Following the release of Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation in 2007, fans would have to wait for until 2010 and 2011 for a new handheld and game console entry for the Ace Combat series. During this time, Project Aces created one of a handful of flight action games for the Nintendo Wii. Its release went unnoticed for the most part by Ace Combat fans due to the game console it was released on, but Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces in many ways was a testbed for future Ace Combat games. Concepts introduced in this game adaptation of the Sky Crawlers franchise influenced Ace Combat Assault Horizon, Cross Rumble/AH Legacy, Infinity and even Ace Combat 7.
Before we begin, an introduction to the Sky Crawlers franchise is called for. Though... it may not necessarily be needed. Flight simulation enthusiasts have most likely seen the opening scene of the Sky Crawlers movie multiple times by now.
About Sky Crawlers
A world that has found peace following the events of the Great War, a world that never suffered through World War II. Rather than nations launching military campaigns against one another, international tensions are eased through the battles of contracted corporations. Soldiers under contract, in this case, fighter pilots, engaging one another in actual combat with live munitions. The war has no purpose; the war seemingly has no end. To the civilians that watch it and the news media that cover it's akin to a modern day sport in some aspects. The story goes much deeper, even including rumors of people that can "never die". For now, we will turn away from the intricacies of the full story and focus on Sky Cralwers: Innocent Aces.
Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces (October 16th 2008) is a video game adaptation of the Sky Crawlers series, which started with five books authored by Hiroshi Mori beginning in June 2001. After the movie adaptation directed by Mamoru Oshii, the video game adaptation and manga adaptation would follow. Within the Sky Crawlers timeline, this game is a prequel to everything. Having read the book series or watched the movie is not a pre-requisite.
Clouds Affecting Gameplay
Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces also introduced the concept of clouds affecting the heads up display (HUD). In mission 15, the final enemy ace pilot in the mission utilizes clouds to confuse and attack the player. By diving in and out of the clouds, the enemy Ace disappears from the players in game HUD. This connects directly to the new cloud cover system that is being introduced in Ace Combat 7.
The Ace Combat 7 cloud system is more advanced, as the system is being designed to add a more strategic element to combat within the game. Flying within the clouds in Ace Combat 7 causes an aircraft to disappear from the HUD and for it to fade on the radar. However, being within a cloud does not prevent guided weapons from locking on. Remaining inside of clouds for too long will also have negative effects, including turbulence and aircraft surfaces being iced over, resulting in less aircraft maneuverability and zero visibility for a time. Either of these could be fatal while in combat. The Ace Combat 7 cloud system is specifically designed this way to prevent overuse of the Cloud system.
From TMC to PSM
A button layout was created for use with Gamecube controllers and the Wii Classic Controller for Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. Though they could have just carbon copied the tried and true controls of the Ace Combat series, with the Wii's unique motion controller setup brought before them, Project Aces created a control scheme that mimicked the real world stick and throttle layout of an aircraft cockpit as best as possible. The Wii remote acted as the throttle, and the nunchuck was the flight stick. To further compliment the unique motion controller layout, new semi-automatic maneuver systems were created.
With its release on October 16th, 2008, Innocent Aces utilizes Tactical Maneuver Commands (TMC) and Manual Maneuvers to allow players of all experience levels to perform expert flight maneuvers. At the time, some of these aerobatic maneuvers were impossible to implement even in the Ace Combat series.
Tactical Maneuver Commands can be used for offense and defense purposes. So long as the player remains within 350 meters of the airborne target, the TMC gauge gradually increases in level. The higher the level is before activation, the better the position the player will have behind the enemy aircraft once it is complete. In a TMC the aircraft is not the player's control while series of aerobatic maneuvers are displayed. Manual Maneuvers can be performed without needing to fill any gauges. By selecting the desired maneuver with the Wii Nunchuck maneuvers such as the Immelman Turn, Chandelle and Barrel Roll are executed automatically. Against higher difficult enemies a TMC performed by a player can be countered by a Manual Maneuver or TMC done by the enemy. This system allows for cinematic dogfights to occur in-game, which put the game in line with the thrilling combat sequences seen in the Sky Crawlers movie.
