Namco Bandai have taken bold steps into the free to play market of late, as several of their key franchises are opening up their doors to as many people as possible. Ace Combat Infinity is the latest to make this shift, with a particularly ambitious-sounding name attached to it.
It takes a near-future, alternate reality version of Earth, which diverges away from our real world around 1994, when the 5254 Ulysses asteroid and its collision with one of Jupiter’s moons created a storm of thousands of meteors which then hit Earth in 1999.
The Stonehenge anti-air railgun network was created to try and defend Earth from the impending destruction, but in the end it was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of meteorites that hit the planet, wiping out vast swathes of the world’s population and changing the course of history. Twenty years after the impact event, in 2019, war breaks out, with you set as a rookie pilot in the middle of it all.
It’s a story which seems to take a few elements from previous Ace Combat games. When I sat down with Kazutoki Kono-san, I asked him about this and whether they were revisiting the plots of previous games.
“We don’t want to make any spoilers for the story at all.” Kono-san stated. “We want to keep it fairly simple so the users will want to figure it out themselves, but yes, we are revisiting the highlights of past titles and seeing what kinds of things we can put in from there.”
However, with the world changing drastically during the story’s initial set up, it almost felt like this could be the point that our Earth transforms into what was known as StrangeReal in some Ace Combat games.
“The maps and the country names are all using real world locations,” explained Kono-san, “but since the Ulysses has dropped on the world – whatever happened thereafter and whether it’s StrangeReal or not – we want the users to look and see for themselves.
“The world of Strangereal was brought up during the series, but we want to leave it open. I’m actually impressed that the world of Strangereal is almost normal to the community, because it’s been used so many times!”
Stepping into the cockpit sees you take on the mantle of Reaper, the rookie pilot on Bone Arrow squadron. It’s that typical plot point which allows the story to show you a world which is new to both you and your character, whilst also letting the game start off small and grow in scale.
The two missions I had the chance to play were both single player. The first was a straight-up dogfight, pitting an F-14A against Migs high over the West Indies, the other putting me in a bombing run as I piloted an A-10A in a strike against one of the Stonehenge railgun batteries in Turkey.
In both cases, the combat and mission length were short and sweet, with just a few minutes of game time to get used to the plane handling and combat mechanics. However, the controls were really nice and simple to pick up and play with, using slightly different configuration to the more complex systems I’m used to from games like Battlefield 3. Here I could just dive in and enjoy the game.
I quickly discovered that it’s important to use your missiles, though the machine guns work well too. However, with only so much damage you can take you need to be quick to react to incoming threats and get your shots away first or you’ll be dead quite quickly. There will be special weapons too, but at this early stage in the game, I didn’t get to fiddle around with those.
The Stonehenge mission in Turkey was particularly entertaining and felt really quite cinematic, with such an odd and almost alien structure to destroy. The rest of Bone Arrow are pretty chatty throughout and especially after a mission is done, help to build up a universe around you, and lend character to the experience. I’m not quite sure why they found Reaper’s emblem of the Grim Reaper so creepy, though.
“The overall flow of the game mission structure is so that the user downloads the game and starts playing single player story campaigns,” Kono-san explained, “and sees how they should play it; the mechanics, the controls and get more skilled as they move on through the story. Then, once they’re used to the game, they go on to the online co-op.
“After everyone’s used to it and playing online co-op, we have events within the co-op missions which occur randomly. We believe that the users can replay again and again without getting bored.”
The co-operative play sounds particularly intriguing, and is actually the main focus of the gameplay and story mode for Infinity, though I didn’t have the opportunity to play any of these missions myself. The focus of the game isn’t head-to-head online combat – though Kono-san did reveal that this could happen at some point, if the community want it – but rather co-op play with a competitive twist.
Alpha and Bravo, two teams of pilots, are fighting on the same side of the war, going into missions against the AI controlled enemies. The twist is that you’re essentially competing to pass each mission and objective faster and better than the other side. This is a much more inviting prospect for newcomers, I feel, letting them work towards common goals without being endlessly hunted down by superior and more experienced pilots.
Laying the foundations for all of this is the free to play model, and more interestingly the exclusivity to the PlayStation 3, with a large install base across the globe. Though much has been said of the PlayStation 4 and free to play gaming, current generation machines haven’t seen these games quite so often.
When I asked Kono-san about this exclusivity, he explained that “Namco Bandai has been involved with free to play from Gundam Battle Operations, which we released last year. Then we released Tekken Revolution in June and are now moving on to Ace Combat, Soul Calibur and on and on.”
“We’ve been sharing information between those teams, and the reason why we’re releasing on the PS3 is because all of these games are coming to PS3, and it was easiest for us accommodate. From there, after we’ve made our goals on the PS3, we can think about moving on to something different. It depends on how things work, but in terms of next-gen platforms like Xbox One and PlayStation 4, I want to pursue it but we need to concentrate on the market we have on PlayStation 3.”
There will be micro-transactions to support the game, of course, but these seem to be very much in flux at the moment, with regard to their pervasiveness and what they will have to offer. This is naturally going to be a key focus point in the upcoming beta testing.
“The reason why we’re not going into monetization details right now, is because we’re doing the beta test to see how our users will react,” said Kono-san. “Especially for a console, where it’s a different market to PC gaming, we want to see how console players react and how we should actually do it for this game.
“What we know right now is that there are free to play social games on console and PC, and all of them are totally different. We’ve seen that it can change from title to title, so we need to see what a good balance is.”
This is going to be a core part of how they develop the game going forward, as any free to play game should be. The way in which they can, and actually have to listen to the fan base and feedback in order to develop the game further is central to the business model.
“It’s that the overall game is easier to get at,” Kono-san said. “It used to be that it was $59.99 for people to get their hands on a game, but the important part is that we want to create the game as we go, along with the users, by managing the free to play title with updates and things like that.”
“That’s the key point that we want to stress to the users and media, that we want to create the game together. As long as the users give us the feedback, we can go about creating it infinitely, as we say in the name!”
Our thanks to Kono-san for taking the time to speak to us. Ace Combat Infinity is set for beta release in the near future, with details hopefully coming soon.