In an attempt to go with the times, publisher Namco Bandai is taking several of their big franchises to the free-to-play model, with the Ace Combat Infinity Beta as its next transition. Once popular as an aerial combat series, this Playstation 3 exclusive will now drop its easily managed arcade gameplay for free, with a growing mechanism to allow its monetization.
It has all the framework of a functional game already, with enough content to keep it interesting for copious sessions to pick up and play. How much of that will come behind a payment wall is yet to be determined.
First off, it’s admirable that this iteration looks exactly like its predecessors. No frills were left behind; if anything, the cinematic appeal is present through numerous futuristically painted cutscenes. Stories explain the setting with computer interfaces flickering over the screen.
In the game, detailed visuals get edited through a stencil filter that brings out the thick darkness in shapes, like a cutout model. Black splotches get further smeared through hazes from engines and speed blurring, but not so much as to become unclear.
There is a vast horizon in this shooter and while the prompts are plentiful to indicate warnings, there is still an overview possible. Effects are handled with just the appropriate amount of excess to convey a gritty atmosphere where action overcomes the chaotic mess.
In turn, auditory prompts signal threats through bleeps, while commands are voiced over a telecom. They provide the backup necessary for when a visual aid isn’t enough to attract attention.
There’s a ton going on at once, maybe a bit too much for some, but the true fighter pilot will be able to easily dismiss the overflow of impulses and stay a clear course.
Naturally, a functional presentation is only as good as its execution, though the massive amount of information in some locations is already a good sign of activity. Industrial zones, separated by shimmering oceans, can hold multiple targets. Buildings range from regular square blocks to more worked out rigs and skyscrapers, when seen up close.
When rushing through ground targets, the difference in terrain can become its own challenge to overcome swiftly. Several targets can be linked in a row and getting all of them at once, while maintaining altitude and swerving at the appropriate time, can be a millimeter approach.
Fortunately enough, Ace Combat was never tough to handle. Aircrafts fluently change direction whenever needed. Upon tighter curves, gassy brakes can be applied to stop the violent motion. This also comes with an added risk of having the vehicle stall and head for the ground.
During dog fights, this quick change between velocity and tight brakes makes all the difference. It’s here where the limits of the control system are tested. With the given ease of maneuvering, having twisting duels isn’t uncommon and with the fuzziness of the environment, this can feel tenser still.
Perhaps controls can be a little too lenient even. While the natural winding definitely facilitates gameplay, there is also a lack of resistance when meeting with turning head-on opponents, for instance.
Where a motion would normally seem nearly impossible to complete, rarely is the tension ever brought on by anything but the player’s choice to partake in more risk. Stalling is the pinnacle of difficulty, but even that takes some time to feel critical and it can easily be overturned.
Through its overly simplified handling, campaign objectives can feel a bit duller than they are. In reality, everything is set up for an action-filled mission, but it can start resembling like more of a check list, without that necessary friction.
It’s in the online component of the Ace Combat Infinity Beta, which has everyone as an equal, where the real excitement starts. Here, easy controls or not, everyone will deal with the same fighters.
Cooperative missions have two teams of planes take out as many targets as possible for their squad. During a round, another objective can pop up that becomes the top priority. Usually, these involve taking out other aircrafts, before the other team does so.
When both sides are circling around the enemy vehicles, like vultures around prey, the feeling to be better returns to the forefront. Braking a split second more, diving one moment earlier; that one brief action will determine who racks the kill for their colors and get the victory.
Should the plane get downed, players will go into a repair counter. It takes a moment, but at least the fight isn’t lost after an unfortunate stumble. That may be a deciding factor in how enjoyable online bouts are.
To give more options to strategists, different planes can be used, with their own specialties. For instance, during co-op events it can be smarter to opt for something with tremendous air-to-ground potential, since the map will have many structures to destroy.
Going further still, Ace Combat Infinity yields credits and experience after missions. More proficiency leads to better options down the line, while credits buy parts that were unlocked as a result of that.
There is an extensive skill tree and many different factions to enhance. Here is probably where the free-to-play model will either stand or fall.
In itself, this huge leveling design will make for a shooter that keeps on entertaining, by providing more content on a steady curve. If, however, payment would allow skipping the curve or hindering it for freebies, then there will be a large disconnect between audiences.
Imagine fighting a plane that started at the same level and three rounds later, the opponent went to the store to buy parts with stats that eclipse the starter model. It’s going to be hard coming back from that.
In any case, the Ace Combat Infinity Beta is worth what it costs. For its offline features alone, there is plenty to go on for many rounds at no cost and that with a blockbuster illustration. With a sizable online community, this may even be a surprising hit for PS3 owners.
All it needs is a chance and as a free download, there is nothing to lose. Just, please, don’t block off progression through a payment model.