Developers: Project Aces
Publishers: Namco Bandai
After getting hands-on with two levels of the upcoming Ace Combat: Infinity and chatting to series producer Kazutoki Kono (via a translator) for well over half an hour, I'm still not entirely sure of the big picture regarding Project Aces's free-to-play title. And neither it would seem, are the developers themselves.
Let's start with the hands-on. There are fingerprints of Assault Horizon visible here: the blistering damage modelling, the gloopy oil splashes that hit the camera when a plane goes down. But the best thing about that game -- the whole 'Make Metal Bleed' mentality and the up-close-and-personal, Close-Range Assault system -- is nowhere to be found. Instead, Infinity plays a lot like Ace Combat 6, and that's no bad thing necessarily. But I do kind of wish we could have had the best of both worlds, with a more dynamic camera when it comes to dogfighting.
The controls have been simplified to a certain extent to cater for players who've never taken to the skies in an Ace Combat game. The whole point of this F2P venture is to attract new attention to the series and expand the franchise's audience, that's something Kono was very upfront about. Standard controls will automatically attempt to balance out the plane for you, but if you purposefully want to throw your aircraft into loops and barrel-rolls (and you should!), then the full control that Expert controls offer is really the only way forward.
The first of the two missions I played was a basic dogfighting affair, set over an indeterminate body of water. You start out by choosing your and picking the additional weapon for you third slot, be it a long-range, incredibly accurate HASMs or the semi-active SAAMs or those handy little 4AAMs that lock onto up to four targets at once and are great for taking out clusters of enemies flying towards you like a cloud of idiots. I was done in about two minutes, a couple of reinforcements arrived, and that was that. If I'd blinked, I might have missed it.
The same was rather true of the almost absurdly safe second demo mission. This one, apparently Mission #4 of the free singleplayer campaign, saw my AI squad and I attempting to blow up the Stonehenge turret system that series fans might remember from Ace Combat 4. In fact, Infinity draws much of its backstory from that particular narrative clump of Strangereal, with players jumping into the role of a rookie pilot in a diverse squad of international ace pilots formed in the shadow of the Ulysses Disaster. But the mission itself was almost distressingly easy. I didn't take a single bit of damage, and all there was to do was knock out the turrets, and clear up some of the smaller SAM sites and AA gun emplacements for a bit of a score boost. And I don't say that out of self-aggrandisement (I'm pretty rubbish at most games), but rather to illustrate a feeling of emptiness. These were incredibly brief, all-too-easy encounters, and there's apparently no sign of variable difficulty modes in sight.
Which brings me around to the general perspective on Ace Combat: Infinity. Interviewing Kono-san, for whom I have a great deal of admiration, was something of an exercise in frustration simply because for many thing he couldn't give me solid answers. The reason for this is simple: Project Aces are going to be using an enormous beta to essentially instruct them in how to proceed. There are two sides to this: on the one hand, I can't deliver concrete information about anything regarding the pricing model, how unlocks will work specifically (only that you'll be able to unlock everything in the game via gameplay as well as purchased currency), nor exactly how customisation will work. Why? Well, because Project Aces simply don't know themselves. But on the other hand, community feedback is awesome, and it's the direction we're headed towards as an industry: release a half-baked game, and let your community work out the rest. Sometimes that's a wonderful, organic process. Sometimes that's a disaster waiting to happen, and I don't know which one Infinity will fall into.
Project Aces are keen to stress that the free singleplayer component is really more of a narrative-driven tutorial to set players up for what they are touting as the core experience of Infinity: the online co-op missions. In these missions, players will form up into two four-unit teams per session -- Alpha and Bravo -- and given the same objectives on the the same map. The team who racks up the highest score, taking out the most AI enemy units, will win the day. Before you ask, no, you can't shoot down members of the other team. Not yet anyway.
PvP is not part of the equation yet, with Kono-san suggesting that such a mode could simply lead to griefing for new players, which would be counter-productive to the open-armed strategy that Project Aces are hoping to promote with this title. I personally don't see how the team can go too long without implementing it, as the nature of building up your hangar of unlocked aircraft and increased progression will mean that players will inevitably want to test themselves against other players.
So a mixed bag of unanswered questions, then. I love the fact that we're headed back to Strangereal for the setting of Ace Combat: Infinity, and that we'll see flying fortresses make an appearance once more. The game handles nicely, and when (if?) the skies are filled with enemy aircraft, I have no doubt that I'll have a massive grin carved into my face, with the Kenny Loggins obviously on in the background. The online co-op missions sound great on paper, like two crack teams competing in training exercises against one another. I like free stuff, too, and with vehicular and airborne warfare looming large in F2p circles right now, it makes sense for Namco Bandai to try and muscle in on the scene with an outstanding franchise that's very good at what it does. But we need depth. We need concrete facts about unlocks and pricing and customisation. And I'd argue that we need PvP too, in this of all genres. Training missions and co-op runs are fine, but ultimately we all want to try and be the top gun, that's just how it is.