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Underrated Game of the Week: Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies by Namco
What? Really? Since when have fighter games ever earned a rite of passage beyond the point of simple head-to-head fun for friends or streaking over different landscapes firing missiles? Since Namco redefined the genre with Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies. Up until that point the games were about the planes and the weapons. This title was the first to succeed in applying it to so much more.
Back in 2001 the fighter plane genre was still an unknown quantity. People still viewed it in the classic Galaga sense: see it, shoot it, move on. That changed when Namco execs chose to form what was to be called the "Project Aces" team. This select group of specialists held the mission of redesigning and building the next title in their fighter plane series, Ace Combat. What made the project so important was it would be the first major release of such a game on the Playstation 2 console, which had come out the same year. They came up with a daring title in Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies. The game would feature 21 different playable aircraft that included a variety of different munitions from machine guns to missiles, unguided bombs, cluster bombs, napalm and rockets. The complexity of the system alone drew interest from fans, but the success of the game went far deeper than that.
Plot and Characters
The true strength of the game, which stunned a lot of critics at the time, was in the plot. For really the first time in the history of gaming an air warfare title had a completely original tale to tell that was both complex and compelling. The single-player campaign puts the player in the guise of "Mobius One", a crack fighter pilot for the Independent State Allied Forces, or ISAF. They sit in the middle of a war against their western neighbors, the Federal Erusean Armed Forces, FEAF. How everything happens is based on the two sides initially working together on a specialized weapons system to knock out incoming asteroids from space, codenamed "Stonehenge." This was done after an initial asteroid actually struck the main continent of Usea, killing over 500,000 people. However, the FEAF took advantage of this crisis, hijacked Stonehenge and used it as a super weapon to assist their armed forces in a conquest of the continent. By the time the game starts, ISAF is on the ropes clinging to the far eastern coastline of Usea with the Eruseans closing in.
It is here Mobius One gets dropped into the fire. Outnumbered and outgunned the player starts a counterattack that hopes to somehow turn the war in favor of ISAF. At the same time the story broadens when each mission is divided by lengthy cut scenes involving a young boy trapped behind Erusean lines who narrates his struggle, including the unlikely friendship he strikes with Yellow 13, the most famous and deadliest FEAF fighter ace and inevitable rival of Mobius One. Yet the typical style of "enemies being bad guys" takes a strange turn as players learn that war doesn't work that way. Yellow 13 proves to be a quiet, reserved man who looks upon his success as merely doing his duty as a soldier. Without ruining the plot for anyone who hasn't played it, rest assured they soon learn to appreciate why wars are such complicated ventures that get good people on both sides killed. That message and how the game brings it out from beginning to end is worth every second.
It's also worth nothing the story was so popular that Namco used the same world and countries for Ace Combat 5 as well.
What nobody has acknowledged enough about the game is the understated strength of its soundtrack. Up to that point no company had put much stock in using music to enhance the experience of an air combat title. That changed when Namco appointed Tetsukazu Nakanishi and Hiroshi Okubo to headline a new project for Ace Combat 4. What they brought out was a diverse compilation of 48 tracks that includes everything from orchestras, synthesizers, and rock. Perhaps the most important factor in the endeavor was when the company added Keiki Kobayashi to the team. Despite very limited experience prior to his appointment, the young composer demonstrated a rare talent for the job which culminated in what many consider the signature theme of the game and the entire series, "Megalith -Agnus Dei-." Inspired by the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the song would propel Kobayashi to become director of the Namco Sound Team. His groundbreaking work eventually led later Ace Combat tracks to play in orchestras around the world.
It was another one of those "right place, right time" situations when I found this game. I had never played an air combat title of any note before and was in the mood for something new. Like most people I probably expected straight up battle scenes that merely satisfied my thirst for adrenaline. Instead what I got was an experience in both game play and story that changed the way I view gaming today. Compared to later titles it may come across a tad easy and simple but Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies holds up about as well over time as most of the all-time greats. That is why it is never too late to experience its depth, beauty and fun.