Airforce Delta Storm: The Forgotten Rival in Deadly Skies
Have you ever gotten into a rate fight with two MiG-21s welded together at the wings? I have. It might seem odd to review this series with its middle installment, but it may be the one that I can be the least biased about. Airforce Delta--known as Deadly Skies in Europe--was Konami’s answer to Namco’s Ace Combat. Before Project Wingman--before HAWX--there was Airforce Delta. I want to be blunt about this; It’s a competent answer, despite some of its lackluster presentation. This series gets mixed reactions at best, trash-talked at worst. I won’t deny that it flat rips off Ace Combat at points, but it brings enough to the table to carve out much of its own character. So let’s start with the game that has the least character to beleaguered-ly make my point! Airforce Delta Storm is the sequel to its progenitor on the Dreamcast and it effectively takes the formula that the original game developed and builds a new strategic movement system and a semi-realistic flight model into it. Developed for the original Xbox as a launch title, anecdotally, locating a copy was difficult for a time due to its release proximity to September 11th, 2001. Airforce Delta Storm was not the only game that disappeared from American shelves at this time—many other flight games were removed on a voluntary basis by retailers at recommendation by the United States government. As OG Xbox consoles become rarer, we should be so lucky that this game is part of the Xbox 360’s backwards compatibility library with minimal issues. You will run into sound and music issues at times, where both will fail to play, but they will pick up upon the next action screen. In fact, the Xbox 360 has a distinct advantage to the experience of this game; Airforce Delta has the rare ability to remap virtually all controls. Three control configurations are available for your flight experience: Novice—this is a familiar bank-to-turn setting that mirrors that of the novice controls of Ace Combat Expert—As traditional as it can get for a flight shooter game, granting you all six degrees of freedom. Ace – Similar to expert, but assigns a separate function button to the airbrake and holding throttle inputs like that of a traditional aircraft thrust lever. I reviewed this game using the Expert control set, emulated on the Xbox 360. To try to grant myself an accelerated re-acquaintance with the controls, I remapped the controller to mimic Ace Combat 7’s button layout the best I could. The infuriating insistence on all of these flight games to arbitrarily swap the gun and missile around the lettered buttons can create an exercise in patience and frustration. That said, about a quarter of the way into the game, latent brain programming tried to take over and I found myself starting missions with the Y button held firm—this correlates to the acceleration key in the default control layout. The first mission sets you up for the lackluster story and unintentionally humorous narrative. The over-the-top presentation of the narrator and your fellow pilots (whom you will only see in cutscenes) is almost meme worthy. Taking place during a resource war between your Allied Forces and the they’re-bad-because-we-say-so United Forces, your haves take on the surprisingly well equipped have-nots in a near-future world war set in an unnamed fictional continent with just-as-fictional regional landmarks serving as your mission areas. Sitting pretty in an A-7, your afterburner-less attack plane is tasked with destroying a landing force escorted by a lackluster naval and air contingent amidst a backdrop that has more shades of brown than a SCAR 17S. However intrigue does exist here: The aircraft models are gorgeous for their time, exceeding that of the game’s PS2 contemporaries. If it wasn’t for the lack of passive anti-aliasing provided by a CRT television I feel these models could stand up to modern scrutiny by more discerning eyes. Lighting is showcased here, with reflections off your aircraft from the setting sun feeling reasonably natural. Engaging in dogfights with the miniscule fighter escort on map exposes a use of aircraft that we still rarely see exhibited in this genre, like the FC-1, which DCS players may recognize as their coveted “Jeff”. The A-4 is versioned “V”, and getting a close pass to it forces you to double take its unusual planform. You already know you’re in for something a little different than previous fair. Then you’ll realize that you can’t use the right control stick for view swivel and start sweating bullets that you can’t eye-follow your targets. You’ll get used to it, honestly. But you’ll also notice a lack of threats on the map. This is something Airforce Delta suffered from early on. I can’t help but wonder if development was inspired more by flight simulators, where reality would dictate significantly less density of air power deployment. However, I theorize this is also a holdover from the original game for a different reason—But that will wait for a review of that misunderstood Dreamcast staple. Regardless, this in some ways might be a big reason this game fails to garner support by wider audiences. Airforce Delta Storm is not as fast paced as its contemporaries. Like mentioned, attacking a target takes a little more deliberation and snap-decisions for opportunities require something of a target chain. All in, this means that missions are also somewhat short, with a lot of passive flow to target areas. A mission accomplished state is accompanied with little fanfare. This follows with a replay that executes camera movement like that of a flight documentary from the 1990’s, and I love it. Replays are something of an also-ran feature of flight combat games, but they continue to be included and innovated. However, Airforce Delta’s system remains the most mature. The camera angles feel natural, like another aircraft is taking the shots. It flows well, it focuses on the right events at the right times, and I don’t feel another game has