Project Wingman

Project Wingman is the game made by people who thought VR Ace Combat would be so cool but Project Aces kept blocking their number, so they made it themselves. Its main selling point is VR, a thing I do not have, but it also works on regular monitors and I like Ace Combat games. So how is Project Wingman at being an Ace Combat game?

Well, I can’t speak to Ace Combat 7. But earlier installments in the series have a Hell of a place in my heart. Air Combat, the US title for the first Ace Combat, is one of the first video games I ever played as a tiny baby Chamomile. When an elementary school friend offered to play Ace Combat 4 in co-op together a few years later, I realized that this series had gotten away from me, and throughout high school and college I scrounged for old Ace Combat games to play on my PS2 during the era when I couldn’t afford the PS3 and series’ like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry and even the newer Ace Combat installments were passing me by, and I dived through GameStop bargain bins to find Ace Combat 4, 5, and Zero going for $7 and it became such a staple of my library that I at one point played it and nothing else for over a month, completing it multiple times in a row and unlocking absolutely everything. There is maybe one video game franchise that would be harder to compete with here on my blog where stacking yourself up against the games of my childhood is a serious handicap, and that is Kingdom Hearts (even Hollow Knight has to stand on actually being good – I played it long after the nostalgia window closed, and if Silksong is a bomb, I doubt I’ll have much trouble letting go of the series).

This was my specific experience, but pretty much the entire target demographic for this game had some kind of history with Ace Combat like that. I lead with this, because there’s no way to review Project Wingman without comparing it to Ace Combat, and it wouldn’t be fair to Wingman to admit up front that I am not exactly an unbiased perspective on that comparison. At the same time, Wingman’s aiming itself square at people with very similar bias, so there’s a very valid perspective that it doesn’t matter that my vision of the comparison is clouded by nostalgia a bit – because that is also true, in one way or another, for most people who will play this game.

=Ace Combat games exist in a setting called Strangereal, which started as a fan nickname but which I think got officially adopted at some point. Strangereal has totally different geography to the real world but retains a roughly modern tech level, with a couple of absurd superweapons thrown in to give you a Death Star to blow up now and again. Some of Strangereal’s countries are obvious expies for real world countries: OSEA is the USA, Yuktobania is Russia, Belka is Germany, and so on. Others are part of more generic cultures: Erusea is vaguely European, San Salvacion seems like it might be Iberian based on its location, but could also be Latin American, Estovakia is vaguely eastern European and especially Balkan, Nordennavic is some kind of Nordic country, and between Estovakia and Nordennavic is Emmeria, whose two major cultural landmarks are the turbo Golden Gate Bridge which was CTRL+C CTRL+V’d from real world America by someone with a twitchy finger and the palace of the golden king, a clearly European, probably Versailles inspired monument to a monarchy they used to have 600 years ago. Plus, the main good guy country of Ace Combat 4 is Usea (different from OSEA), which is like if International Style architecture was a country.

Being only one game and not a series, Project Wingman gives us only three countries of note: The main belligerents are Cascadia and the Pacific Federation, and you also have a starting mission against some pirates on behalf of the Creole Republic that they use to give you something to shoot missiles at while they set up the primary conflict. As the name “Pacific Federation” implies, the geography much more closely matches that of the real world, taking place in the 5th century “AC,” or “After Calamity,” although note that AC is also short for Ace Combat so they might be giving a nod to their inspiration, here. The geography of the world is considerably changed. The west coast of North America is almost unrecognizably shaped, and if this is supposed to be a result of global warming, then Sector D2 has some very strange ideas about how flooding is going to occur, in that the shoreline has risen so much that the western seaboard has been totally cut off from the Great Plains and yet the California coast is basically unchanged and Hawaii has gotten bigger, with enough land revealed to turn it into a single larger island called Sawaiiki. Cascadia runs from Alaska all the way down the Pacific coast to Baja California, and is a member state of the Pacific Federation, so while Cascadia breaks away, large swathes of its land remain Federation territory at the start of the conflict. The Pacific Federation also includes the aforementioned super-Hawaiian kingdom of Sawaiiki and a bunch of west Pacific territories that don’t get detailed much in the game, though the name Oceania comes up and probably refers to Australia. It’s not really clear where the Federation’s core territories are. They speak with American accents but the capital doesn’t seem to be anywhere in North America, so maybe they’re capitaled out of psuedo-Beijing? It doesn’t seem like it, but that territory is only referred to as “deep Federation,” which means it could be basically anywhere with a Pacific coastline.

But being a bit vague in the worldbuilding is common to both Wingman and Ace Combat. Both games wisely focus on the geographic location, military strength, and broad political ideology of their combatants without diving too much into their history, culture, or political minutia. We get hints of the latter from the way they inform the former, but there’s no codex entries telling us that President Bob ordered the invasion of psuedo-Japan in 398 AC or whatever, just like there’s no codex entry telling us what Yuktobania’s main export is. And where Wingman excels in worldbuilding is that the global order feels violent and fragile. Mercenary air forces are a staple of Ace Combat, but it’s not really clear how, because the world order is very optimistic. This makes the status quo worth protecting, which is good, but also raises the question of how the Hell these mercenary air forces keep their $100,000,000 war machines maintained in such numbers that Ustio, protagonist nation of Ace Combat Zero, can completely replace their air force with mercenaries after being sucker punched by Belkan invaders. While the world is repeatedly rocked by major military confrontations from 1995 to 2015 (and presumably on into Ace Combat 7), this is a time of sudden crisis when militant governments come to power in previously peace-loving countries and invade their unprepared neighbors. Where did these mercenaries come from and fund themselves prior to the crises, such that they’re already fully formed with pre-existing aircraft inventories and reputations when the Belkan War begins in 1995?

