Ace Combat Zero Has A Terrible Last Boss

After over a decade (I’m not counting mobile games until they make one that doesn’t suck), the Ace Combat series is finally coming back to Strangereal with Ace Combat 7 some time next year. I’ve been replaying a couple of old Ace Combat games I have lying around to celebrate, and have been reminded how much I hate this guy:

Pixy
Still alive, no thanks to you.

This guy is Larry Foulke, callsign Pixy, your initial wingman in Ace Combat Zero who leaves halfway through the game to join a third party faction who end up being the main villain. Pixy thus ends up being the final boss of the game. He’s a good character. He represents a cynical perspective of a world consumed by war due to the greed of politicians and to which peace can only be brought by nuclear annihilation of all existing nations, in contrast to the idealistic (and perhaps naive) PJ, your second wingman who joins the flight just a few missions before Pixy leaves, and who believes that nations can resolve their differences peacefully.

A brief aside: This theme is sort of reflected in the game’s morality system, in which there are certain yellow targets which are dishonorable to destroy. Blowing them up anyway costs you karma but gives money, while sparing them gives you karma. Like most karma point systems, it’s really stupid in practice. Not only does it have the BioWare problem where you really only make one decision and then reaffirm it over and over again because you’ll be punished for deviating for it, it also has the Bethesda problem where you can bomb civilian neighborhoods flat in one mission and then make up for it by being noble for a couple of missions after that and end the game as a “knight” whose defeated rivals will talk up how honorable and inspiring you are. The worst part is, “being noble” here simply refers to not doing that for a while, not actually going out of your way to defend civilians or anything. So if, during the Hoffnung mission where an enemy city is being ripped to fucking shreds by your bombers and is meant to be kind of an “are you positive you’re the good guys” moment, you join in the bombing full-throttle and blow up every single yellow target on the map (which explicitly results in civilian casualties), you can end the game as a knight by declining to finish off damaged and fleeing enemy planes for the next few missions. Better still, if you only bomb a third of the yellow targets in Hoffnung, you will gain honor for sparing the others, which means you will be considered more noble for having bombed one civilian facility when you could’ve bombed three. Karma meter morality systems are terrible.

Anyways, final fight with Pixy. Up until now, Ace Combat Zero has been about basically three things: Dogfighting, close air support, and stunt flying. When dogfighting, the goal is to get just about one kilometer behind enemy planes, close enough that they’ll have almost no time to react between your firing your missiles and the missiles connecting. Less skilled enemy pilots can be attacked from a greater distance (some pilots are so easily bagged that you can fire long-range missiles from 15 kilometers out, three times the usual missile lock range, and destroy them without even getting close to standard dogfighting range). You also have to dodge missiles fired at you, and if an enemy is right on your tail, you want to shake them fast before they fire because you’re no more capable of dodging missiles that close behind than they are. Sometimes you’ll have an enemy just about lined up and within kill distance, and then have to swerve out of the way because one of his buddies just fired a missile at you, and when fighting enemy ace squadrons you can have missile alerts going off almost constantly.

Close air support is kind of the same, but also kind of the opposite. Enemy installations are usually surrounded by AA guns and SAMs. SAM missiles work the same way as enemy fighters, they’ll fire missiles at you and you have to avoid them, and the further away you are, the easier that is. With AA guns, they just fire bullets at you from the ground, which have basically no hope of hitting at all, even if you take no evasive action, unless you’re within a kilometer or two of their position. On the other hand, there’s no dodging individual AA shots the way you can swerve out of the way of incoming missiles, so while SAMs can target you from as far away as you can target them, they can also be dodged, whereas AA guns just project an aura of damage a kilometer or two around their position. So, just like with enemy air forces, with enemy ground forces you are safer if you are further away. Unlike enemy air forces, ground forces can’t move or else move very slowly, so you don’t have to worry about them dodging your missiles the way enemy planes can. In hilly terrain, however, you do have to worry about lining up a shot, and especially if there’s multiple SAMs and AA guns scattered across the hills, it can sometimes be difficult or impossible to avoid the kill zones for all enemy ground forces while making an attack run. Worse, ground forces can fire at you while you’re making an attack run, whereas enemy planes can only fire at you when you’re in front of them, which is not usually where you are when attacking. So whereas in dogfighting you maneuver around a moving target to get behind them, when flying close air support you try to drop a missile on an enemy and then break away before their missiles connects with you or you fly into range of their AA cover (this is very similar to jousting with enemy planes, where both of you fly straight towards each other and you want to get as close as possible before firing your missiles and breaking away, but the enemy can fire their missiles at any time, and the closer they are when they do, the faster you need to swerve in order to evade them – enemies don’t usually like to joust with you, though, and will turn around and evade when they see you’re locked onto them).

