Ace Combat 5 - The Unsung War
Platform:  PlayStation 2
Players:  1
Memory Usage:  64 kb

    Namco's Ace Combat series has been around for a long time.  Beginning with Air Combat and Air Combat 22 (named for the System 22 hardware) in the arcade, being followed with Air Combat as a PlayStation launch title, then the series had a name change to Ace Combat with Ace Combat 2 and the disappointing Ace Combat 3 - Electrosphere.  The leap over to the PlayStation 2 was taken by the superb Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies and now here we are at the end of 2004 with the release of Ace Combat 5 - The Unsung War.  Whereas Namco botched the legacy of the Ridge Racer series with the sub-par R: Racing Evolution last year, better care has been taken with this franchise, making it the premier aircraft simulation on any console.  I'll admit that being released at the same time as expected blockbuster games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Halo 2, I was still anticipating this game more than any other release this year... even Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

Description:  Following the tradition of the series, this installment takes place in a separate world from the previous games on a fictional Earth that's not much unlike our own.  15 years before the start of the game the nation's two large superpowers, Osea and Yuktobonia, were at war with the invading Belka.  Belka slowly diminished, losing one battle after another, until in a last ditch effort to stop the allied advance they detonated seven nuclear warheads on their own soil.  The destruction caused all nations to cast their weapons aside and settle on peace.  Belka became but a shell of its former glory, however their scientists at Gründer Industries eventually developed and sold their defense technologies to both Osea and Yuktobonia.  Sand Island is Osea's westernmost military defense outpost, and on this island is stationed Osea's raw air force recruits, the Wardog Squadron.

The story follows a reporter who is sent out to document the commander of the Wardog Squadron who can take the greenest recruits and forge them into top fighter pilots.  Before the first mission begins nearly the entire squadron is shot down, leaving only you (Blaze), Nagase, Chopper, Grimm (Archer), and Captain Davenport to provide outer air defense for Osea.  Basically you're the modern day incarnation of the Black Sheep Squadron.  What follows is a story of intrigue, government espionage, forced propaganda, corruption, and one of the most well written plots in video game history.  You'll fly dozens of aircraft in dozens of missions with an excellent mix of objectives and plot twists.  Things are different from the previous games in the series.  First off you can no longer rearm mid-mission, which is something I like since the whole "all my weapons are gone, I'll just head for 180 degrees and get more" was terribly unrealistic.  The enemy AI is far better than in any other fighter combat game I have ever played, you really have to run down enemy planes and they dynamically try every trick in the book to evade your lock.  Thankfully your cannon is actually useful this time around and many times you'll take out aircraft and ground targets with it alone, both to conserve missiles and because sometimes it's just a smarter way to down targets.  You have a squadron at your command and while they're not amazing flyers, they respond to commands well (sort of like the wingmen commands in Rogue Squadron) and form up and protect your wing properly.

Graphics:  Ace Combat 04 was impressive, but when you got close to the surface the terrain detail turned into the usual graphic flight sim blob.  This is dramatically lessened in Ace Combat 5, everything is much more detailed than in the previous game.  Everything from bridges, to mountains, to vehicles, to skyscrapers - it all looks great.  Aircraft detail is also ramped up, providing the most detailed aircraft models I have ever seen in any flight sim.  The internal view for each plane, while detailed, really feels a bit too static.  It would be nice to see more motion and movement inside the cockpit but the graphics that you are given are passable at least.  This isn't a huge deal to me since I usually use the HUD view.  Whereas in the previous games in the series you're mostly just firing missiles at red diamonds over the tiny dots in the distance that are your targets, this time around you get right up on enemy aircraft and dynamically fight to get them in range.  This is mostly due to the improved game mechanics but the graphic detail on enemy targets as you pull them in remains impressive.  What I was blown away with is the amount of cool details prior to take off in a couple missions.  In one you are on the ground waiting to take off while an air raid is taking place around you.  Using the right stick you can look around to see the scrimmage as planes dart around above and fall from the sky.  The other really cool sequence was during a carrier take off, being raised up on an aircraft elevator, taxiing around to the catapult while the deck crew scrambles around directing flight operations, watching part of your squadron be launched off before you, and finally taking off as well.  The cut scenes are fully rendered as opposed to the watercolor looking art from the previous game, which worked fine.  However I really did enjoy how the story was played out and the writing and voice acting really added to the visuals to make the characters seem real.  It looks like Namco used the old Reiko Nagase character model from Ridge Racer Type 4 in this game, as your wingman (or is that wingwoman) is Kei Nagase - who looks just like her.  The whole "told from the perspective of a reporter" thing is just a unique way to present the game's story and it works really well.  Have you ever seen a modern aircraft carrier sink?  You will in Ace Combat 5.  The option to change your plane colors really isn't as cool as it sounds, your options are limited to squadron schemes you earn throughout campaign mode.  That's right, you don't get a color scheme painting option like in most modern driving simulations, it's a bit of a letdown, but it's no big deal.

