Sunday, October 22, 2017

An AC3E review from the distant year of 2002

Review by IcemanUK

"Sublime"

>>INTRODUCTION

'Electrosphere’ : infinite passages to information derived from optical communication... Your judgement will decide the world of the future.

Your judgement will decide.

This may well be the epitaph of AC3 and this review. AC3 is the third in Namco’s AC series and something of a serendipitous find on my part when I picked up the game one wet Wednesday afternoon at my local game importer.

I never played AC2 before then but I knew of it. I was expecting a fun but simplistic arcade flightsim with graphics powered by the R4 graphics engine.
I got the kick-ass graphics and fun of course, in addition to that I got a fascinating near-future scenario, super-charged with layers of intrigue and drama. Some of the mission titles: ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, ‘A Canopy of Stars’, ‘Enter Dision’ hint at a very literate and articulate muse behind it all. There is not a hint of Japlish to be found here.

It is the next century. The global economy is dominated by General Resource and Neucom – super-multinationals that have replaced nation states and governments. One focussed on tried and trusted technologies, the other pushing the frontiers of science.
Both superpowers are seemingly accountable to the New United Nations but in reality pursuing their own interests in secret. UPEO acts as the peacekeeper between the two but is perceived as a ‘paper tiger’, wielding little influence despite the military hardware. It is political manoeuvring that produces results in this arena.
Your role is a pilot on active duty in SARF, the Air Force section of UPEO. General Resource and Neucom have been engaged in their Cold War, now something is about to awaken.

Alliances are formed, comrades die, trust is betrayed and world orders collapse -
------------welcome to the electrosphere

>>MAIN

Although the game is mission-after-mission, there are key points in the game where the story branches. Here you must align yourself with one of the main characters, maybe ending the alliance later on. After the awakening you’ll have to decide whether to leave UPEO and SARF behind for good…

Mission objectives are presented using animated graphics and a narration supplied by the Japanese briefing officer. Despite the Japanese, you can easily decipher what, when and where. There is a FAQ on this website to help if things get tough.
Tactical choices are in which planes to use and what armament to dress it with. A heavy plane can soak up damage during a strafing run but in a dogfight you might as well be flying with an elephant strapped on your back. Experience is the best teacher here.
Post-mission you may be required to land your jet manually or even refuel mid-air. Thankfully, if the mission has been a long haul you can skip these.

The visuals are truly dazzling considering the hardware they are running on. Witness lens flare, a sprawling cityscape of skyscrapers, rivers and lakes glittering from 10km up, missile exhaust trails, pounding rain, heat haze off the afterburners, a beautifully warm orange glow of a sunset. It really is a feast for the eyes and all this graphical splendour happens at a blazing fast framerate.

Control is best through the Dual Shock pad or Namco’s Flight Stick controller. The buttons are arranged so you have total control over the planes functions. The shoulder buttons can adjust the bearing or reduce/increase thrust. The left stick is the rudder of course, the right stick controls the pilot view point. The game gives us several camera viewpoints and if used properly this can produce some spectacular scenes. Imagine keeping a camera lock on your opponent, with your own plane in the frame, as several missiles hunt it down through the lens flare of the sun.
On a personal level, another effect I thought worthy of mention is when travelling at the extreme velocities of Mach 3 and above. At that point the normally rock solid and stable HUD begins to shake, it’s very simple but very effective.

AC3’s GUI is through a futuristic-looking but logical panel of icons. Everything from game options to a list of missions can be accessed here. An electronic hum plays during the operation of the GUI, this along with the tunnel animation in the background makes you feel like you’re really there in the electrosphere itself. Not quite though, get deep in the game and you’ll see why.

Our story unfolds with the help of numerous anime scenes and in-game voice acting, all in Japanese of course but it’s not that hard to follow. Some players have put the effort into a translation guide for those wanting to get the most out of this.
Animation production is top-notch stuff by Production I.G., famous for their work on high profile anime like Blood: The Last Vampire. Voice-acting is of high-quality matching the characters well. You can really feel the authority and supreme confidence in Disions’ basso voice or the furtive intentions in Simons’. It’s hard to imagine fighter pilots as improbably cute as Fiona but what the hell.
There is some spectacular CGI work too which helps to inform you of the scale and power of the enemy. The game engine is used for some cut-scenes but is no less effective for that, in fact some of the most dramatic scenes of the game are delivered through it.

Audio – this game has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Namco’s musicians are clearly a supreme talent after Rage Racer and R4 and now this. It matches the scenario’s perfectly with smooth electronica, house and ambient tracks.
It’s certainly better suited to the game than the cheesy disposable rock tunes from AC2.

Each gun type has it’s own signature effects – same goes for the more exotic laser-based weapons deeper in the game. Missiles launch with a satisfying roar and explosions are usually muffled rumbles in the distance just as they should be. The flight computer chips in with praise every now and again: “Bingo!”, “Bullseye”. She will also warn you of damage and low weapons stocks.

Owners of the Japanese version get a bonus in the form of the 30 page ‘Photosphere’ booklet. This contains biographical information on each of the characters and background history of General resource, Neucom etc. The text is accompanied by colour illustrations of the cast and some beautiful CGI of the planes. Some of this artwork is freely available as desktop wallpaper at Namco’s Japanese AC3 website. The booklet is a great finishing touch and an indulgence on the part of the makers of AC3.

>>SUMMARY

Missions may seem easy at first, but crank the game onto Hard mode and enemy pilots will start to evade your missiles with depressing regularity. You need to fight smart to survive against the CPU’s most cunning avatars. You’re graded on your performance after each mission. Want an A on each level? then you need to take the optimum route, destroying targets rapidly and efficiently, making every bullet and missile count.

You’re able to unlock progressively better planes the better grades you rack up in the main game. These range from the rather bland F-16’s and F-18’s through to the sylph-like Neucom Delphinus. Work hard and get those A’s or B’s if you want to fly Dision’s Advanced Prototype Aurora stealth-fighter or the beautiful and deadly Geopelia XR-900.

There’s hidden missions too. Depending on your actions during the mission you may prove yourself to your superiors and be given some interesting missions. How is your Zero-G training?
Aside from planes and missions, you’ll gradually unlock Classified entries in the Archives section revealing another thread in the tapestry. The conspiracy begins to take shape.

Unfortunately, Namco trimmed the game to a single disc for the US and European release. Gone are the decision points and anime cut-scenes, replaced by a screen of dull prose and a linear route of 36 missions (vs. 52 in AC3 Japanese).
Apparently the change was down to the cold reception given to AC3 by the majority of Japanese players, favouring the generic rock music and time-attack modes of AC2.

I hope my review has done justice to this game. It’s a damn shame how grossly overlooked it is.
I’m glad that AC4: Shattered Skies seems to have tried to please everyone in producing great action partnered with a substantial story and quality voice acting work. Hopefully that will get the AC series, Japanese AC3 in particular, the exposure it deserves.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 03/18/02, Updated 03/28/02

GameFAQS original version: here
USEA Today version: 10/22/17