Ace (Commodore 64) review
"A.C.E., short for Air Combat Emulator, is an early combat flight simulator on the Commodore 64. Compared to the kind of flight simulators out now, and also to some later titles on the Commodore itself, it is rather primitive. Nevertheless, it is a surprisingly solid game with a fairly smooth flight engine, lots of action, and a high degree of challenge. It also comes with some very memorable options, including the ability to play together (a pilot and a gunner), to refuel in mid-air (which is ev..."
A.C.E., short for Air Combat Emulator, is an early combat flight simulator on the Commodore 64. Compared to the kind of flight simulators out now, and also to some later titles on the Commodore itself, it is rather primitive. Nevertheless, it is a surprisingly solid game with a fairly smooth flight engine, lots of action, and a high degree of challenge. It also comes with some very memorable options, including the ability to play together (a pilot and a gunner), to refuel in mid-air (which is every bit as hard as in real life), and a real-time environment in which your success or failure in stopping enemy forces from advancing determines how quickly the enemy gains ground.
In a game session of Ace, your objective is to fight off several groups of enemy ground forces, which slowly advance on the map and conquer territory. At the start of the game most of the map is in allied hands, but as enemies advance, green turns to red. Obviously, you have to stop them before they have the entire area under their control. Each game starts at one of the three airbases in friendly territory, and during the game session you will often find yourself returning to one of them to repair damage, fill up your fuel tank and rearm. Ace is a flight simulator and as such, all the action is seen from a cockpit view, with the top half of the screen showing what you see through your front window and the bottom half filled with instruments and displays. You control your plane with a mandatory combination of joystick and keyboard; a bit complicated at first, as flight sims tend to be, but you'll get used to it soon enough.
A typical session of Ace consists of several sorties in which you take off, pepper the nearest enemy group with air to ground missiles, then return home to load more and go right back. Enemy ground groups consist of several targets including tanks, low flying helicopters and SAMs, and depending on the difficulty level you've chosen (the game has no less than 9 of them), they may be sitting ducks or very dangerous opponents. Enemy fighters frequently appear and must be dealt with as well, and if you successfully eliminate all enemy ground groups on the map, you have a chance to bombard the invasion fleet that bought them here. The game is won if you succeed at sinking this entire fleet, but make no mistake: most game sessions end down in flames, instead. On the highest difficulty levels, the enemy is hard to defeat and you'll be shot down frequently. On the lower levels, this isn't such a concern but you still have the daunting task of landing, something you'll need to pull off 10 or more times if you want to complete the entire session.
Compared to modern flight sims, Ace isn't terribly complicated, but it's definitely two steps up from the average Commodore action game. You've got engine trust, airspeed, stalls, fuel and an undercarriage to worry about, and at the beginning of every sortie you have to choose a weapon loadout depending on what kind of targets you intend to strike this time. Just learning how to properly take off and especially land, getting a feel for how long you can stay in the air before you need to return for more fuel and learning how to properly dogfight or do bombing runs is a task that will require patience. Ace is not the kind of game you fire up during a spare hour just to see what it's like; it takes time to get into and much more time to master. If you do have that time, however, you will be pleased to see how many different options the game has. Apart from the aforementioned 9 difficulty levels - an impressive number - you have the option of flying during wintertime or at night instead of a regular summer day, which makes targets much harder to spot and adds a completely different kind of challenge that way. Furthermore, the game has been designed to by playable by either one player or two working together, a pilot and weapons man. If you choose the latter setting, controls are slightly changed to accommodate for one player piloting the craft and the other dealing with the enemy. These options definitely introduce some variety as well as a lot of challenges to overcome, especially when you consider it's hard enough to win the game at the easiest possible settings.
To somebody used to more recent flight sims, Ace does clearly show its age. There's only a small selection of different enemies (6 total including ground, air and naval targets), the terrain you fly over is limited to some trees, some hills and sea, and your weapon selection is rather limited too. This is clearly a pioneer in the genre, only impressive if you realize it is nearly 20 years old now. At the same time, however, it has a few surprises in store which I haven't seen in many other games. Two words for you: midair refueling. While it isn't terribly useful and very tough to pull off, you have the option of meeting with a fuel tanker and trying to get some fuel out of it without colliding with it. As in real life, this is a nerve wracking and very difficult maneuver, but it is great fun to do and I, at least, never played another flight sim with this option. The idea of the enemy forces advancing realtime and capturing territory (and airbases!) if you don't deal with them promptly is pretty good too. In many other flight sims I've played, the enemy just sort of sits there waiting for you to approach and destroy them. In Ace, especially if you play on a high level, you are truly fighting a one man war and you'd better fight hard if you don't want the enemy to overrun your country.
Ace does have a few irritations. First, your plane isn't as responsive as you'd like it to be, which is especially critical when it's landing time. Every landing needs to be perfect, and that's hard to pull off if the craft does not always respond to a light tap of the joystick. All in all, landings are needlessly hard and you need to pull them off time after time to finish just one game session - think at least five sorties to eliminate all enemy ground forces (on the lowest level, otherwise it's more) and five more to sink the invasion fleet after that, and you need to land no less than ten times. One little mistake, and it's game over. It may be realistic, but in gameplay terms it's a bit frustrating that 90% of the game's challenge is in putting your plane down on the runway without crashing. Makes the combat scenes a little stale in comparison. Another problem with Ace is the length of a game session: count on 2 hours to finish the game on the lowest difficulty setting, and as many as 5-6 for the highest. In a game where you can't save your progress in any way (would have been great if you could do that on the runway!), that's too long for comfort. It's not a technical issue either as the game *does* have the option to save your high scores to tape. They could have implemented an in-game save feature as well and it would have been a good decision.
In the end, though, there's no denying that Ace is a brilliant game for its time, and along with other flight sim pioneers of its age, it has been instrumental in making more recent and more impressive flight simulators happen. As long as you do not unfairly compare it to titles that came out 10-15 years later, it's easy to see why this is one of the Commodore's finest titles. To any flight sim fan who's interested in seeing where it started, this is a must-play. And for any Commodore fan who's looking for something a little more complicated and a whole lot harder than the hundreds of action games on the system, Ace is an excellent choice as well.
Community review by sashanan (March 02, 2008)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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