〈〈 Robek 3, Engage. 〉〉
I recently wrote an article about my proposal for a new word about video game stories. If you haven’t read it, please do so now.
Ace Combat 04 and 5, released by Namco in 2001 and 2004, were flight combat video games which leaned away from realism, and towards arcade-style physics and controls. An interesting staple for the series is the inclusion of radio chatter during gameplay, for both allies and enemies. The immediate benefits are obvious: the game can give the player mission objectives, tactics, and other useful information without forcing the player to do anything. However, the developers took this a step further. Elements of the story were fit in to this mechanic, letting the player gain a reputation to which the enemy and friendly forces react.
If you ask me, these games scream “situation”
Maybe you wanted me to just talk about the gameplay. But what’s there to say? The games are fun as hell, and there isn’t much improved between the two. Using the squad in 5 wasn’t incredibly helpful, but didn’t detract from the experience. The level variety in 04 was a little stale, but some of the “different” missions in 5 could be a chore and felt like padding. 5 is longer, and has more content, but I’m more inclined to replay 04 due to the scripted events of its sequel. Ace Combat Zero improves on every downside, plus adding a much-needed manual target which makes it hard to go back.
But I’m not talking about Zero because I’m trying to make a comparison. In terms of situation, Zero sits right in between the two, which makes it hard to contrast.
Obviously, this article contains spoilers for the story of 04 and 5. And yes, the story of these games are good. If you haven’t already, play all three, in order. You won’t regret it, probably.
Ace Combat 04
The game starts out with an introduction to our narrator. We never get his name, or anything about him, but we do learn about how a fighter named Yellow Thirteen indirectly killed his family. After this, the player is briefed on how the war started, then set out on the first mission. The player is never told how the previous story relates to the present gameplay, which leads to a few questions. It could be natural to assume the boy is the player, or that the player is (or becomes) Yellow 13. While the latter is disproved by being called “Mobius One” from the start, it’s still not totally out of the question until you encounter him in battle, a few missions in. I suspect this was a deliberate choice; the players who want more story would be given time to mull over possibilities, while those who don’t, wouldn’t think twice.
The war covers a pretty basic scenario: a country (Erusea) invaded and took over a continent, and a bunch of countries allied (ISAF) to fight back. Like World War II but with less jews. I think this was written as such, since the setup of the war is easy to see on a map, and the progression through the game directly correlates with how little red is on the screen.
Eventually, the player gets more light on the narrator’s story, and character development for Yellow Thirteen. The occupied city in which the narrator lives becomes a base for the Erusean army, forcing him to live among the enemy. This is where the two stories merge, more specifically at Mission 15. The mission is prefaced with a cutscene describing how the Eruseans are expecting a raid on the city, and shows another cutscene about the newly freed city on conclusion. The story was set up for this, and the immediate realization that you, the player, has direct control over the narrator’s life, is more powerful than any prolonged cinematic.
This is the sort of shit I play games for, and what I’m talking about for “situation”. The story isn’t exactly unique, but the player has an impact on it, and takes actions towards it. It’s written in such a way that not only involves the player, but observes and respects the limitations of that player.
Ace Combat 5
Ace Combat 5 is long. It’s hard to know where to start, or where to stop, and I could be here all day just recounting the story. I took some liberties in 04‘s story, but I’m going to gloss over a lot.
A big feature of this game is the squad you fly with. Consistently having a set of teammates means familiar voices telling you the story, but there’s something done wrong about this. The cutscenes between missions showed these wingmates, but didn’t show the player. This makes sense from a writing perspective, it keeps the player as their own entity and the story is away from them… but that means the story is away from them, which defeats the purpose. Having fully animated CGI cutscenes showing the on-base action was a nice touch, but they dragged on too long, and felt like they existed just to exist. Many characterizations could have been portrayed in a well-written radio conversation, and the significant plot points were all in cutscenes, instead of inside gameplay. The story didn’t seem like it was written to cater to the player as a pilot, rather it played out like a movie which stopped to let you join the fun every once in a while.
Since the key characters fly with you, they talk at you, requesting you to respond. Sure, you can say yes, no, or not respond, but does that make a difference? Kind of, but also not really. There are three instances where a mission can be different, based on a conversation response. However, the question that triggers these have no relevance to the plot, and the story explanation is literally a coin flip, leaving a naive player to believe it was random, or wasn’t a choice at all.
At one point in the story, the main characters turn on their country, after realizing they’re on the wrong side. They all escape from the base in training plains, with no weapons to use for defense. The next mission sees you attempting to throw off pursuing fighters without firing a shot. Sounds neat, right? Well, the developers (and writers) thought it would have been a good idea to make it a follow-the-leader mission, and to replace any possible spontaneous or tense combat sequences with characters on the radio assuring you that the situation is indeed tense. Most of the mission involves flying low and close to the terrain, going around sharp curves and even inside a cave. None of these parts were particularly challenging, though, and the increased maneuverability of the training plane actually helped. This could have been a cleverly disguised boss fight, requiring the player to think on the fly and get creative, just by taking the story bits out of the level. Instead, it only contributed to the too long list of missions that keep me from even considering replaying Ace Combat 5.
Maybe it’s just me, but a more grandiose and longer story, with more characters didn’t hit as hard as a more intimate interaction with a main rival and an unnamed character. I never felt like I had an effect on my squad mates in 5, nor did I ever have an opportunity to make an effect. You can easily argue I shouldn’t expect one, since I didn’t in 04, and you might be right. My main criticism is that the writers of 5 gave me the opportunity to expect an option. A game’s situation should always be set up to let the player know their boundaries, and respect those boundaries by maintaining the scope of the game within them. Do not show the player a different game about political espionage on an air force base, when you do not wish to make such a game.
Less is more. (he says, after a 1300 word article)
〈〈 Robek 3, jink right! 〉〉
Also published on Medium.