paralleled it since. In fact, reviews of this game have in the past praised the replay system in particular as a strong suit of the game, and I’m glad it got the love it deserved. Sure, we have more options for free-view now and todays free camera mods can afford gorgeous still shots, but Airforce Delta’s views make me feel like I could take what I’m given and live showcase an aircraft perfectly with it. Which I might very well do at some point. Time will tell. The most frustrating part about the replay feature will be your need to skip the replay each time you execute any mission. Airforce Delta Storm elects to use a semi-realistic flight scheme. Borrowing a term Ace Combat 6 used to describe the simple control scheme of Ace Combat 2, the aircraft that you use experience significant “recoil” upon control input, much like a real aircraft would. You can’t just point your nose like Ace Combat, you have to really drag yourself through turns. Acceleration and deceleration are arcade-traditional but thanks to the control layout using push button controls there’s no potentiomers in use, meaning you’re effectively accelerating to full throttle or braking fully with a set linear progression. Combined together you have an aircraft that actually follows realistic physics maybe a little too much for the comfort of the casual player. Maximum speeds are dictated by altitude and power—it is a chore to break Mach 1 at surface level. Your aircraft has an optimal maneuvering zone between 250-450 knots or so, where turn rates are optimal. There’s no accelerating during turns here—you bleed speed quickly in some of the early-tier fighters, and God help you if you try to climb after an extended pursuit. Thanks to this form of flight control, you will find that you will need to think more strategically to attack enemy units, allowing yourself more space for strafing and forcing more advanced maneuvers in pursuits, since both instantaneous and sustained turn rates comes into play. This discipline starts to loosen up with more advanced aircraft, to the point that aircraft possessing the highest mobility have such low recoil that they very nearly mimic the handling of the original Airforce Delta. These advanced aircraft are easier to come by than you think. Within the first ten missions you can go from A-7, to F-5, to F-4, to F-14, to F-15E and already be well into mid to mid-high tier performance. The performance difference between aircraft can be almost wildly noticeable and manage to give each fighter a distinct character despite lack of such modern amenities like special weapons—you’re stuck with a limitless cannon and a magazine of missiles that varies depending on the fighter, with more advanced fighters granting more ammo. Moving from mission-to-mission is setup in a non-linear board-game like fashion. This is where the game starts to show some real innovation. You start at an airbase where you can select primary missions, purchase new aircraft, alter your game settings, or simply take off. Selecting a mission briefs you on your objective, you select and aircraft and then hit the map. Here you will see multiple branching paths and two sizes of red dots, representing territory. Small dots can be permanently taken, and red dots can be temporarily taken. Advancing past this enemy territory requires completing a short, randomly generated mission (of about six missions or so, dependent on the geographical terrain the mission is set on) to take the territory. Holding temporary territory starts a countdown based on the amount of “turns” you take on the map. This is where the range stat on your aircraft comes into play. For example, if you have a range stat of 1 each movement you make on the map deducts 1 from the countdown on the temporary territory you took. If you have a range stat of 2, it deducts 1 from the range counter for every 2 moves you make, etc. This strategic gameplay enables unique mission ideas, such as “wandering” missions, where a need to intercept bombers or an ace enemy pilot has you chasing the force around the map. Range takes another part here. Bombers may be “slow” in so far as you can catch up to them using an aircraft with a low range of 1 or 2, while fighters may be “fast” and require you to use an aircraft with a high range stat of 4. You will get frustrated very quickly as the enemy moves a space for every space you move, making catching them nearly impossible. They’ll fly right over expiring enemy territory too, forcing you into another mini mission. This demonstrates another feature—ammo conservation. Your ammo counts are set upon take off from base, and each mission you conduct before landing again saves your missile deductions. There have been many a time when I’ve finally made it to the primary mission only to realize I have too few missiles to fight this effectively. Your gun’s got a punch, but dogfighting with it can be difficult. The nuances of the strategic map system can be frustrating, no doubt, but the innovation is appreciated. In fact, it creates something of a demonstration of the trade-offs of non-linear vs. linear gameplay. Even with the bland story you’re presented, the timeline of cut scenes is so butchered thanks to the gameplay that it’s hard to follow what’s happening. The overarching atmosphere of the game is presented in a mixture of subdued and high-strung music and a somewhat dank and bleak UI. The sound effects aren’t much to write home about, though the noise balance of the background to missile hit and enemy destruction can be sort of satisfying. The music is heavily synthesized, though less so than its predecessor. It doesn’t come off as unique or as strong as it did in its Dreamcast outing, even as it uses reinterpretations of those old songs, with the most poignant example being an interpretation of Home Air Defense used for Battle of Castalia Sea. The first mission’s music is a strong original outing, but the quality dips in and out as you progress through levels, sometimes being an outright assault on the ears