I always find it interesting to head back to a series’ roots to see what has changed and what has stayed the same over the years.
I was particularly excited to start from the beginning of the Ace Combat series, since it’s one I’ve come to really enjoy in the last few years, and I sense there’s still quite a lot I’ve missed out on.
Would the original PS1 release from 1995 be worth revisiting today, I wondered?
In Air Combat, you take on the role of a pilot for a mercenary air force attempting to repel a terrorist invasion. Beginning with an extremely modest fleet of just two garishly decorated planes, it’s up to you to hit up various trouble spots, deal with both air and ground targets and earn the money you require to purchase new planes, hire wingmen and ultimately cripple the terrorist threat by taking down their superweapon — yes, they’ve been a thing right from the start!
Compared to later releases in the series, Air Combat is very light on story and theatrics. There are no dramatic cutscenes and no real “characters”; any sense of narrative progression is provided purely through the pre-mission briefings, which explain the context of what is happening and what is expected of you. Originally, the game was set in an unnamed area, but it has since been retconned to unfold in the Skully Islands of the Usean continent in recurring series setting and fictional world Strangereal.
The whole game has a distinctly “arcadey” flavour that seems to want to get you into the action as quickly as possible. While it isn’t a direct arcade conversion, it is a spiritual successor to a 1993 arcade machine of the same name. This had a much simpler, more coin-op-friendly structure, requiring the player to defeat a set number of enemy planes in the space of a minute and then land on a carrier.
As a 1995 release, Air Combat dates back to the earliest days of the PlayStation. One might think this would mean it hasn’t aged all that well, since early PS1 3D graphics can be notoriously janky, particularly with regard to frame rates and the infamous “bendy” textures. But in certain regards, there’s actually a kind of pleasing, simplistic, minimalist elegance about what’s on offer here. The pre-mission aircraft select screen makes use of high resolution, low-poly, mostly untextured visuals, for example, giving a very clean look, while the in-game graphics primarily consist of a “hazed” horizon effect with patches of scenery detail here and there to allow you to get your bearings.
In gameplay terms, Air Combat immediately feels recognisable as an Ace Combat game. Unfolding from a first- or third-person perspective, you start in the air and must track down your targets using an overview map, then destroy them using either your machine guns or missiles. Much like in the later games, your aircraft carries a physically impossible loadout of ordnance, allowing you to fling missiles around the sky with gay abandon — which is fortunate, since most of your foes seem to take at least a couple of direct hits to take down.
You, on the other hand, are much more fragile. Get fired at by an enemy and it seems very difficult to shake off an incoming missile — much more so than in later games. After my limited experience with the game so far, I’m not entirely sure if I’m actually doing something wrong or just getting unlucky — in later titles I would typically escape a missile attack through a combination of “breaking” (rolling 90 degrees and making a tight turn) and using countermeasures, whereas here this doesn’t seem to work… and not just because there aren’t any countermeasures! Moreover, a voiceover encourages you to “dive, dive, dive” when a missile is incoming. Not a tactic I would typically use, particularly at low altitude, but perhaps I should pay more attention!
So far, I am yet to successfully evade a missile at all, and early in the game just a single direct hit is enough to take you down; consequently, it appears that the most effective strategy is simply to ensure you don’t end up in a position where the enemy can get a lock on you at all!
Interestingly, unlike later games in the series, being shot down doesn’t simply mean you can retry the mission as if nothing happened. Instead, the plane you were flying is completely lost, and if you run out of planes altogether, you get a hard Game Over and have to start all over again. Thankfully, success in a mission generally awards you enough cash to be able to afford a new addition to your fleet (or a replacement!) — and a wider variety of planes unlocks the further you get in the campaign.
The planes handle very differently from one another. You start the game with an F-4 Phantom and an F-14 Tomcat, with the latter having significantly better ratings in pretty much every area than the former. Subsequently, you appear to unlock a bunch of planes that are way worse than the Tomcat in particular, suggesting that it’s probably a good idea to save up your money and buy something better rather than going on a spending spree after every mission. This, of course, puts you at greater risk, however, so you’d better make sure you don’t get shot down or crash!
You can make life a bit easier for yourself with a save game system, though there is no auto-save, so you need to remember to make use of this after each mission if you want to be safe. Alternatively, you can forego it altogether and play the game as a sort of “iron man” challenge if you prefer; the choice is yours. Just be sure you’re making an informed decision so you don’t end up in a situation where you’re only left with terrible planes for a difficult job!
It’s early days for my time with Air Combat so far, but I’ve been enjoying the experience. It’s definitely a step up in challenge from the later games, though I feel that things will get a bit easier once I have a better understanding of how to successfully evade missiles. There are some ways in which it feels very dated — the Red Book CD audio with synthesised instruments is both very ’90s and very “arcadey” — but as previously noted, some aspects of the presentation, such as the high-resolution, low-poly visuals, have aged very well indeed.
I’m going to stick with it and see if I can beat it. If I keep getting missiles up my arse I might have to swallow my pride and drop to “Easy” though…!
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