The Form and Function of Clouds and Weather in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
In case you have not noticed, clouds are sort of the "big thing" in simulated flight recently. The once taken for granted masses of water vapor have basically become a selling point for Digital Combat Simulator World. On the civilian side, Microsoft Flight Simulator's real-time weather has brought another layer of simulation and eye-popping beauty. In 2019, the Ace Combat series also had a serious foray into the presentation and usage of clouds utilizing the hardware and software possibilities brought by current gaming PCs, 8th generation gaming consoles, Simul's TrueSky real-time weather creation system, and Unreal Engine 4. However, in a manner suiting Ace Combat, the clouds, wind, and rain were cranked up and altered in ways neither of the titles mentioned earlier has done.
Now celebrating its 26th anniversary, the Ace Combat series has had clouds and weather in various forms within its long history, but not in the way the latest entry in the series has. It is not a stretch to say that most weather and clouds seen in the past Ace Combat games acted only as background dressing with a few notable uses of clouds for scripted events. But they usually were not a large factor in gameplay. A high-profile example of this is a close-range dogfight sequence in and around a hurricane in Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011), where players could effortlessly fly in and out of the hurricane with their minds solely focused on the battle hand.
Developing the Concept
As stated in a Computer Entertainment Developers Conference 2019 presentation by Masato Kanno of the Project Aces development team in 2012, the proposal going forward was "we want to make the sky new." In this case, they meant "new" for the Ace Combat series. For a more technical, developer-minded explanation, see our translation of the presentation and other CEDEC 2019 materials.
The use of clouds was a concept shortly after Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was released in 2011. An initial test to see if using clouds made gameplay more enjoyable was run in an ACAH environment with various white, round objects in the air. According to narrative director Kosuke Itomi in The Making of Ace Combat 7 Part 1, the developers found flying in the environment to be rather fun. He felt as though he wanted to create "some kind of play like a jungle gym" that makes players want to interact with clouds. The concept and development of Ace Combat 7 were put on hold when the development of Ace Combat Infinity (2014) was prioritized.
In the summer of 2014, following the release of Ace Combat Infinity, internal technical studies within the company were started. Working in parallel, Masato Kanno was asked to find middleware for generating weather. Eventually, Simul's trueSKY software was selected.
In 2015, Project Aces began creating a solid plan for Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. A teaser trailer using trueSKY and Unreal Engine 4 was released for PlayStation Experience 2015 that heavily featured clouds and hinted at their usefulness. The early game mechanic proposal was to design clouds that affect combat as a whole. These early ideas were cross-referenced with actual Japanese Air Self Defense Force pilots and air traffic controllers from Komatsu Base in Ishikawa, Japan, regarding how clouds affect their operations. The subjects they discussed included the impact of clouds on air-to-air weaponry and how clouds impact air operations in general.
The final result was the development team compromising on something that makes both reality and the proposed game mechanic possible.
Clouds in Ace Combat 7
The final version of the clouds of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown played a prominent role in various single-player missions, with a limited but impactful presence in multiplayer gameplay. Here is how the clouds and related weather work in this game:
An aircraft that dives into clouds is visually obscured from pursuers but still appears on radar and in the Heads Up Display (HUD) of other aircraft. This is unlike how Ace Combat portrays stealth aircraft, which can fade from radar and be lost in the HUD entirely, enabling them to perform surprise attacks.
Air-to-air guided weapons are especially affected by clouds. To the point where air combat tactics that rely on cloud coverage are viable in multiplayer. While pursuing an enemy aircraft, it is possible to lose a weapons lock because it entered a cloud. Though it is momentary, losing lock in the middle of a close-range dogfight is a hazard. While in clouds, weapon lock-on times are somewhat extended, the missile-lock range is reduced, and missile homing capabilities are degraded to a degree.
This does not make clouds the perfect cover, however. Aircraft icing has been modeled to prevent players from simply remaining within a cloud for as long as they like. After a certain period, ice buildup on the aircraft can cause its controls to lock up and force a stall, leaving the player that ices up vulnerable to attack.
Directed energy weaponry, like pulse lasers and larger output laser cannons, are also impacted by clouds. Their overall performance significantly attenuates as they pass through clouds. Both laser firepower and range decrease, making clouds the most effective defense against these weapons.
The effect of clouds on aircraft, weapon systems, and the weapons themselves can be offset with modification parts purchased with in-game currency to increase aircraft capabilities to counteract the cover clouds provide.
Furthermore, wind, rain, and lightning are a factor, albeit to less of an extent overall, because they are not as frequently present.
High winds can push the aircraft off course rapidly and affect the flight path of missiles fired. This casts an unknown factor in close and medium-range combat in high wind, as once the missile is fired, it could easily be moved off course while it is in flight. Even well-aimed close-range missile shots from Special Weapons (secondary weapons) with thrust vectoring are not as reliable in high wind conditions. Players must either force their way through these wind currents or find ways to use them to their advantage.
Other weather effects include rain which obscures vision, especially in the cockpit point of view, but rain does not have much impact in first person or third person views beyond adding to the atmosphere of the sortie. There are a few other low visibility situations like sandstorms and fog, but rain or moisture, in general, is the most reoccurring.
Lightning strikes in AC7 only exist in one single-player mission, and one multiplayer map and are by far one of the deadliest random interactions one can have. These lightning strikes are shockingly catastrophic. Being stuck by lightning immediately sends the player aircraft into a nosedive with a momentary state of blindness from the flash. Aircraft systems remain on the fritz for roughly 30 seconds. With the heads-up display flickering on and off, players are forced to remain in combat with severely diminished situational awareness.
Looking back on it, the clouds of Ace Combat 7 are an exercise of compromise. The goal was to bring a fresh game mechanic to the proven "original formula" of Ace Combat which Ace Combat 7 brought to multiple modern gaming platforms. However, this had to be done while maintaining a few things that remain based in reality regarding how clouds influence air operations while not straying too far off the beaten path the series made for itself. Albeit, the intentional exaggeration of cloud and weather effects makes these concepts work while adhering to the high-paced combat players expect from the series. It is interesting to see how a conversation with actual JASDF pilots about subjects like the impact of clouds lead to a system that made artistic choices to enhance gameplay and encourage a specific type of gameplay among the player population of Ace Combat 7.
It is hard to imagine something like a cover from enemy fire system in a flight game, but this is more or less what Project Aces created for Ace Combat 7. What real-world and full simulator combat pilots would consider "cloud surfing" became a combat effective tactic that frequently results in swirling dogfights through clouds banks. The random loss of missile lock and flying with reduced vision through cloud swept situations forced players to focus on timing their missile shots and getting a better read of the combat airspace. Players can build entire strategies or customize aircraft specifically for operations within cloud coverage to either take advantage of them or intercept other players that prefer to lurk within their whispy forms. A majority of the engagements that happen in this game are still within visual range, so having the default turn and burn air battles broken up by sequences of losing enemies in clouds does break up the cycle.