The Infinite Zenith

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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown × Top Gun: Maverick, Reflections on A Remarkable Collaboration and Some Thoughts on The Last Day of The Year

“Why are the wings coming out, Mav?” –Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, Top Gun: Maverick

Back in June, Project Aces did a collaboration with Top Gun: Maverick that added the iconic aircraft from the film into Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. This expansion provides the F-14A Tomcat, the custom variant that Maverick and Rooster steal from the enemy airbase, the F/A-18E single seater and another custom variant that Maverick flies during the training exercise. In addition, this aircraft pack also comes with the Su-57 fifth-generation fighter and the Darkstar prototype. On top of this, players also gain aircraft cosmetics based on themes from Maverick. While the cost of this expansion is a little pricey when one considers the amount of content one receives in the package, being able to relive iconic moments from Maverick and replicate them in the context of Skies Unknown is worth the price of admissions, and ultimately, I ended up picking it up during the Steam Winter Sale. Upon installing this add-on content and trying the new aircraft out, it soon becomes clear that these aircraft each possess unique attributes that make them a phenomenal way of extending one’s Skies Unknown experience. The Darkstar’s biggest attribute is its speed. Together with its pulse lasers, one is basically flying a starfighter capable of moving faster than any aircraft in the game. The fifth generation fighters are a variant of the base Su-57, but now equip a wider range of special missiles. The Top Gun exclusive F-14A and F/A-18E fighters have been tuned up, allowing them to go toe-to-toe with the ADF-11F Raven in a dogfight, and provide the sort of manoeuvrability for reproducing the canyon run that is beyond the capabilities of most planes. In trying out the aircraft accompanying the Maverick set, familiar missions in Skies Unknown suddenly offer players with a new experience as the different aircraft and their capabilities alter the way one approaches a mission. This gives incentive to revisit old missions and see how the new aircraft handle; during my return to several of Skies Unknown‘s tougher missions using the Maverick aircraft, it became clear that the cost of entry was worthwhile. While the aircraft themselves outwardly are simple reskins (the only all-new aircraft is Darkstar), in terms of handling, the new aircraft are smoother and more responsive than most of the other planes available, giving players confidence to fly and perform the same manoeuvres that Maverick, Rooster, Phoenix, Payback and Hangman perform during the events of Maverick.

Top Gun: Maverick stands as one of the greatest films of the 2020s so far, and it is rare for a sequel to outshine its predecessor, but Maverick has managed to do so. The film completely captures the thrill of flight while simultaneously remaining respectful to the original movie, and some of the scenes have very quickly become iconic to the point where the fertile mind, with an active imagination, would yearn to re-enact them. When Top Gun originally released in 1986, it inspired some viewers to become naval pilots. Today, the advancement of computer hardware and graphics means that for most folks, it is now possible to experience the same suspense and exhilaration that Maverick and his pilots find while flying their mission in Maverick. There is no better game than Ace Combat for such an experience: while it’s an arcade combat simulator and therefore provides distinct mechanics to ensure players have a fun time in the game, the same rush of being able to get behind the stick of a multi-million dollar flying machine and doing some work with it is conveyed. It was therefore unsurprising that a collaborative project would be made, in which Ace Combat and Top Gun crossed over to provide a means of giving players a tangible way of reliving their favourite moments from the film, or seeing how the film’s most recognisable aircraft might handle in the Strangereal universe during the course of the Lighthouse War. Overall, this experience was equivalent to picking up model aircraft and running around in a field with some mates re-enacting the same; as a child, I used to run around on the school playground, pretending it was the “Facility” map from GoldenEye 007, and I imagine that after Top Gun, excited children would’ve done the same in playing pretend dogfights with their toy aircraft. Ace Combat has simply allowed players to do the same in a different manner, and the Maverick package allows one to evoke memories of a simpler time and re-live their favourite film moments, making it a worthwhile purchase.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • In practise, the Darkstar hypersonic stealth fighter is the single fastest aircraft available in the game to players: with the right parts, Darkstar can even outrun missiles. The trade-off is that handling and manoeuvrability become limited at high speeds, so using the aircraft becomes an exercise in skill as pilots must constantly keep an eye on their airspeed and constantly adjust to ensure they can engage foes that are much slower than themselves. When a balance is struck, the Darkstar becomes a force to contend with: it is capable of reaching enemy targets very quickly, and then decelerate swiftly in order to engage them.

  • Besides an integral pulse laser mounted in its nose, Darkstar also carries missiles in an internal bay. Depending on its configuration, Darkstar carries short-range aerial suppression missiles, small-diameter bombs or pulse lasers, making it suitable for both anti-air and anti-ground operations. For me, the pulse lasers remain a favourite, and the fact that Darkstar carries six hundred and fifty shots, the same as the Su-57, makes this a straight upgrade to the capable Su-57. The down side about the pulse lasers in Skies Unknown is the fact that clouds will diffuse the beams and render them ineffectual.