A demonstration of TMC and Manual Maneuvers.
Three years later, with the release of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (October 11th, 2011) and Ace Combat Cross Rumble (aka Ace Combat Assault Horizon Legacy; November 15th, 2011) elements of the Tactical Maneuver Commands and Manual Maneuvers were extensively used or expanded upon for both releases.
Ace Combat Cross Rumble utilized the TMC in its entirety with minimal changes. The semi-automatic maneuvering system in this game is known as the Action Maneuver system which is separated into two parts. The first part is Attack Maneuvers. This is an exact copy of the TMC system from Sky Crawlers. It includes new cinematic camera angles, and aerobatic maneuvers such as Pugachev's Cobra. The range requirement for filling the Attack Maneuver gauge was changed to 1500 meters. Manual Maneuvers from Sky Crawlers were reworked to become Evasive Maneuvers for Cross Rumble. When a guided enemy missile closes within a specific range to the player aircraft, the Evasion Guide appears on the screen. This guide shows three directions the player use to perform a quick maneuver to evade the missile at the last second. By pressing the Y Button while inputting one of the directions suggested at the same time, a quick barrel roll or jink can be performed. Dogfights against high level enemies can result in a string of attack and evasion maneuvers to create a cinematic dogfight experience. The in-game tutorials for Action and Evasive maneuvers are provided below:
Project Aces expanded upon all of these concepts for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon with the introduction of the Close Range Assault (CRA). In particular, the air-to-air portion of CRA known as Dogfight Mode (DFM).
Dogfight Mode can be activated within a specified range, depending on the angle and direction of flight of the targeted aircraft. The portions of DFM that include the player automatically being placed behind their enemy and the Counter Maneuver systems are still closely tied to the Tactical Maneuver Command and Evasion Maneuver systems. In Assault Horizon's single-player campaign, DFM does not have cool down time and is also used fly players through pre-set action pieces, which feature falling buildings, flying through cities and plot-related events. Counter Maneuvers performed in DFM are an advanced version of the Evasion Maneuvers which turn the tables on pursuing allies. A sub-system of Counter Maneuvers also exists, called Counter-Counter Maneuvers. This sub-system allows the player a chance to destroy the counter maneuvering aircraft before it gets behind them. The complete Dogfight Mode enabled visually dynamic dogfights to be displayed even in online multiplayer game modes.
A full demonstration of the DFM system using Cipher and Pixy F-15Cs with custom music.
The video is created by two members of Aurora Squadron, an Ace Combat fan squadron.
The use of Dogfight Mode in player vs. player game modes and it having been required to shoot down certain enemies in the single player campaign are what ultimately created the most problems for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. Because of the volume of negative reviews caused by DFM, any game mechanic related to the Close Range Assault system was removed from the next game in 2013, Ace Combat Infinity. This effectively made DFM the last iteration of a semi-automatic maneuvering system created by Project Aces.
A new game mechanic for Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (2018), is a fully player-controlled maneuvering system inspired by Counter Maneuvers from Assault Horizon's DFM. Known as Post Stall Maneuvers (PSM), it does not utilize any gauges or automatically moves the player behind their enemies. Instead, it relies on direct player input to the aircraft's position and airspeed. PSM reintroduces player skill level when performing highly advanced aviation maneuvers.
The aircraft tuning system in Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception was expanded upon in Sky Crawlers, allowing all aircraft to be modified with parts. Ace Combat X2: Joint Assault would be the first Ace Combat game to do the same thing.
Elements of the HUD layout for Piston aircraft in Ace Combat Infinity are identical to those used in Sky Crawlers, with some extra gauges and a difference in their position being some of the few differences.
With a few concepts in the Ace Combat series having been introduced within it, this unexpected Wii game is recommended for fans of Ace Combat. Though we have already experienced or are still learning about the concepts introduced in Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces, experiencing it for oneself is always better than simply reading about it. It may have slipped under the radar for many of Project Aces' followers, but it continues to be a game worthy of a test flight by Ace Combat fans from around the world.