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  • Writer's pictureT.J. "Millie" Archer

Review: Airforce Delta Strike

An unrecognized prototype for 2010s flight games?


Airforce Delta Strike. Airforce Delta Strike. Airforce Delta Strike. I’ve struggled to really define what Airforce Delta Strike means to the triumvirate of the flight arcade also-ran’s against Ace Combat. Perhaps I’ve given it too much credit in the twilight of its awareness. Perhaps I’ve misjudged its presentation entirely and am southpaw-ing my aim. But as a preacher of this series gospel, I can’t personally help but adore this entry for its insanity. As far as I’m concerned, Airforce Delta Strike (2004) was the unrecognized prototype of what the state of the genre became in the mid-2010’s, and to this day should be treated as a 101 reference for what the ideal flight shooter/visual novel should be.


Is that a good thing, though? God… To put this game in a bucket… Good? Bad? Ugly? … Thirsty? Yes, in more ways than one.


It may come off as overly-specific to combine these two genres, but bear with me; I can’t be the only one that saw the patterns, right? After Ace Combat 6 there was this “lull” in releases that truly appealed to the core demographic that this genre dominator sold to. That core demographic leaned heavily into the manga/anime crowd. I’ve commented in the past that those that either pedestal or deride Ace Combat for being an anime disguised as a flight shooter have probably never played this game.


Airforce Delta Strike F4D-1 rolling wheel fortress.
F4D-1 Skyray attacking rolling wheel fortresses.

Gameplay


Surprisingly, gameplay in general is probably Strike’s weakest platitude. It’s… serviceable. But if I could summarize it in a more accurate word, I’d call it “conservative”.


Controls are, at the least, competent. Aircraft move with a pronounced recoil, similar to that of Airforce Delta Storm. However, the turn rate of all aircraft feels sharper than the previous entry. It’s as though there is a conscious effort to back away from the far more realistic handling that Storm provided. This is the reason I judge it as conservative; it feels like the result of developer response at other flight shooters from the time, as though there was a concerted effort to “re-arcade-ize”. But the decision to not simply go all the way and eliminate recoil is a puzzling decision. Even Ace Combat experimented with semi-realistic flight movement with Ace Combat 3 and made the wise decision to back off from it by the next entry. Here, Konami seems to avoid the rapid realignment and as a result its sort of…cowardly? It pains me to use those words, but if the string of footnote flight shooters using the same semi-realistic physics at the time are any indication, I’m legitimately tempted to say that had Airforce Delta made the same decision it may have been more accessible to the masses and put up a stronger fight against the reigning champion in the space.


Airforce Delta Strike YAK-141.
YAK-141 attacking large oil rig.

A change up in late mission physics however are a welcome change of pace… we’ll get to that a little later.


And this continues on in some ways into mission design. There’s more of an emphasis made on time limit missions. Certainly we don’t fall into the skirmish design trap of the first game here, but there feels like constant concentration on destruction of as many units as possible or defense of an escorted objective until time runs out. That’s not to say that there are signature wacky missions that bring back some of the charm this series embraces. Tiger’s Cave and Departure stand out in this regard.


Airforce Delta Strike enemy weather machine tornadoes.
Weather machines creating tornadoes.

But wacky or not, design also leans into the haphazard. You are quickly thrown into your obligatory canyon run (one of several, in fact!) by your third sortie; the objective being to survive to make it to the end while outmaneuvering bizarre single ultra-wide wheeled contraptions blocking your path. But at even first glance you feel like the decisions you make to dodge them are somewhat arbitrary. You WILL fail several times, and Airforce Delta’s retention of requiring an aircraft rebuy after crashing will force you to pay a hefty price to re-earn your prizes; get ready to fly and fight using an Su-24M far longer than you had ever wanted. I could probably generously make the argument that the mission design’s haphazard feel allows execution of greater freedoms by the player, but as the plethora of missions start to come your way, you’ll feel that uneasiness that the mission might have in fact been slapped together with minimal testing. But these main story missions get overshadowed by the constant barrage of “Standby” missions.


These missions are your anti-reward for being competent at the game. Yes, yes—I know you can skip turns. I’m not going to admit that it took me until the end of the game to realize this, however. Like its predecessor, the map functions in a board-game like mission selection, but it’s really a veil—missions are very linear, with turns allocated to you for each mission phase. Exceed ten turns per phase by failing missions, and the game ends unceremoniously. However, efficiency in phase completion provides you with the ability to use up your remaining turns in “Standby” missions where you fight in a furball. These missions are provided as a way to let you destroy enemy aircraft to earn money and fly with any one of the nine pilots you wish to complete your collection. But these missions quickly become irritatingly monotonous. Recommendation: Turn down the voice volume for these. The games insistence on throwing the same ten voice lines at you multiple times overlapping with one and other can become grating.