  • However, with Darkstar’s handling characteristics, one could easily switch back to missiles and come around for another attack run. During my first run with Darkstar, I utilised its extreme speed to make short work of the forces amassed at Artiglio Port. It suddenly hits me that the last time I wrote about Ace Combat at the end of the year, it would’ve been two years earlier. Back then, I’d just picked up the Year One Pass, which gave access to the extended missions and the ADX series of aircraft, which I’d been longing to fly on PC ever since I played Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.

  • Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War had ignited a desire to fly the Falken, and one of the things about The Unsung War had been the fact that the game had players shooting down the SOLG on New Year’s Eve. The atmospherics surrounding this particular mission had been especially well done, and the decision to time the final level on New Year’s Eve had always evoked a sense of curiosity in me. In discussions with a friend, we’d reach the conclusion that destroying the SOLG and stopping the Belkan plot to instigate open war between two superpowers on New Year’s Eve had been symbolic.

  • By wrapping up all of the conflict before a new year, The Unsung War sought to convey the importance of wrapping things up decisively so that there was no chance for any lingering feelings of regret or resentment to carry forwards. This entailed destroying the Grey Men’s ace-in-the-hole before it could reach Oured, and in doing so, Razgriz makes it clear that whenever we’re on the cusp of a new beginning, it’s important to let go of past grudges. The Grey Men came to represent these grudges, and destroying their instruments of terror became a show of how people can actively make a choice not to let the past impact their present or future.

  • Later games don’t quite have the same symbolism, and for this reason, The Unsung War remains my favourite Ace Combat game. Skies Unknown comes in at a close second because later additions would add enough content to the game to make it feel like a comprehensive experience that brings Strangereal to the PC. Things like the Maverick aircraft set give players new ways of experiencing the game. While the idea of downloadable content and expansions may prima facie appear to be a money-grab, and it is true that when poorly done, DLC can significantly degrade player experience, good DLC allows one to get more mileage out of their games.

  • Good DLC never restricts a player in what they can intrinsically do: a base game must allow a player to unlock everything and experience things wholly. A game that offers a solid experience on its own will incentivise players to pick up additional content, whether it be new missions, equipment or even cosmetics. On the other hand, if a game requires DLC in order for a player to have a fair or complete experience, then it has failed because it is forcing players to drop additional money for something that should have been part of the original game.

  • In Skies Unknown, players can have a comprehensive experience without picking up the Alicorn missions or any of the bonus aircraft, but buying the additional content allows one to extend their enjoyment of the game further, making them fair for players. For me, because I enjoyed Skies Unknown and desired a challenge, buying the Season Pass to gain the Alicorn missions and the ADX aircraft was a simple enough decision. Similarly, since I found myself thoroughly enjoying Top Gun: Maverick, picking up the Maverick set to further my time in Skies Unknown was something I had no qualms doing.

  • With 2022 drawing to a close, yesterday, I ended up going on one final adventure before the year ended. Five years earlier, I’d gone out into the mountains during the cold of winter to capitalise on the Canada 150 complimentary park pass, and of the days I’d chosen, I ended up going amidst a snowstorm. Although the food had been great, the drive had been especially difficult: the roads were covered in snow, and a blizzard had enveloped the highway, reducing visibility to near zero. Five years have passed since that excursion, and this year, to take advantage of the remaining break time I had, I decided to schedule a similar trip.

  • This time around, I also walked over to the Vermillion Lakes. At this time of year, the lakes have frozen over completely, and this means that the mirror-smooth reflections of the mountains and sky were absent. However, during the morning, we still had gorgeous skies, and the temperature was a comfortable -6°C. This allowed for a more casual walk along the Vermillion Lakes trail. I imagine that to get the coveted combination of a lake that has not yet frozen over, and fresh snowfall, I’d need to come in during late October or early November. Having said this, there is a joy about visiting during the heart of winter: ice covering the lake was dotted with footprints, suggesting that adventurous individuals had wandered about.

  • As the morning drew to a close, we headed back into town and stopped by lunch at Tooloulou’s, a Cajun restaurant with dishes inspired by the Rockies. This establishment has developed a bit of a reputation as serving flavourful comfort food; the wait times were estimated at three quarters of an hour, so I went for a quick walk to the Cascade Mountain Viewpoint across the river. After a table opened up, I sat down to their soft-shell crab po’boy sandwich with a potato salad, and after one bite, it became apparent as to why Tooloulou’s is a popular dining spot: the soft shell crab was an explosion of flavour and seasoned well, while the creaminess in the source balanced the flavours out.

