After I beat Ace Combat 4 a few days ago — spectacular, incidentally; a game that still holds up marvellously well today, even on a big-screen HDTV — I moved pretty much straight on to its sequel Ace Combat 5, or Ace Combat: Squadron Leader as it is inexplicably known over here in Europe.
While superficially similar, Ace Combat 5 is definitely a more refined package on more fronts, though both games remain well worth playing in their own right.
To clarify: Ace Combat 4 had an interesting, unconventionally told narrative and gameplay that, more often than not, boiled down to “score [x] number of points before time expires”, with the odd break for “destroy all the marked targets before time expires”. This is a huge simplification, of course, because it was the context in which these missions took place that made Ace Combat 4 interesting rather than the actual mission objectives themselves.
Ace Combat 5 mixes things up a bit by having a wider variety of mission objectives. 17 missions in, and I’ve only just had a “score [x] number of points before time expires” mission; prior to that, I’ve had everything from “capital ship” battles against submarines to air support missions flying cover for an aircraft carrier escaping a besieged city, and one particularly memorable (if challenging) mission where you had to locate a downed member of your squadron, then support the rescue helicopter as it came in to pick her up.
Ace Combat 5 also tells its story in a different manner to its predecessor. While Ace Combat 4 framed its narrative as a letter written from someone who knew the primary antagonist to you, the player, Ace Combat 5 tells a more “present-day” tale about the jet fighter squadron which you’re a member of. Like Ace Combat 4, you gradually become known as a legendary pilot that enemy forces speak of in hushed tones, but there’s a lot more humbleness and humility about it this time around; there’s a strong emphasis on questioning the actions you’re being asked to take in the war, and whether what you’re doing is really justified. It makes for some compelling drama both during and between missions, and it’s a big part of what makes the game so interesting.
Flying and fighting is an absolute joy, though, and that’s what really matters here. Each plane feels noticeably different from the others — though all kind of throw realism out of the window in the name of fun — and all have their own strengths and weaknesses. The different weapons you’ll be flinging around all have their own little quirks and idiosyncrasies, too, and it’s interesting to gradually learn which plane (and attached special weapon) is most appropriate for which situation. Plus there’s a fun little “levelling” system whereby scoring enough kills with a particular type of plane unlocks better variants in that family tree — you can gradually upgrade from the F-15C Eagle to the F-15E Strike Eagle, for example, and you can do this for an impressively wide selection of real-life planes.
I’m impressed quite how good the game looks, too. It features native 16:9 support, for one thing — something you couldn’t rely on in the PS2 era, even with widescreen televisions becoming more widespread — but its visuals lack that muddiness that many PS2 titles often have when viewed on an HDTV. It’s not pin-sharp, no, but it looks good — and my goodness, does it ever move smoothly, maintaining a solid 60fps at all times, even when all manner of scary shit is going on around you.
I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty smitten with this series. And, as I think I’ve said previously, I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to try it out when it first came along.