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Ace Combat 04 and 5 are two of the best war games ever made

by Ron Duwell | December 24, 2016December 24, 2016 10:00 am PDT

Ace Combat 04

I gushed about Ace Combat 7’s trailer this week, praising it for taking it back to the series’ roots and highpoints, and shortly afterwards, DualShockers published a new interview with series producer Producer Kazutoki Kono from PlayStation Experience explaining exactly how he plans to do that.

The interview covers the decision over returning to the fictional setting Strangereal, bringing back on previous writers, and Kano really digging into what made Ace Combat 04 Shattered Skies and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War so memorable.

And I would like to use that interview to break down exactly why Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War are two of the best war games ever made.

Faceless protagonist

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In the interview, Kano stresses that Ace Combat 7 will be bringing back the idea of a faceless protagonist. I’ve expressed my love for the idea of a “silent protagonist” in most JRPGs and how they give players an avatar into a world without any predetermined emotional baggage, but this idea of a faceless protagonist takes it one step further in that your character doesn’t even have an image to get in the way.

Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies casts players as Mobius 1. Mobius 1 never talks, and to an even further extent, Mobius 1 is just a plane. The only interaction we get with Mobius 1 in the story is people singing praises of numerous accomplishments as he, or indeed she, soars through the air and shoots down five enemy bogeys with a single barrage of missiles. There’s no rambling anti-war message from his cockpit or boasts of an impressive kill count coming from Mobius 1’s cockpit.

Mobius 1 is nothing except what the players wants him or her to be.

This avatar is nothing more efficient soldier who gets the job done because it’s the job, and it lets the player bask in the praises of fellow pilots. Mobius 1 is a true avatar into another world, the closest many of us have ever gotten to becoming a genuine fighter pilot.

This is something Call of Duty gets right, or at least used to get right back when the Modern Warfare games were taking off. The difference here is you stick with Mobius 1 through the very end of the war, and you feel like a genuine hero controlling that plane, not just another soldier in the ranks. It’s more satisfying to see your character succeed with such flying colors.

Separating the story from the cutscenes

Something both games do very well is tell two stories at one time: one on the grand scale of the world and the other a more personal story about your squadron of fighters. Kano says Ace Combat 7 will return to this two-plot mode, again, because it proved to be so popular in these two classics.

Both Ace Combat 04 and Ace Combat 5 dress up their combat in very Japanese anime-esque storylines that point out the flaws of war. They glorify the people who take part in these battles, individual humans who help make a difference in achieving peace, but the overall viewpoint tone of the games is a very reflective one, choosing to focus on those who suffer and the human side of combat, even your enemies.

Again, Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies shines the best here. The game’s missions tell the story through the cockpit of Mobius 1 as he or she rises through the ranks of the military’s fighter pilot squadrons over the course of a destructive war. However, this story unfolds exclusively over radio conversations and occurs only within the action of the game.

The cutscenes tell a very different tale, one of a man named Yellow 13, another faceless and nameless character in the game. These flashbacks tell a story of how Yellow 13 and his squadron of elite pilots are the heroes of a local town they occupied during the war. Over the course of the game, the player learns of his romances, his history, and ultimately, Yellow 13 proves to be the opponent in the final climactic battle with Mobius 1.After realizing what a hero this elite pilot is, you’re still forced to shoot him down.

After realizing what a hero this elite pilot is, you’re still forced to shoot him down?

Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War is a bit more traditional in its approach to story, but it does a better job of fleshing out the comradery of squadron pilots. During missions, you’ll hear the banter between pilots as they talk over the radio with their squad mates, and the player, once again a faceless character with a call sign of Blaze, is on the receiving end of their praise.

They’ll communicate in battle, giving orders and advice to one another, and yes, tragedy does strike as well. Ace Combat 5’s strength is the ability to build these characters through their voices only, meaning the story writer really has his work cut out for him to make believable and likable people.

The cutscenes tell a present day story of corruption in the military and conspiracies that happen behind the scenes of war. It’s not nearly as reflective as Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies is, but Ace Combat 5 is more about the present and seeing your characters make it through this mess. Again, more traditional of a story, but no less effective on shedding a light on the human side of war.

Return to Strangereal

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Kano mentions that he wants to bring the series back to its fictional setting of Strangereal because he underestimated how much the fans fell in love with it.

Unlike Assault Horizon, as far as numbered titles go, it’s been ten years since the last one has been released, Ace Combat 6. I wanted to keep in mind the fictional world that has been established through the previous numbered games, that the fans fell in love with, because it is a sort of flagship representative version of all that Ace Combat should be.

At the same time, what the fictional world allows us to do, is to have – you might have seen it in the trailer – this orbital elevator, as well as cutting-edge weapons that wouldn’t really exist in the space of reality.

Ace Combat 04 and 5 unfold in an amazing world that is similar to our own, and yet, not bound by the laws and physics that govern the planet Earth. Huge cannons the size of cities, planes the size of football fields, towers and spires taller than any mountain. Strangereal is a brilliant planet with interesting architecture and politics, and to see it from the cockpit of a plane is a magnificent sight.

Freedom of the skies

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Ace Combat 04 and Ace Combat 5 certainly have missions like most war games. Your group of soldier enter the battlefield with certain objectives to clear, but these two games let players figure out how to solve them as they see fit.The sky is your playground, and very rarely do these

The sky is your playground, and very rarely do these Ace Combat games take the controls from you. There is a giant plane over there? Figure out how to take it down! You’re engaged in a dog fight with thirteen elite enemy pilots? Well, good luck buddy. You’ll be alright.

Some of the missions even test your sense of observation, tossing in secret spy planes or other mysterious blips on the radar that only appear at certain moments. Ace Combat pushes players to maximize their efficiency in battle by saving fuel, setting records, bringing down enemies with little ammunition, but it also wants you also get out and explore the gorgeous worlds they were able to create with the PlayStation 2.

Ace Combat teaches players to push the limits of the game by opening up explorable options across the maps. Those who focus solely on the objectives are doomed to miss out.

Recreating this sense of freedom in the air and gifting to player the grand sensation of flying are there areas that I think with make or break Ace Combat 7. Kano and his team can write a touching story, create emotive characters, set new graphical standards all over again, but if it doesn’t trust players to push themselves and figure out the ins and outs of the game on their own, then it will just be another war game like Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, no different from the rest that litter our holiday shopping lists.


There’s plenty of other small bits and pieces that pushes these games above the rest. The music is outstanding, and it’s still a mystery as to how a PlayStation 2 game from 2001 could create such a vast map with so little knowledge of the technology. Mostly though, Ace Combat 04 Shattered Skies and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War come from the heart, from their storytelling to the execution of their missions, nothing about them is out of place.

Namco’s series is a critical high point of the PlayStation 2’s library and is sadly looked over a little too often when counting down what the console has to offer. They set a new standard in how to display war in a video game, having stories, music, and voice acting that were, for lack of a better term, too good for the genre at the time. No doubt they were an inspiration for those looking to tell stories beyond the world of RPGs, and I would definitely say that these two games could reach the audiences of today if given a chance.

Plus, Ace Combat 04 ends with an amazing Millennium Falcon moment that will resonate with you for the rest of your gaming career once you finally pull it off. Oh, it’s just fantastic!


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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