  • After lunch, the last two items on the itinerary was a drive up the Trans Canada highway; I’d been looking to check out Castle Mountain and Morant’s Curve during the winter, and neither spots disappointed. I still remember a time when I had no love for winter, but in recent years, I’ve come to appreciate the aesthetic of a hushed landscape enveloped in snow and cloud. There’s a stillness about the winter landscape that conveys tranquility, and I now feel that winter is not a time of death, but rather, a time of repose.

  • When I arrived at Castle Mountain, there had been a brief break in the clouds, allowing the mountain to peek through the clouds and catch the last rays of the sun. After a half hour’s drive further north, I reached Morant’s Curve. By this time, the clouds rolled back in, and snow had begun to fall, creating a peaceful landscape. A small crowd had gathered to watch the train, but for me, I determined it would be better to return home before the sun had set fully. The drive back home was unremarkable; the highway was extremely crowded, but the flow was also smooth, making it a far better drive than the one I’d experienced five years earlier.

  • Besides Darkstar, the Maverick set also comes with Maverick’s custom F/A-18E Super Hornet. Shortly after Maverick came out, I attempted the Cape Rainy Assault canyon run with the standard F/A-18F. This had been a fun experience in and of itself, but being able to rock Maverick’s F/A-18E custom made the canyon run feel like a night version of the run that was seen in Top Gun: Maverick. Such a run was done purely for the sake of creating a captivating cinematic experience: in real life, the sort of mission in Maverick would be best carried out by the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a 14-tonne precision guided bomb that is delivered by the B-2 Spirit.

  • The assignment seen in Maverick would see a single B-2 Spirit fly in under the cover of darkness and drop the MOP: while the enemies are stated as using GPS jamming, the guidance system in the MOP is capable of operating even in the absence of a GPS signal. The only drawback about the MOP is that it lacks a void fuze and therefore, will only detonate once it’s stopped moving. The existence of dedicated weapons in reality is meant to allow the armed forces to carry out very specific assignments, and as a result, the idea of sending in human pilots for a low-altitude assignment is unlikely to be anyone’s first option.

  • Of course, in the realm of fiction, using human pilots to carry out dangerous assignments is done purely for entertainment value: watching Tom Cruise banking sharply and exhaling with each turn is significantly more exciting than watching a pair of stoic B-2 Spirit pilots lasing their target and dropping a single MOP from an altitude of fifteen kilometres. However, this would preclude a thrilling movie. Similarly, if Ace Combat were realistic, missions would likely end as soon as one shot down two aircraft, since it is not feasible for an aircraft to carry a hundred plus missiles.

  • Skies Unknown‘s equivalent of the canyon run requires players to remain below six hundred metres and avoid searchlights: there isn’t any sort of timeline to the canyon flight, and novice pilots can take their time in flying through the canyon. This hasn’t stopped talented Ace Combat players from accelerating through the canyon at breakneck speeds, navigating with a combination of skill and finesse while staying below 150 metres the entire way. Regardless of one’s skill level, however, the canyon run is most definitely one of Skies Unknown‘s most iconic missions.

  • Once players get clear of the canyon, the mission is simply to altogether flatten the enemy forces at the airfield. On my original run of this mission, I used an F-15E with six air-to-air missiles. However, while using Maverick’s F/A-18E here, I am running with the GBU-24 Paveway III guided penetrator bombs that were seen in the film: these explosives ordinarily require a laser signal in order to accurately hit their targets, but in Ace Combat 7, their implementation is such that as long as I lock onto a ground target, they will automatically steer themselves towards that target.

  • Still, being able to fly a film-faithful version of the F/A-18E was fantastic, and I can think of a few more places in Skies Unknown where the F/A-18E could be useful. Playing through Ace Combat 7 again, I am reminded of how much fun this game is: Skies Unknown marked the first time an Ace Combat game set in Strangereal was available on PC, and at the time of its release in 2019, it had already spent four years in development. I myself had been excited to play Ace Combat 7 ever since finishing the 2013 spin-off, Assault Horizon.

  • The successor to Skies Unknown will be the eighth formal entry in the Ace Combat series, and while development began back in 2021, I imagine that to ensure that the title delivers the best possible experiences for players, it will release somewhere in 2025. Ace Combat 8, as it is informally called, is using Unreal Engine 5, but beyond this, not much more is known. Back in Skies Unknown, I’ve switched over to the penultimate mission, where I’m flying the Fifth-Generation fighter. This is the actual name of the aircraft in-game, a deliberate callback to the fact that in Maverick, the Su-57s the unnamed hostile nation operates is never identified.

