A History of Automatic Maneuver Systems from Project Aces
Since its introduction in the arcades of 1993, the Ace Combat franchise did not give players a level of control over their aircraft needed to perform certain maneuvers only flight simulators would allow. Maneuvers like Cobra, Kubilts, Viffing, or the Falling Leaf. If players wanted to do a barrel roll to get behind the enemy or deploy speed brakes to force an overshoot on an attacking aircraft, they had to do so manually. Project Aces, developers of the Ace Combat series, began experimenting with automatic maneuver systems that would move aircraft behind their enemies with the click of a few buttons. Since 2008, they have developed four titles with some form of these systems included.
Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces
Released on October 16th 2008, though not an Ace Combat game, it was developed by Project Aces. This Nintendo Wii game is based on the world of the Sky Crawlers novels authored by Hiroshi Mori. Project Aces could have just carbon copied the tried and true controls of the Ace Combat series while adapting them to the Wii motion controllers. Instead, they developed a new automatic maneuvering system to compliment the game's controls and try to match the air combat seen in the Sky Crawlers movie. This would be their first automatic maneuvering system.
Tactical Maneuver Commands (TMC) and Manual Maneuvers gave players of all experience levels to perform expert flight maneuvers at the push of a button or two. At the time, some of these aerial maneuvers were impossible or very hard to execute, even with the use of Hands on Throttle and Stick peripherals compatible with game consoles.
Tactical Maneuver Commands are used for offensive and defensive purposes. As long as the player remains within 350 meters of an airborne target, the TMC gauge gradually increases by level. The higher the level is before activation, the better the position the player will have behind the enemy aircraft once it is complete. During a TMC maneuver, the aircraft is not the player's control. The aircraft automatically performs a series of aerobatic maneuvers shown through a cinematic third-person camera.
Manual Maneuvers are activated without needing to fill any gauges. By selecting the desired maneuver with the Wii Nunchuck, maneuvers like the Immelman Turn, Chandelle, and Barrel Roll are executed automatically. Against higher difficulty 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. Similar to the thrilling combat sequences seen in the Sky Crawlers movie.
Ace Combat 3D: Cross Rumble
Three years later, Project Aces would develop two games released in 2011. The first Ace Combat title on the Nintendo 3DS, Ace Combat 3D: Cross Rumble (a.k.a. Ace Combat Assault Horizon Legacy; November 15th, 2011) used what seemed to be refined elements from the Sky Crawlers games.
Ace Combat: Cross Rumble uses the Action Maneuver system to enhance game play and provide more control options on the Nintendo 3DS, which lacked a second analog thumb stick until add-on hardware and later console revisions added them.
The Action Maneuver system is separated into two parts: Attack Maneuvers and Evasive Maneuvers.
Attack Maneuvers work almost exactly like TMC did in Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. Differences included new camera angles, new maneuvers, and an increased range requirement for filling the Attack Maneuver gauge. Besides that, it is still a system that automatically maneuvers the player's aircraft behind opposing aircraft at the press of a single button.
Evasive Maneuvers are only available when an enemy missile is in pursuit of the player's aircraft. Once the missile enters a specific range before hitting the aircraft, an Evasive Maneuver can be used. Once the missile enters this range, an evasion guide appears on the screen. The guide shows three directions the player can select to perform a maneuver to evade the missile with a quick maneuver. By pressing the Y Button while inputting one of the directions suggested at the same time, a barrel roll or jink is done. Dogfights against certain enemies can result in a string of attack and evasion maneuvers between the computer and player to create a cinematic dogfight experience. An official game trailer shows off the systems well and provides a good example of what could be done:
The impact of the Action Maneuver system on this title and the franchise as a whole was somewhat lost during the time of its release. Partially because the game could be played and completed without having to use them, but primarily because of the reaction Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was receiving during the same release window.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
Ace Combat Assault Horizon was advertised as the rebirth of the Ace Combat franchise. Among many things, the promised to "make metal bleed" by revamping how it approached combat. Emphasis was placed on close-range, visceral combat. Aircraft models would now show considerable amounts of damage, blow into pieces and spew oil and fuel, which would stain the cockpit. As a part of this move, the principal combat system of the game is the Close Range Assault (CRA) system. It is split into two parts:
The lesser of the two is Air Strike Mode (ASM). This air-to-ground mode directs player-controlled aircraft along a specified corridor to attack land, sea ,and low flying fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. While in the ASM corridor, the weapons of the aircraft are enhanced with greater damage, faster reloading, and higher accuracy. ASM is also available in multiplayer game modes. Its parameters could be augmented with Pilot Skills, a type of in-game perk system to customize aircraft and gameplay abilities.
The higher profile half of CRA is Dogfight Mode (DFM). Dogfight Mode is activated against enemy aircraft within a specified range, depending on the angle and direction the targeted aircraft is traveling. The distance and width of this range could also be augmented with Pilot Skills. Like ASM, there are damage enhancing subsystems like the Assault Circle and Direct Shot. Also included is a support system that allows players to join their allies that have activated CRA.
Once the player is in a position, an on-screen cue is displayed with specific symbology on the HUD. When activated, DFM automatically moves the player-controlled aircraft into position behind the opposing aircraft with no follow on inputs from the player. While in DFM there are systems for counter-attacks in the form of Counter Maneuvers and Counter-Counter Maneuvers.
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.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the most significant influence concerning the reception and memory of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is Dog Fight Mode. Since 2011, DFM remains a polarizing subject amongst the Ace Combat community. While it gave the game a Hollywood movie-style flair, its addition and execution were jarring to the long-standing player base of the Ace Combat series. For players, it seemed as though they were forced into a rail shooter that only allowed them to travel in a limited direction.
In both online and offline game modes, the use of DFM was so frequent it seemed to be a requirement. In single-player, there are set pieces of action where aircraft fly through falling buildings and narrow canyons; some objectives cannot be completed without the use of CRA in some way. In online multiplayer, the use of DFM seemed to remove any semblance of player based skill and learning how to best maneuver aircraft against other human opponents. No matter the skill level, the press of a button or two could immediately have even the newest of players expertly behind anyone that was in the match
While Close Range Assault was only a part of Ace Combat Assault Horizon, the game itself received a high volume of mixed and negative reviews about the game as a whole. Any game mechanic related to the Close Range Assault or past semi-automatic maneuver systems was removed from the next game, Ace Combat Infinity (2014). Forgoing any new development attempts, DFM became the last iteration of an automatic maneuvering system created by Project Aces, as of the date this article was published.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
As Project Aces developed Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (2019), the decision was made to reintroduce a system similar to those seen in the previously mentioned games. Called Post-Stall Maneuvers (PSM), Project Aces made it clear that the player would maintain full control from start to finish. Starting, maintaining, and completing aerobatic maneuvers that only particular aircraft could handle would happen only with manual input from players.
While PSM can be used in offline and online game modes, its implementation makes it feel more natural within the gameplay. There are no cinematic camera views or jarring camera transitions to disrupt gameplay. The only prerequisites for activation are airspeed and the aircraft being flown. The offline campaign and online multiplayer can be played without ever activating PSM.
Within a year after the game's release, players have pushed PSM well beyond the limits Project Aces expected. Videos of intense close-range dogfights with airshow like maneuvers, side slips between buildings and flying backwards in traffic tunnels more than prove that.
It was a long path to reach this point with a harsh hurdle to overcome in 2011, but the Project Aces team finally found the answer to its decade long venture.