Airforce Delta Strike YF-12A.
YF-12A on a recon mission.

Soundtrack


Man, you can tell that the music has a Konami backing to it. There’s no orchestra here—the sound team continues to lean heavily on dirty guitar shreds and electronic noise. That’s not to say there’s nothing to like. Despite the variance provided, there is an identifiable sound signature and an attempt to fit tracks to mission design. There’s also a splatter of remixes that will sound familiar to those who have a fondness for the Sega Dreamcast OG. Be sure to watch the intro scene at the beginning of the game to familiarize yourself with the game’s musical motif—you’ll be hearing it a lot.



Older fans will appreciate the standouts in Chiron Lift and Tiger’s Cave as remixes/remakes of Dogfight and Military Supply Base respectively, with Chiron keeping a stanza of the title motif for good measure. As mentioned, tempos do a respectable job of matching the pace, urgency, or importance of each mission for the most part. But each time you hear the music for Standby show up in the main game, you’ll let out a groan. It’s not a bad song, just irritatingly Pavlovian. The off-world missions also hold a repetitive tone, but their elegant overtones and slower pace keep them from having the same effect—they’re actually quite nice. Wait… off-world? I said we’ll get to it!



Something I tend to appreciate personally is the non-gameplay tracks. Main menu, briefing, and mid-selection tracks are very comfortable. This is something else that seemed to come over from the prequel. They’re also where some of the anime roots come into play—they don’t sound out of place in animation from the time period. I’ll find myself hunting these tracks back down from time-to-time for some light background noise and they hold a good aviation vibe to them.




Story


To those who can make sense of the story by the time you’re done, we salute you. I’ll try to summarize:


The Earth Defense Alliance Force or E.D.A.F (God, I hate that name…) has been locked in combat following an invasion of the Orbital Citizens Community or O.C.C. (not much better…) for… reasons. I think they just want land or something? You fight for the E.D.A.F as part of a non-regular mixed aviation unit known as Delta, which has a reputation as outsiders and mavericks. You’ll regularly be insulted throughout the game for your affiliation by friend and foe alike. Your ragtag-band-of-misfit’s ultimate mission is to break a frontline stalemate and force the O.C.C back off world.


Airforce Delta Strike situation report example.
Example of situation report.

The land you are fighting over (the map of the original Airforce Delta flipped upside down) takes you across wide, varying terrain and mission types, where you thrust your sometimes outmoded fighter into combat against crazy alien gunships, both land and ground, and a limitless supply of Su-22’s.


Airforce Delta Strike example of mission briefing.
Example of mission briefing.

The story tends to be character rather than plot driven, for what that’s worth. For as crazy as the war is, it seems to be an excuse plot rather than a focus in anyway, and that’s reflected by the lack of any definable frontline or logical back-to-back mission objectives. What you’re concentrating on is how each of the characters interact with the events or actions that brought them to where they are.


Airforce Delta Strikes on base conversations.
Example of on base conversations.

Let’s talk about that; characters. Lots of them. Fully-formed in mangaesque glory. You have your old-wise-coot-stuck-in-their-ways stock character, your bossy-14-year-old-that’s-actually-a-military-genius stock character, your bloodthirsty edgelord-I-am-actually-a-vicious-canine stock character—they’re all here! If you’re not familiar with anime from the 90’s and 2000’s, maybe there’s something novel to find here. But if you are familiar with it, you’ll probably roll your eyes and groan. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll look closer and note what they were trying for.



…I kinda love it. They’re so edgy. They’re so bitchy. They’re so archetypical. They’re so--Oh my God, look at the abs on that guy! Do flight suits really show that much… definition? I’m not sure who these character designs are meant to appeal to, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t for top of the demographic bell curve.


In all seriousness, this may solidly be the start of what makes the game worth playing. I genuinely respect the attempt at actual character development--something to distract from the otherwise bizarre yet lackluster story. There is even a time or two where you actually feel for some of these flyboys/flygirls. However, the heroes themselves are the least entertaining of the bunch save for my boy Jamie and his stubborn defiance in the face of modernity. I too believe in piston-driven supremacy.


Airforce Delta Strike P-38L Lightning.
Jamie in a P-38L Lightning strafing an armored train.

The villains are the best part. They’re so hammy and over the top. Whether they’re evil femme fatales like Francine Davout and her ever-loyal servant Jake and their complicated and perhaps fatalistic relationship or the Starscream-esque cattiness of Leon and Giuseppe against their M.E.R.V sub-faction commanders, I love following these guys. Sure, they’re not archetypes you haven’t seen before, but each of their stories evolves programmatically through the game and your in-game actions provide each of them with serious consequences.

The plot itself takes a serious turn late in the game, however, and you’ll find yourself shifting from playing a strange but conventional flight shooter to what is effectively a better-handling version of Rogue Squadron with rocket-sled equipped jet fighters. Your final destination? Mars.