In Project Wingman, you talk about illegally crossing state boundaries within the Federation and committing treason against them by signing on for Cascadia. Mercs talk about binding contracts keeping them attached to Sicario, the company you’re working for, and a briefing early on mentions that anyone who wants out of those contracts before Sicario gets stuck into Cascadia is welcome to leave, because they don’t want anyone eroding morale and cohesion by complaining that they didn’t sign up for fighting the Federation. You have very romantically motivated characters like Peter Kennedy, callsign Diplomat, who is independently wealthy but joined Sicario because he wanted to be a part of the making of history, and the Cascadian secession movement, motivated purely by a ferocious refusal to be the Federation’s arsenal of tyranny, but the way these characters live in a world governed by contracts, logistics, and imperialist greed makes this setting feel like one where mercenary air forces could actually exist. Cascadia is plainly the good guys and a very modern and developed nation, but they’re a bastion of propserity trying to use their fortune for good in a post-apocalyptic world full of poverty and war.

The soundtrack competes with Ace Combat, which is an achievement. Project Wingman’s Calamity, for example, stands shoulder to shoulder with tracks like Ace Combat 4’s Operation Bunker Shot, Ace Combat 5’s Naval Blockade or Scinfaxi/Hrimfaxi, and Ace Combat 0’s Valley of Kings/Morgan. It’s hard to disentangle the emotions inspired by the music itself from the complete package of visual, gameplay, and sound when it comes to final boss encounters as masterfully executed as Project Wingman’s, and I won’t be able to say for sure if I like Wingman’s Kings better than Ace Combat final mission hits like Megalith Agnus Dei and Zero until I’ve used the soundtracks for things like TTRPG background music, but my feeling right now is that Kings is coming out ahead of even that very stiff competition.

The tech level is basically that of 90s Earth except that the effectively magical power source of cordium allows for railguns and massive aircraft referred to as airships (less “floating warship” and more “plane with 500 foot wingspan”). The planes are all clear expies for real life aircraft, but the most advanced you get are off-brand Su-37s and F-15s, although you do get something that might kinda be a YF-23, which was the prototype for the F-22. The wiki says there were plans to have an off-brand F-22, Su-57, and J20 in the game, but apparently they didn’t make it to release. A couple of other planes from the standard Ace Combat roster don’t make it in: Attack aircraft like the A-6, A-10, and F117 are missing, as are European craft like the Rafale and Typhoon, and of course having no F-22 naturally means its little brother the F-35 isn’t showing up either.

Being made in the vein of Ace Combat, the planes in Project Wingman ludicrously surpass their real life counterparts in many ways, but especially weapon loadout, carrying 100+ missiles into each mission, so while there are some noticeable differences between different planes, which one you fly is mostly a question of which one you think looks neat. While the statistical differences between the 3rd generation F-4 Phantom II and the 4.5th generation F/A-18E Superhornet are noticeable, it’s totally possible to shoot down entire flights of F/A-18Es while piloting an F-4. The thirty-year technology gap between the two planes should result in the F/A-18E being nearly invulnerable to the F-4. All this to say, which plane you pick is partly down to gameplay differences but mostly down to which airframe looks coolest, so the lack of cutting edge 5th-generation planes, European aircraft, and the A-10’s famous brrrrrt gun are an unfortunate loss even though it’s easy to imagine lore reasons why these wouldn’t show up and game mechanically there’s already nearly-redundant planes in the game (I can’t imagine what the A-10 would do that the Su-25 isn’t doing already). Although Project Wingman’s got a pretty good inventory of aircraft, there’s some very noticeable deficiencies in comparison to any given Ace Combat game.

Ace Combat’s dialogue has always been weird and a bit stilted, but ultimately it’s sincere and it carries its themes and that counts for a lot. In Ace Combat Zero, PJ basically announces “it sure would be tragic if I died right now” right at the end of what might plausibly have been the final mission and then gets nailed by your traitorous former wingman Pixy, and that works despite how heavily telegraphed it is because the writers aren’t trying to get one over on you or anything, they’re just trying to build you up for the final confrontation, and I find it easy to meet them halfway on that. I liked Edge, Chopper, and Archer from Ace Combat 5 a lot – Edge’s quiet but unyielding determination, Archer’s drive to keep up with the other, more experienced members of the fligth and growth into a combat veteran, and of course, Chopper’s strange cynical idealism, heart bleeding for the soldiers and civilians alike consumed by the war, and yet feeling powerless to do anything to even triage the damage, brought home when he was hit and refused to bring his plane down safely on a crowded stadium field until the civilians were cleared from the site, at which point his plane was so badly damaged that the landing gear wouldn’t even deploy and he wrecked. That scene made me genuinely sad.

But my god not nearly as much as when Crimson One nuked my wingmates and AWACS at the end of Wingman. There’s no dramatic descent towards death like Chopper got. Just a sudden detonation and then you’re alone. No more Diplomat, the senator’s son who fled a life as a privileged failson to become a part of history. No more Comic, the committed and ruthless mercenary fleeing her past as a disgraced Federation pilot. No more Galaxy, the ambitious mercenary leader champing at the bit to go from flight lead AWACS to head of the whole company.

It’s funny, because at the end of the credits for the campaign, there’s a message from the three creators (including the guy who did the music). While Jose and Matt have brief and fairly generic messages about how much they loved making the game and how they hope to see you, the player, again in the future (though, speaking from experience, generic messages are usually nevertheless sincere – the experience of seeing something you create succeed on the faith of Kickstarter backers is not any less overwhelming just because it’s happened to ten thousand other creators at this point), main dev RB opens his message by apologizing for the game’s shortcomings.

And I just think, what? Dude, there’s nothing to apologize for. You did it. You made an Ace Combat game.

You made the best Ace Combat game.

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