So I still play about 30 minutes of Ace Combat Zero on a daily basis, maybe an hour if I’m towards the end of the campaign and completing two missions takes longer than normal (or sometimes I finish more than two because I’m towards the end and want to wrap it up). At this point I’m going back to get S-ranks on every mission, and I have discovered two things.
Number one, getting S-ranks on Ace Combat Zero doesn’t require a whole lot more skill than just beating the mission in the first place. Almost every S-rank is about beating the mission under a certain time limit, which means you can mostly ignore a lot of secondary targets, blitz straight for the red dots on the radar, and beat the mission with plenty of time to spare and 70% of enemy forces intact. Since you’re a plane and can maneuver in 3D, this isn’t really hard. Fly at least six or seven kilometers above the ground and SAMs can’t hit you, then hit your afterburners until you’re going at least 600 km/h and you’ll be going so fast that enemy planes don’t have time to line up a shot before you zip past them. You can (and I usually do) S-rank a mission while still destroying most of the enemies, but if I find I’m running out of time I usually find it very easy to just totally ignore any enemy that isn’t required and wrap things up in a hurry.
The only exceptions are some missions that require you to hit a certain point total, but these are also little harder than beating the mission in the first place, just for a different reason: Since the time limit before you fail the mission altogether is extremely generous (you’ll only ever run into it if you’re trying to do something crazy like beat the whole mission using only guns, no missiles or secondary weapons), you can take your time to carefully clean the radar. You can still get shot down, but you’re at no greater risk of that happening than playing the mission normally. Getting S-ranks requires a slightly different playstyle than beating the mission ordinarily, but it’s not actually hard. I almost never beat a mission without S-ranking it when I’m actually trying, and when I do, it’s usually because I lost track of time completely and got bumped down to A while chasing down unnecessary targets for a bit of extra dosh.
It’s not like they couldn’t have made S-ranks harder to get. They could require you to have a certain amount of points and finish under a certain amount of time, so that you have to destroy a certain percentage of the enemy force and also do it quickly. For S-rank in particular, you could also be disqualified if you take a certain amount of damage – possibly any at all. This would require being quite cautious around AA guns, which can normally be dive-bombed with near impunity because of how many hits they need to land to destroy you even on high difficulties (they’re actually most troublesome on Hard difficulty, where a single missile deals about 75% damage and AA guns deal about 12.5% per hit, so if you’ve taken a missile, AA fire is dangerous – on higher difficulties, though, AA damage is only slightly higher but missiles kill you in one hit, and there’s not really any chance of getting hit by AA five times in one mission unless you’re asleep in the cockpit).
The second thing I’ve noticed is that all problems can be solved with lasers. The ADF-01 Falken is a fictitious laser plane you can unlock for beating the game with your karma meter pushed all the way to knight, all the way to mercenary, and kept close to the center, so it requires three playthroughs to get, but those playthroughs can happen on any difficulty. I happened to have already beaten the game on Expert by the time I unlocked it for purchase, and since it’s expensive as balls I didn’t actually have enough dosh to buy the thing until after I beat the game on Ace. I didn’t even end up buying it for a long time while ace hunting and S-ranking because it was so expensive and, having already got my hands on the F-22 which is good enough to win any dogfight if you’re good at the game, I was more eager to buy more inexpensive planes just to try out how they flew (the answer is usually “almost identically to something you’ve already unlocked,” which is kind of disappointing – Gripen C and F/A-18 Hornet are basically the same, Su-37, Su-47, and F-22 all may as well be the same plane, etc. etc.).
All of this to say: It took me forever to actually buy the Falken and figure out how gamebreakingly OP its tactical laser secondary weapon is. The laser fires straight ahead and is totally unguided, but it has a range of at least three or four kilometers and almost instantly destroys any plane it hits. The beam lasts for a solid six or seven seconds when fired, which means when you get close to an enemy, you can fire it, wiggle your plane around a bit, and you’ll probably hit them even if they’re evading like mad. With missiles, you have to get on their tail and stay there long enough to line up a shot. With the laser, you get on their tail and they’re usually dead within three or four seconds no matter what they do. You get 14 shots of the thing, too (and if the skies are crowded you can often kill two or three planes with one beam just by moving the laser from one to the other before it dissipates), more than enough to down even the largest ace squadrons in the game. It’s the ultimate ace killer, and renders otherwise very difficult dogfights almost trivial. I haven’t tried it out on the final ace fights at Ace difficulty yet, but considering those fights are beatable at all with an F-22, there’s no way they aren’t vastly easier with the ADF-01. Basically, it’s only a matter of time before I finish unlocking every last single achievement in this game.
Oh, related note: When going for the marksman medals, which require you to use your guns to kill a certain number of targets, enemy planes still count for that even if they’ve already been disabled by missiles, so don’t bother chasing down real enemies with your guns. Just dogfight normally, and any time an enemy turns yellow without being blown up outright, gun them down. You’ll only get a few kills per mission, but if you’re going for medal completionism (and why would you be going for marksman medals if you weren’t?) you’ll still end up unlocking that medal long before you finish S-ranking every mission. Don’t bother with helicopters or ground targets, though. Neither count towards the medal, so just drop an FAE on them like normal.