Fans of Ace Combat are always hungry for new releases, with the last major instalment Ace Combat: Assault Horizon performing its first barrel roll over three years ago. It was no surprise, then, that when Ace Combat: Infinity was announced, there was much rejoicing – well, until everyone realised that the latest entry in this beloved series was going to be a free-to-play downloadable title. So, following a beta earlier on in the year, the game is now cleared for take-off on the PlayStation 3, giving everyone the chance to find out if it reaches for the skies – or nosedives into the ground.
The title offers both a single player campaign and an online co-op mode, with the missions taking place in 2019, five years after a huge meteor shower causes widespread destruction across the globe. You’re a new addition to Arrow Air Defence and Security – a mercenary group who’ve been hired by the UN to help them deal with flash points of conflict across the world. This role soon sees you at the centre stage of a conflict with a terrorist group, which has an axe to grind with the world’s biggest weapons manufacturer.
No matter which of the two modes that you play, you’ll find that the Ace Combat formula is present and correct as you take to the skies in a variety of real world and occasionally fictional aircrafts. These planes are kitted out with an inexhaustible supply of weaponry, which you can use to destroy all manner of air and ground targets, including huge flying fortresses that have been a staple of the series. As ever the planes are fun to fly, each handling a little differently from each other, with some suited to bombing runs, while others are at their best when dogfighting.
It’s hard to talk any more about the game's content without first running through its free-to-play mechanics, as unsurprisingly they have a big impact on the experience. The entire system revolves around two currencies that you need in order to progress through the game: fuel and credits. One unit of fuel’s required to go on any mission whether in campaign (a campaign pass can be bought to remove this requirement) or online co-op. Fuel is further divided into two sub-sections: supplied and stored fuel. A single unit of supplied fuel is provided every four hours to each player, and you can hold up to three units at once. Stocked fuel, on the other hand, can be gained by paying for it using real world money, completing certain challenges, or via a random drop that occurs after each online co-op mission.
Fuel acts as your major barrier to playing and means that unless you buy some fuel or manage to get some via challenges or drops, you’ll be limited to three sorties every twelve hours. This isn’t a problem if you only want to casually dip in and out, but for those that want to level up and work their way through the tech tree quickly, you'll need to be very patient – or invest some real money to build a stock of fuel.
The second currency – credits – can also be purchased with cash or earned through missions, challenges, and drops. These are used to buy planes and upgraded parts, but before you can do this, you need to research each item. Every online co-op mission you complete contributes research points to the next unlock along each branch of the tech tree. Once an item has been fully researched, progress along that particular branch is blocked until you’ve purchased said item. As such, the early credit bonuses that you receive will dwindle away as you burn through your funds buying up each researched item on the tech tree – whether you wanted them or not. This leaves you frequently short of funds as you’ll earn, on average, five to seven thousand credits per co-op sortie, while the items you’re buying cost tens of thousands, ramping up even more in price the further along the tech tree that you progress.
As things stand at the moment, there are only five campaign missions available, of which two are open for all players to try out (three more are planned for release in the future). If you want to see the rest of the campaign, then you’ll either need to buy the previously mentioned campaign pass or spend in-game credits. Using credits seems reasonable, until you see that the third mission in the story costs two hundred thousand credits to unlock, and every subsequent mission charges even more.
The amount of time it would take to unlock missions by grinding credits would mean that you’d have to forgo buying new planes and parts in order to save up. As a result, if you want to play the campaign, you really have to buy the pass, as you’ll be grinding away at the online co-op for days or possibly weeks with only a single mission as your reward. While the campaign missions currently available are enjoyable, they’re also over far too quickly, and it feels like paying £11.99/$19.99 for the pass is pretty poor value for money – even with the three additional promised missions.
The online co-op mode, on the other hand, sees two teams of four working together to destroy as many air and ground targets as they can within a set time limit. While both teams contribute to the ultimate mission ranking – with greater rewards to be had for attaining higher ranks – both sides are also battling to get the highest team score so they can be crowned the victors. As you can imagine, these battles can be quite frantic as you try and take down targets before the other team, while also trying not to poach too many targets so that it negatively impacts on the overall rank. This makes for quite an odd dynamic, with success in any given scenario requiring everyone to be firing on all cylinders, as even a single person off their game can mean the difference between an A or S ranking.
The level of coordination required to get the high rankings doesn’t happen much in public matches, as most battles will see everyone attempting their own thing rather than working together. While initially playing these missions can be fun as you get to grips with how to get a decent score, you'll soon realise that there are only five scenarios that can be selected to play, so you’ll enter the same scenario time and time again, with the same targets, in the same positions, with only the random objective that occurs at exactly the same time in each scenario providing any variety.
In addition to the five objectives, there are a number of ‘white whale’ battles that occur randomly when you enter a lobby. These can’t be selected by the host, and offer the opportunity to take on a huge, heavily armed flying craft, with a very tight time limit for you to destroy it. These are really tough, and, again, require everyone to pull their weight if you’re going to be successful. On the odd occasions when things come together, though, it’s super satisfying to come out on top – especially when you put a missile through the cockpit of the flying fortress with seconds to spare.
Even with these randomly occurring scenarios, though, there’s a real lack of content in both the campaign and the co-op, with a player-versus-player mode conspicuously absent as well. With so little content, having a limited chance to play actually works in the game's favour, as being able to play as much as you like would result in you burning through the limited offering even quicker.
Ace Combat: Infinity feels like a game that no one had confidence in. Rather than create a decent amount of content to attract players, Bandai Namco has instead launched a barebones title in order to test the waters and see how many gamers will bite. This is a shame, as what is here can be really enjoyable – once you make your peace with the free-to-play barriers, anyway – and fans of the franchise's particular brand of aerial warfare will find themselves right at home in the cockpit. It’s downright frustrating, then, that the title in its present state has so much potential, but asks for gamers to invest their time and money on the basis of what it could be.