Yeah, like I said, it gets crazier and crazier, but this is where the story gets real legs and the gameplay shines through. I think this is what I have the fondest memories of for this game, and why I am at odds with myself on how I want to judge the game overall. The space missions you fight through have what I think are a very clean non-Newtonian physics set and a chance to blow up some serious O.C.C. equipment. Honestly, they could have made a whole game out of this part alone, and I lament that it didn’t get more exposure.


Aircraft

How many airplanes are too many airplanes? (There’s no such number…) Boasting over 100 aircraft to fly over multiple generations, Strike fulfills the wish of so many an internet ranter with unbuilt obscurities like the F-108 Rapier to the option of facing off with advanced 5th generation fighters using a P-51D Mustang.


The selection is a natural evolution of Airforce Delta Storm combining what it built up with vague story-driven excuses for why we would bother flying a Sea Vixen in <insert vague sci-fi future year here>. But let it be; so many of us have begged to fly the F-111 in these arcade shooters and they granted our request and properly made it the hog to fly that I would expect it to be. I also have to give credit to the fact that they did a better job of giving us plebeians of North America a complete aircraft selection after being denied by the previous series entry.


Examples of aircraft selection.


The aircraft selection clearly takes influence from Ace Combat 3 and 04 here and decides to add a secondary weapon slot. This is welcome, if limited. However, the decision to omit a gun from a handful of aircraft is a controversial decision. So much as I may respect the idea that we shouldn’t give the F-117 a gun it never had, removal of your credit-multiplying fallback weapon from what seems like arbitrary aircraft like the YF-23 is a frustrating limitation. Baseline weapons feel important in arcade shooters like this—I’ll take the inaccuracy of an F-117 having a gun if it means that there’s a consistent control set.


The progenitor of the Assault Horizon locked aircraft selection rears its head here (though arguably this is something you can trace all the way back to Ace Combat 2). You’re stuck with a limited aircraft set for each character. That’s not to say it’s not a far wider berth as the afore mentioned spinoff since you generally have the option to play as one of three characters from each Element for each mission, granting you access to around 30 aircraft or so, but in the pursuit of uniqueness they again throw that unnecessary limiter at you.


The Vic Viper in Airforce Delta Strike
The' Vic Viper' from the Gradius series.

Fictional, Konami-property inspired aircraft occupy the tail end of the fighter selection, highlighting the loss of the crazy original designs that Airforce Delta Storm provided. And you know what? I miss them. I really do. Maybe there is that small group of players in the States that get hyped flying the actual Vic Viper in this environment, but the XF-0002 Phosphorous was so much more invigorating as a design and homage. The space missions alone justify the expansion of an original roster.



Oh, that reminds me: No Rafale or Mirage. Dassault screwed us here. Do you think they felt insulted after the last game gave the Rafale a tailplane and touted it as an “improvement”?



Conclusion

I think I see what it is about this game now that makes it a mixed bag. If I were twenty years younger, I’d love this to death again. It requires a lot of persistence and tolerance to get to the juicy story and character bits. The grinding requires a mindset I just don’t have so much of anymore. But the universe it introduces has a huge potential. These characters, locations, and factions could effortlessly expand. This is a lore-driven game that isn’t sure if it wants to be, and this is why I maintain it’s a prototype of much of what we see today.


The voice-acting, dialogue, story beats—all of it feels like Sword Art Online with planes. I can’t call this a bad thing. I maintain that such a thing can be something of a guilty pleasure for a lot of us, and dammit, it would sell even today! I can’t help but wonder that if it weren’t for the aircraft licensing costs that this series could still be ongoing. I think this is where Konami found its voice. It created something unique, strange, and identifiable. Third time’s the charm, and just like with Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere I think it was off-putting at the time; this was an experiment that the western world wasn’t quite ready for, but sure as hell would be now.


Promotional image for Airforce Delta Strike.
Promotional image for Airforce Delta Strike.

The game needs refinement. A cleaner physics system, a better, less-aliased graphics engine, and a rethink of mission design and progression. But the foundation is there to create something unique and fun for entries going forward.


Airforce Delta deserves a revisit today. Project Wingman and Vector Thrust had proven that there is still some sort of demand for newer project designs in this genre. I think that sometimes quantity has a quality all its own, and that’s the niche that Airforce Delta could have carved out for itself; the B-movie releases to Ace Combat’s blockbusters. I think we’d be eating better today if Konami kept serving these titles up because it may not have been the best, but it was innovative and unique.


It may have been janky, but they really did put some goddamn heart into it.


 
About the Writer

A Life-long realist and aviation enthusiast. Once the co-founding Administrator of the Electrosphere.info English Ace Combat Database. In the present day he is freelance, roving the internet in search of the latest aviation news and entertainment. Read Staff Profile.

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