’ll have to carefully fly through an awkward arrangement of anti-air radar coverage while leading a crippled ally aircraft to safety, and in another still you’ll be participating in a large-scale skirmish between two opposing naval fleets. There really is never a dull moment.

And when you’re done with your first playthrough, there are new aircraft and paintjobs to unlock, additional difficulty levels to challenge, high scores and rank requirements to beat and even a separate, dedicated, branching arcade mode to explore. There’s a lot to enjoy here if you care to put in the time — but even if you don’t, just a single runthrough of the campaign is an immensely satisfying, enjoyable and emotional experience: a perfect example of what Ace Combat is all about, and still a cracking good time, even nearly 15 years after its original release.

More about Ace Combat: Squadron Leader

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