Directing a movie about fighter pilots and having Namco’s Project Aces team make the game of it is sort of like making an action flick and getting Infinity Ward on board, or a fantasy adventure movie with Square Enix handling the console translation. No developer on Earth has Namco’s pedigree when it comes to sky-high arcade combat, with eight Ace Combat games under their belt, but it’s the first time they’ve lent their expertise to a despicable movie license.
The movie is an animated flick from the director of Ghost in the Shell about a team of never-aging, genetically engineered parallel universe pilots engaged in a war staged for entertainment by two corporations in an otherwise peaceful world. Yep.
Cutting straight through that nonsense, the plot becomes a wafer-thin premise upon which to bring Ace Combat to the Wii, for that’s exactly what Namco have done. Aside from a few new tricks and tweaks, and minus the ultra-modern planes seen in the recent Ace Combat titles on other consoles, Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is as Ace Combat as they come. It feels like an AC game, has disgustingly dense menus like an AC game, lifts the same mission structure from recent AC games and even borrows a bunch of sound effects from the most recent console Ace Combat.
That’s a recipe for bombing runs, dogfights, escort missions and epic battles against a dozen enemy planes, with lengthy, pretentious cutscenes in between about how war is bad m’kay, complete with beautiful aircraft handling and high-speed aerobatics. But the Wii brings three new features to the party – one good, two bad. Let’s do the bad first so the review ends on a nicer note, eh?
While the plane models are suitably impressive in isolation, the game doesn’t look nearly as good as past Ace Combat titles. Normally that’s small cause for complaint in a game this good, but Ace Combat is a series that’s always been among the most beautiful games on its home console – from PlayStation to PS2 to PSP to 360. Nobody would expect Innocent Aces to approach AC6 levels of photorealistic beauty, but it could surely have looked at least as good as the last PS2 game, were the team given more time on the project.
Similarly half-assed are the controls, which dispense with Ace Combat standards in favor of – ugh – motion controls. You’ll have to swap hands for this one, because the Nunchuk sits in your right and the remote in your left, with the ‘chuk controlling pitch and yaw and the remote functioning as an accelerator with tilting motions. Naturally, it’s rubbish, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find it detects your GameCube or Classic controller so long as it’s plugged in before loading the game, which immediately makes the dumpo controls redundant.
New feature three is the winner of the bunch, though. Every enemy fighter in Innocent Aces appears on your radar with a proximity ring surrounding the craft. Stay on your opponent’s tail for a while, within the ring, and you’ll get the option to essentially auto-kill the craft with an automated sequence of aerobatics activated with a click of the GameCube’s Z trigger. Stay inside for even longer, and the aerobatics get more dramatic and more point-worthy, always setting you up in position right behind the enemy pilot.
Ace Combat veterans might baulk at such a feature, but remember, this is a world where most of the planes resemble WWII fighters more than current-generation aircraft and you’re not going to be flinging homing missiles around like Cold War combatants. The – ugh – ‘Tactical Maneuver Command’ system puts the emphasis on sticking close to the enemy and engaging from terrifyingly close range, with the reward for dramatic aerobatics being an easy kill, and the punishment for stinky flying being an enemy Ace right on your tail with a sudden and unexpected aerobatic flourish.
It’s a neat twist on the Ace Combat formula – a formula that already forms the core of the best arcadey aerial shooter series ever made. You can put your faith in Project Aces and Namco when it comes to shooting planes full of holes, even, it seems, when shackled to the 10-tonne movie licence anchor. When it comes to planes, Namco can do no wrong: not on PS2, not on PSP, not on 360, and – at last – not on Wii.
Jan 12, 2010