Sometimes Old School Is The Best School.
Recently Namco announced that the Ace Combat series was going to be getting another (very late) installment in the franchise before the end of the current console generation. Ace Combat: Infinity has been teased with a brief trailer, but for those in the know, what little has been revealed is already quite interesting; Project Aces, the team behind most of the installments, is going back to their roots.
The previous game, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was an attempt by the Namco Bandai to expand the market for the franchise by ditching its traditional “Strangereal” setting, which was a fictional world, with fictional nations that just happened to use all aircraft that fighter fans of today know and love, such as the iconic F-14 or the newer F-22. This “Strangereal” world had its own troubled history of constant military conflict as nations clashed, and an asteroid collision in “their” 1998 caused even more global turmoil when refugees and nations struggled with a new, sudden rebalancing in the power structure. It is a world in which hyper focused aeronautics technology has produced some aircraft and defenses more advanced than our own, with tales of its fighter pilots achieving great heroics, or making great sacrifices.
All of that was pushed to the side when Namco Bandai made Assault Horizon in 2011, and took more of a Westernized, Tom Clancy approach. Gone was the introspection about the cost of war on its participants in favour of the usual potboiler plot in which former Russian military vehicles are somehow compromised to provide a suitably challenging opposition against American fighters. The likeable characters that developed over the course of the game were replaced with generic ciphers representing the white hero, his visible minority companion and his female support, with little in the way of evolution. Exotic missions culminating in massive mother ship battles or Death Star-ish trench runs gave way to lots and lots of planes.
To be fair, Assault Horizon also introduced the “Close Range Assault” mode that brought dog fighting to a more intense level by putting the navigation on rails and allowing players to concentrate on shooting an enemy on high evasion. It also gave players the option to pilot a combat chopper or even do some strategic bombing from the cockpit of an AC-130. However, while these changes added some variety to the gameplay, the game itself no longer felt like an Ace Combat game. So much of what made an Ace Combat game what it was had been removed to the point that flying it under the Ace Combat banner seemed inappropriate—outside of the commercial consideration of brand name recognition, that is.
The same thing could be said of other Japanese titles that have been given the Western treatment. DmC, for example, is a perfectly serviceable third person action game, but it’s not really Devil May Cry in tone, mechanics or style. Lords of Shadow is another game that is actually a decent experience, but it’s debatable whether the game really is a Castlevania title in the sense that most are familiar with. One thing that all of these titles have in common is the wish on the part of the Japanese publishers for more casual, Western gamers to buy these games, rather than the smaller, focused fan base that faithfully follows these IPs from one sequel to the next.
That’s why, it’s refreshing to see a Japanese company decide that perhaps “Westernizing” an established franchise is not the way to go and that, for the next sequel, a return to form is in order. There’s a reason people were drawn to a franchise in the beginning, there were certain characteristics present that people found attractive. To completely redo something but retain the same name smacks of trying to have a cake and eat it too. Yet at the same time, trying to sell an ignorant crowd on an established name while at the same time alienating the fans by removing what made that name so great seems like a losing proposition.
Ace Combat , it seems, has decided that after flirting with the world of Tom Clancy military conspiracies like every other contemporary military game, it was wiser to go back to the unique world it created with its rich history and heritage. I don’t know whether the game is going to be any better or worse than Assault Horizon, but I know that a visit back to “Strangereal” already makes the game more appealing to the long-time fans like me.