Sound:  Simply put, amazing - and not just the aircraft sounds either.  You'll hear every knock, every noise, every thrust in your aircraft.  Some people are complaining about the radio chatter but I think it better suits the game than the one sided pointless banter of Ace Combat 04.  The voice acting in the cut scenes is some of the best voice work I've heard in a game in a long time - especially the base mechanic, Pops.  The reporter, who also narrates the game, is very good voice artist as well and the narration surpasses the already excellent narrative in the previous game.  The part of the audio I was most impressed with became apparent in one mission where you have to fly within a series of canyons - as the enemy (who I'm not about to reveal and ruin the story) has control of the airspace above.  Eventually you have to take on a squadron of Su-27's within the confines of the canyons.  You can HEAR the enemy aircraft stalking you if they get around behind.  If you out thrust a missile and bank around a bend in the canyon, you hear the missile impact the canyon wall behind you.  While other flight sims have had audio similar to this in the past, the situation has never seemed as intense as in Ace Combat 5.

Play Control:  Control feels a lot more dynamic and responsive this time around.  Issuing commands to your squadron is simple and as I noted before is a lot like the Rogue Squadron games.  Due to the changes in game mechanics you really have to work at getting behind enemy aircraft to get good solid locks and take them down.  It feels a lot more like you're up against real enemy pilots since they'll lead you around into larger enemy furballs, attempt to out fly you into the terrain, and ditch your lock to pick up one of their own.  However as advanced as the enemy AI is, you can still close in on them due to the rock solid controls.  Not a whole lot to say, then again that's what makes good play control.  Additionally Namco is selling a flight stick / throttle stick controller combo for Ace Combat 5 and I've heard it's pretty nice, but for an additional $60 it was something I passed on.

Replay:  To see the entire game you have to play through it at least twice as there are three missions where your objective is decided by the flip of a coin.  This is a nice touch to the game play but it took me a few minutes after I completed the game for the first time to figure this out - it should be noted in the manual.  You have all the mission replay options from the first game as well as SP Campaign which allows you to go back through the story mode with all the money, planes, and colors you've earned in your previous campaigns.  There's also Arcade Mode where you fly an F-22 in a continuation of the story from Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies.  You even reprise your role as Mobius 1 and your AWACS is callsign SkyEye, with the same voice actor.  This was cool as the "missile shot trashed, heads up" line was one of my favorites from the previous game and I was actually starting to miss it this time around.  There is no two player support in Ace Combat 5, Namco said they simply didn't have enough time to include one.  Not sure if this means they're working on development for the next game on the PlayStation3, but I've always thought of flight sims as a single player experience so not much was lost on this.  Truthfully, just to see the story play out again is reason enough to give this game high replay value.

Final Verdict:  If you're a fan of the series, you're going to want this.  If you like flight sims and own a PS2 you owe it to yourself to grab this title.  It further enforces why the Airforce Delta series can't hold a candle to the Air Combat / Ace Combat franchise.  The trailer that plays before the game is the coolest production cinema I have seen in a video game to date.  Landing is still way too easy and the new mid-air refueling is too easy as well, although they are nice touches and are enjoyable aspects of the game.  If you have missiles tracking a target and a mid-mission cut scene comes up, they tend to lose lock, a small glitch but a bug just the same.  Over all the game seems more realistic and more attention to detail has been given this time around.  Some bash this game due to its lack of two player support but it's more of a cinematic experience of feeling as though you're part of the story, as opposed to just completing missions as in the previous game.  This is hands down the best flight sim currently or for awhile to come.  Ace Combat is the unchallenged king of console flight sims and The Unsung War is further proof of that.  If you own a PlayStation2 you simply cannot go wrong with this game.

Written on 11-22-04 by David,
Last amended 04-13-06 by David,

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