In all honesty, and as a long-standing fan of the Ace Combat franchise, it pains me to say this. But Ace Combat Infinity is a frustrating and repetitive experience that perhaps shows why the air combat "simulator" genre is a rapidly dying, almost extinct breed. Although many professional reviewers have faulted the free to play or "F2P" model (supposedly forced onto Bandai-Namco due to a lack of funds to develop a "proper" game and therefore signaling a cloudy future for the franchise), Ace Combat Infinity's problems unfortunately extend far more fundamentally to its very core.

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Unlike other entries into the Ace Combat franchise (which can have close to 100 single player missions or more), Ace Combat Infinity has a total of eight single-player missions planned (though only about six or so have been released so far). What's supposed to make up for this is Infinity's multiplayer-focused aspect with both co-op and vs. modes (something that's been lacking - infact completely non-existent save for Fires of Liberation and Assault Horizon - in all the other non-portable console franchise entries). There are roughly an equal number of co-op missions available that are loosely based on and essentially simplified versions of the single-player missions supplemented with "special raid" missions that appear randomly. These special raid missions include assaulting the Stonehenge air defense network (from Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies), shooting down the "Aigaion" flying fortress (from Fires of Liberation) and getting swept up in a massive furball involving hundreds of aircraft including dozens of enemy aces. Despite being your classic and basic co-op setup, the game manages to find a way to stack opposing teams into competitive play by having each team (designed "Alpha" and "Bravo") fight to see who can destroy the most targets and rack up the most points.

Unfortunately these co-op missions - even the "special raid" missions - end up becoming quickly repetitive. For starting players "stuck with suck" in the entry low-performance aircraft, it's a frustrating losing race towards targets at full afterburner only to trudge at slow speeds and be handily beaten by players in better aircraft. If anything things actually get worse the higher up you move - better aircraft and weapons turn the gameplay into a leisurely button-tapping exercise. Upgrades to missiles means they streak effortlessly towards their targets, are impossible to shake off and can strike from long-range - so no, it's not exactly challenging. The "special raid" missions compensate for this almost to the other extreme - throwing in a mess of enemy aces (such as in the "Emergency Air Strike" mission) or the aforementioned near-impossible-to-dodge Stonehenge that make the game frustrating for even highly experienced players in crazy-upgraded aircraft. Even so, the gameplay remains the same "select target, tap button" MO. For a brief time the game actually had a vs. mode on what turned out to be a trial basis, but that's been taken away, leaving the single-player campaign and the co-op missions the sole gameplay modes available (aside from the even more repetitive training mode). Even so, vs. mode was dominated by those who simply had the best aircraft and the best missiles, particularly high-level "QAAMs" (Quick-maneuver Anti-Air Missile) that chase your tail like a dog with its ass on fire and don't quit until they catch your ass on fire. Graphically, the game is adequate, although a step back from the previous full-pay installment. This seems to be a bizarre phenomenon as it's supposedly based on the same exact engine - I can think perhaps it was toned down for better online framerates.

What's particularly frustrating is that there's no "exit" from a multiplayer mission - once you're in it, you're stuck until its conclusion. Gotta go take care of something and need to pause gameplay or exit the mission? Too bad. It's an even worse experience than, say, Dust 514 where for some reason (at least when I last played it) you still had to be alive in order to exit the server - which resulted in an especially controller-on-console banging experience of not having enough time to reach the exit menu because I kept getting sniped at all the time and essentially being forced to rage-quit if I wanted to leave, period. Given the dynamics of the co-op and vs. play modes I can understand where they're coming from, but it doesn't make it less frustrating. So if for whatever reason you're forced to leave the mission, you've pretty much have to completely exit the game one way or the other - which they'll also interpret as rage-quitting/griefing and consequently severely limit your ability to rejoin other servers next time around. Awesome.

The single-player campaign is tied by a storyline loosely based off of Ace Combat 4's: back in the 90s, a massive railgun complex (Stonehenge) was built across several continents to shoot down fragments of an asteroid that threatened to destroy much of the Earth's population and government centers. Although most of the fragments were intercepted, poorer nations such as Russia were hit hard and fell into economic recession. As a result, terrorist organizations started popping up everywhere, eventually conquering the entire Eurasian continent and invading nations hosting Stonehenge installations when they discovered the railgun network's power as an anti-aircraft weapon. The United Nations has resorted to hiring mercenary squadrons (that's you) to do their dirty work for them and kick the terrorists out. The early missions are, once again, repetitive and even boring - obviously just glorified training missions. Things get a little more exciting with more numerous and challenging targets but for the most part the gameplay sticks to its repetitive core. Facing superweapons for the first time can be extremely tiresome and anger-inducing as the game's instructions are often not clear on how to avoid their deadly effects. Fortunately the player can pick up at designated checkpoints for a price - yes, that's right, in true mercenary fashion everything has a cost. This includes unlocking the single-player missions themselves - the cheapest one being 100,000 in-game credits and increasing in 100,000 increments from there on up. Yes, the final mission will cost 800,000 in-game credits to unlock, or the same price as some of the game's most advanced aircraft.


Raw cost isn't the only thing needed to unlock playability - fuel units will also need to be accrued, whether "supplied" (the game gives you three supplied units per 12 hours and that's it with no ability to stock them - want another supplied fuel unit? You'll have to use what you have and wait four hours first) or "stocked" (fuel units that can be stockpiles and earned either through challenges, end-of-mission drops or through your own cold hard cash). Every mission (or "sortie," whether single-player or co-op) requires one stocked fuel unit, although multiple fuel units can be daisy-chained together in a single mission to increase earned credits and other goodies. This has been the complaint of many professional reviewers, though I've found this to be the least offensive aspect of the game - mission drops and challenges actually make earning "stocked" fuel units relatively easy, the game lets you stockpile an infinite number of them and while somewhat expensive to buy with actual currency, there's enough fuel between the "supplied" and "stocked" to satisfy most people's daily Ace Combat cravings (an "unlimited single player campaign ticket" can also be purchased to unlock all available single-player missions at once with future additions unlocked upon release).

Fortunately, the rest of the game ensures that you're not likely to have much in the way of Ace Combat cravings to begin with. Those of you looking for the same experience delivered in previous installments might probably just want to stick to the previous installments. Ace Combat Infinity is anything but infinite with some of the most limited and repetitive gameplay available on any online console experience. Even the most hardcore fans will eventually find playing the same set of six or so missions to be mind-numbing, and it's a real question as to what the future of the Project Aces team is going to be, if there even is one. If this is what the future is like, perhaps they should very well disband - Ace Combat Infinity does indeed prove that just because something's free doesn't mean it's actually worth the price.