for someone who might not be too fond of that dirty, distorted metal sound. It’s sort of unfortunate that the music takes a hit here—again, its competent, just not too memorable, and since music and gameplay really go hand in hand, I think it plays a part in what makes many missions forgettable. The UI is toned dark, with use of deep greens, blues, and browns. There is some attention to detail here I appreciate, like the different airbase portraits in the background of each different airbase menu you navigate that change depending on where you land. Backgrounds rely on geographical landscapes, which give this sense of fighting somewhere barren everywhere you go, despite the missions themselves taking place over more varied terrain than presented. It’s here however that this game fails to live up to its predecessor—terrain variation seems to be anywhere from Amazon Rainforest to American Southwest, but you never seem to fight over arctic or tundra or snow-capped mountain regions. Though given that the conflict you’re fighting heavily implies a post-global warming type environment, I’m wondering if this might be intentional. Your mission briefings are generic and lifeless, with your still-portrait command staff giving you voiceless orders to complete a mission. The portraits themselves feel very Metal Gear Solid-like, which I’m guessing is intentional given this is a first-party Konami outing. Hell, one of the portraits is a spitting image of Solid Snake. But I’ve come all this way without addressing the elephant in the room, which I teased a bit in the tactical gameplay section: Original aircraft. This game is packed with them. Like, crazy packed with them. The PAL version of the game has 80 aircraft in total, with nearly half of them being fully original, fictional variations on real aircraft, never-produced aircraft concepts, or parody aircraft based on Konami properties. In fact, aircraft diversity is probably one of the greatest selling points of this game. Once you unlock the MiG-21II FishbedZwei, you’ll find yourself immersed in a rabbit hole wondering just how crazy these things are going to get. In fact, the “real” aircraft selection set is sort of mediocre. Many of the aircraft are just family variants. However, this is one of the only Japanese-produced flight games that had the guts to include Chinese aircraft, like the aforementioned FC-1 (known more commonly today as the JF-17) and the J-10A. There are also some other welcome obscurities, such as the IAI Lavi and the EMD variant of the X-32. The manual even teases that the X-32 apparently won the JSF competition in this universe, resulting in the completed fighter we see here. But the tiers of original designs just make you come back for more. Look no further than the Su-23U “Furnace” a tri-engined monster of an aircraft that clearly has Cold War design considerations, but has no basis in an actual known aircraft. These aircraft vary in improbability, from the F-18S AiraCobra II—effectively an F/A-18E with all-moving canards, to the XF/A-27 Pleadius, which is what happens when John Boyd gets his hands on the F-22 and declares that it “NEEDS LESS WING LOADING” and injects it with four of the 26 genome sequences of the MiG-29. Despite the overall weirdness and some feelings of “OC donut steel” that they put off, I can’t help but adore the creativity. The fact that the manual even fleshes out fictional histories of some of the aircraft is icing on the cake. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this from my North American perspective is that we’re short on aircraft this side of the Atlantic. As I previously mentioned, there are 80 aircraft available in the PAL version of the game. The NTSC version knocks this down to just 74. Perhaps not a big loss, but I lament not being able to use the S-55 Flanker-O or the Super Entendard. Looking back at Airforce Delta Storm today is a mixed bag, just as it was back then. It arrived amongst a sea of flight shooters at the time, and was clearly developed as a showcase for the Xbox’s graphical fidelity. In this, it succeeds. It also succeeds in creating a functional game filled with potential. But it’s not for everyone. Airforce Delta Storm was not as major a hit as its rival at the time, and how could it be? Just two months prior, the PlayStation 2 would receive Ace Combat 04, arguably the most important game that franchise could hope to have. Side-by-side, Airforce Delta Storm couldn’t stand a chance—Ace Combat 04 was a shining star in a genre of mediocrity at the time. But for those of us that still had to make a choice in the waning console wars, we went with what we had, and we played it, dammit! Airforce Delta Storm was my path, and I don’t regret it. The reason I want to emphasize that this game is worth a second look is because it is still well built and polished for the most part. It lacks much of the jank that games like Lethal Skies or Top Gun: Combat Zones would bring, despite their greater feature set in the former, or name recognition of the latter. It tried its best to start distancing itself from its Ace Combat influence, and was built by a team that clearly had some passion for the genre and for aviation. It’s eccentrics are subtle, but they’re there, and they’d lead into that same team “Project FUNK”, to pull out all the stops and go off the rails into a sequel built for the system rival that was too far ahead of its time to be appreciated. Airforce Delta Storm might be something of a footnote, but to me it’s an important one. It holds a personal historical weight for me as well: If it wasn’t for Airforce Delta Storm, I’d have never played Ace Combat 04. And, well… it’s easy to see where that led me. About the Writer T.J. "Millie" Archer T.J. "Millie" Archer is Life-long realist and aviation enthusiast. Once the co-founding Administrator of Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat Database. In the present day he is freelance, roving the internet in search of the latest aviation news and entertainment.