When stunt flying, you’re required to fly through tight spaces for some reason. Usually the given excuse is that there’s incredibly thorough SAM coverage overhead so you have to fly through a canyon to avoid fire. It’s also traditional to end an Ace Combat game with a Death Star II style flight through the innards of some giant war machine.

So you would expect the end of the game to involve a final test of these three skills, and you’d be right! In that the final missions before fighting Pixy involve a dogfight with eight enemy aces followed by a flight through a canyon and subsequently flying through the bowels of an enemy nuclear launch facility while hitting ground targets to disable their launch capabilities. The close air support is kind of token, since it’s basically just dropping a missile on ground targets now and again during the stunt flight while the enemy AA guns are so spread out as to provide no challenge at all along the way, but whatever, two out of three isn’t bad.

The final dogfight with Pixy has him in a super-advanced prototype fighter jet. Seeing as how this is a prequel set in 1995 (and the fictional world of Strangereal’s dates map more or less to our own in terms of plane technology), you might expect that to be, like, an F-22 or something, but since this is Ace Combat it’s actually an advanced laser plane that can absorb like thirty missiles before going down. Which, that’s fine. We just barely finished flying through the inside of a nuclear base to blow up its launch controls, and we showed up to this mission with literally 70+ missiles (depending on exactly what plane you choose). Realism went out the window a while ago. Having a three stage boss fight with an absurd super plane is fine.

Here’s the problem: Fighting Pixy is 1) frustrating and 2) nothing like anything else you do in the game. In his first stage, he fires a laser around at random. While this is a callback to a giant laser cannon blown up earlier in the game (like I said, realism out the window), that cannon was a stunt flying mission that would periodically bathe large portions of the map in giant laser blasts. In order to avoid them, you have to watch your radar to get a few seconds of advance warning for where they’ll land and make sure you don’t fly into them. Pixy’s much smaller laser just spins around his plane at random. The only surefire way to avoid it is to stay out of its kilometers-long range, but from that distance hitting a pilot as difficult as Pixy is practically impossible. Since Pixy’s laser is completely unaimed, though, you can just fly behind him anyway and nine times out of ten by the time you’ve dropped your missiles you won’t have been hit. So, the first stage of the Pixy fight is where you dogfight like normal except sometimes you randomly take damage from a laser beam that moves way too fast to be avoided, and if you’re super unlucky you may take enough damage to be shot down entirely. There isn’t really any way to avoid this, unless you’re playing on a lower difficulty where Pixy has worse reflexes and can plausibly be shot down from further away.

In the second stage, Pixy drops giant mega-bombs behind him, so you have to avoid these massive, wide-radius explosions while staying on his tail. Basically stunt flying. There’s two problems here, though. One, Pixy is extremely maneuverable and can actually dodge missiles fired even in under a kilometer’s range. The only time he ever actually gets hit is when he takes pity and lets you tag him. This is frustrating, since all you can really do is fire missiles at what’s usually ace kill distance and then hope the game allows you to actually hit him (and you need to land lots of missiles on him to get to the next phase, though the exact amount varies by difficulty level). Two, these bombs are insta-gibs and since he disappears at the end of phase one and spawns in a random nearby location at the beginning of phase two, it’s possible to have one of these bombs dropped on your head before you’ve even figured out where he is. Rapidly reorienting yourself to new enemies is a skill you can learn, but it’s one you’ve never had to use before, so it’s possible to end up being killed by the first bomb through what is essentially just awful luck, since how easy he is to spot depends quite a bit on where exactly he spawns.

In the third stage, Pixy is immune to missiles from all angles but the front and attacks you with regular missiles, so you have to come at him head-on. It’s basically an aerial joust, and that’s not accidental, since the whole game has been making pretty transparent King Arthur references for a while. The problem with this is that one, just like with stage two, this requires a skill you’ve never used before in the entire game, namely trying to find a way to get your opponent to face towards you, and two, Pixy’s AI seems to be aware that you’re on a time limit and that he’s invincible from the back and sides, and he’s perfectly happy to chase you around from the rear and then turn around so that you can’t hit him when you bring yourself around to face him. Much like with phase two of the fight, he will occasionally face you for a proper sporting joust, but that reduces much of the fight to waiting around for Pixy to be sporting enough to let you hit him. Particularly on higher difficulties, the Pixy fight is dull and frustrating in a way that the ace fight that precedes it is not.

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