As seen in the promotional media and gameplay of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV, also referred to as drones) are an essential part of its story. With Ace Combat 7 being the first multi gaming platform release in the series since 2011, drones have become a part of the modern identity of Ace Combat. But they were not always as front and center in this series as they are now, as hard as that might be to imagine.
Ace Combat is a series that has always pushed players forward as fighter pilot heroes continually entangled in high energy dogfights against dozens of foes. As the series progressively incorporated more storytelling and worldbuilding, even the adversaries created to rival the player are often equally impressive ace pilots or an overwhelming sci-fi superweapon. The player's allies are also notable non-player-controlled humans operating aircraft, ground vehicles, and naval vessels.
UAVs were introduced early on with Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere (May 27th, 1999). The Japanese version of the game had a few remote-controlled attack helicopters that acted as facility defenses, target training drones, and a particularly surprising mission that pitted the player against eight heavily armed, laser cannon welding drones in one of the five endings of the game. The most notable UAV in the game turns out to be the primary antagonist and player themselves. Each of them is either a digital copy of a human's consciousness or artificial intelligence. Now, that's quite the plot twist, and it also stretches the definition of "unmanned" a bit, but this is not representative of the majority of Ace Combat's drone representation.
From 2001 to 2010, drones gradually appeared in increasing numbers, with various airframes, and were clearly identified. Different types of direct combat and support drones were introduced. From loitering attackers to original high-speed designs that acted as defensive units for massive superweapons or loyal wingmen for select ace pilots. Slow speed reconnaissance units and unbelievably high-speed surveillance drones that guided in long-range attacks from their mothership. Appearing as single units or entire flights, drones of all types became a moderately uncommon sight. But while they were tools of the enemy, they weren't necessarily something like an antagonist.
The pivot towards the era of drones Ace Combat is currently in began in 2011 and continued through 2014.
Gameplay-wise, drones shifted from secondary enemies to primary enemies starting with Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy (November 15th, 2011). This game is an all but in name remake of the original Ace Combat 2 (May 30th, 1997). In the original game, a group of red-colored aircraft known as the Zone of Endless (ZOE) appeared as nothing more than named aircraft to be shot down to unlock a special medal. Information from the remake and the Aces at War artbook revealed that the ZOE is actually an artificial intelligence program. It was installed into multiple fixed-wing combat aircraft. As the AI-controlled aircraft participated in combat, they would learn more tactics and become deadlier with each iteration. The ZOE aircraft became boss-like encounters that would not allow players to move the story forward unless they were defeated. This shift in significance to drones in a game's story was further built upon by Ace Combat Infinity.
An aircraft called the QFA-44 Camilla frequently attacked the player(s) and their allies both in the single-player campaign and online competitive co-op modes. Also referred to as the "Butterfly Master", the presence of the QFA-44 and its laser-equipped drone escort was presented as one of the greatest recurring threats. Up to this point, these drones were the most dangerous UAVs presented in the series. Capable of swarming players, blasting missiles out of the sky with their lasers, and sacrificing themselves to protect their primary control aircraft. Though Ace Combat Infinity's story would never be completed, it was implied that these drones would continue to oppose the player(s) in future missions as the story continued.
A shift in Ace Combat's overall tone about UAVs and their future applications can especially be seen in the novels. The Last Ace (September 19th, 2011), the prequel novel for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, written by Jim DeFelice, briefly touched on the concept of pilots being replaced by drones. During a United States Air Force mock combat exercise, a modified F-22 Raptor known as Righteous took on multiple 4th and 5th generation combat aircraft primarily relying on an experimental autonomous computer program during combat. Certain characters in the book mused about the replacement of human combat aviators with highly advanced UAVs in the near future.
Ace Combat: Ikaros in the Sky (March 28th, 2012) further addressed this with a decent portion of the book centered on this subject. The human-crewed aircraft from the Advanced Support Fighter Experimental program and unmanned aircraft of the Q-X autonomous drone program were forced into mock combat through financial and political pressure from those backing each of these programs. The Q-X program's leading designers and managers explicitly wanted drones to replace human pilots as their development program became more advanced. There was an open feeling of pilots being inferior to their drones from the start.
The shift of making drones primary enemies and this thought of having humans replaced by them were combined in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (January 18th, 2019). Drones appear as common enemies in multiple missions and are frequently referred to throughout the game. They are the leading force that struck the war's opening blows, appear as common enemies, run covert false flag operations, provide guidance for long-range weaponry, operate alongside human-crewed aircraft as escorts and wingmen, and protect superweapons. A pair of massive unmanned aerial warships capable of launching and recovering dozens of unmanned combat aerial vehicles are the high profile enemy that opposes the player and their allies.
Even the human enemy ace pilot flies to lend his own combat data to the refinement of existing drones and the development of future drones that eventually become the final antagonist to be overcome. By the end of the conflict, the last two drones attempt to self propagate by uploading their data into drones across an entire continent. Something that would be a danger to all humans involved in the chaotic armed conflict that was already ongoing. The cherry on top of all of this was that players can finally deploy their own unmanned combat aerial vehicles when flying the newest futuristic original aircraft for the first time in the series' history.
For a time, it seemed like drones would be relegated to support roles or as secondary enemies. But as time moved forward and real-world aviation technology began to produce semi-autonomous combat-capable UAVs, these inspirations gradually found their way into the creative minds at the Project Aces development team. The inclusion of UAVs into the series has not only diversified the gameplay and story telling of the series, but has also become a common point of contention for players that romanticize combat aircraft but also understand the steady beat of UAV development. In the real world, the replacement of at least a small percentage of pilot related tasks seems inevitable but its inclusion into Ace Combat makes it more easily perceived by its players.
From being easy tutorial enemies to nearly forming their own flying robot air force and now being weapons for the players themselves, the drones of Ace Combat have come a long way.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.