  • The original Su-57 in Skies Unknown occupies the same tier as the YF-23 and F-22 Raptor, being the second-best group of aircraft available to players in the base game prior to unlocking the Strike Wyvern. Capable of carrying either a guided penetration bomb or four multi-target anti-air missiles, the Su-57 is a capable fighter. However, its true strengths lay with the fact that it could equip a pair of pulse laser pods, and of all the aircraft in Skies Unknown with pulse lasers, the Su-57 had the highest capacity, carrying 650 rounds.

  • The Maverick variant of the Su-57 has weapons suited for anti-air engagements at the expense of being unable to carry any anti-ground munitions, and trades mobility for stealth For my flight, I opted to go with the four multi-target anti-air missiles, since I knew I would be fighting a mission that was primarily focused on anti-air combat. Ever since playing through Project Wingman, I’ve come to appreciate the utility of the multi-target missiles: while they’re not as manoeuvrable as the quick-manoeuvre anti-air missiles, at range, they do allow one to pick off entire squadrons in a single salvo.

  • Against the UAVs and manned fighters in a map where the number of foes means one’s threat indicator is going off non-stop, the fifth generation fighter is a beast. The slight differences between the Su-57 and the “fifth-generation fighter” are not substantial, and in the hands of a capable pilot, this plane is more than enough to get the job done. As memory serves, I ran an F-15E armed with the tactical laser for this mission when I played through the game for the first time, primarily because I’d wanted to fire the tactical laser on PC for the first time.

  • To no one’s surprise, the Su-57’s superior traits mean that it is the better plane for this mission, and prior to Maverick, I would suggest that the Su-57 and its pulse lasers would be well-suited for this mission. I did find that the multi-target missiles were a satisfactory substitute, and high in the skies above the Lighthouse orbital elevator, I slaughtered both the enemy fighters and Arsenal Bird with relative ease. Despite it being over three years since I’ve played Ace Combat, I found myself getting back into the swing of things surprisingly well, and I do remember how during my first run of this mission, I was having trouble hitting the docking clamps and antennae on the Arsenal Bird.

  • Having the additional missiles on the fifth-generation fighter did help with this last part, and I was able to defeat the Arsenal Bird without too much difficulty, even though I’d taken a considerable amount of damage in the process. Primarily for survivability reasons, I run with the automatic fire extinguisher whenever I play Skies Unknown: this little gadget will gradually decrease the damage back to fifty percent over time, if one’s damage should exceed fifty percent.

  • In order to test the F-14A that Maverick and Rooster ends up stealing, I chose to do so within the final mission. This mission was really where the old adage, “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot” was put to the test: the ADF-11F Raven is a seventh generation fighter with capabilities far outstripping those of even the fifth-generation fighters, and this means that theoretically, the F-14A should be even more outmatched than it had been in the movie. However, despite the disparity, the Maverick version of the F-14A is again, given some customisations such that it is a bit more manoeuvrable.

  • Whether it was a result of experience, or the F-14A’s intrinsic capabilities, I was able to shoot down both Ravens within the space of three minutes, and deal with the UAV unit that jettisoned from the Raven’s wreckages. For this mission, I ran with the high-powered anti-air missiles, which hit harder than ordinary missiles but also have a greater difficulty in tracking targets. The F-14A was able to get behind the Ravens without too much trouble, and I found that using the guns actually worked well here: ever since Project Wingman, I’ve taken to using guns to deal with boss-type units that have either unlimited flares or a supernatural ability to evade missiles.

  • Defeating both Ravens with the F-14A was the surest show that the adage, “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot” holds true, and in the context of Skies Unknown, that a fifty-three year old fighter can do anything at all against a hypothetical seventh generation fighter shows how UAVs aren’t quite ready to replace human pilots yet. Of course, this definitely doesn’t hold true in reality: highly manoeuvrable UAVs would be able to pull off turns that would cause g-LOC in human pilots in a dogfight, and advanced UAVs will likely be smaller than manned fighters, so a real engagement would probably see UAVs firing accurate long-range missiles that could down an F-14 long before the pilot had time to react.

  • Again, realism isn’t the object of entertainment, and it does give players thrills to be able to pull something like beating a Raven with a Tomcat.  For the final part of Skies Unknown‘s last mission, I was able to carry out the tunnel flight and escape without too much difficulty, and with this, it becomes clear that the Maverick set represents a highly enjoyable addition to Skies Unknown. Over the past two years, besides the ADX series and Maverick, three other aircraft sets were released. These aircraft sets are similar to the ADX series in that they’re for existing fans of the franchise, adding aircraft from earlier games into Skies Unknown.

  • At the time of writing, anyone east of London, England has already welcomed 2023. However, most of the readers here hail from North America, and that means there’s still a few hours left before it’s our turn to do the big countdown. Having spent most of today doing housework and getting this post wrapped up, it’s time for me to unwind and enjoy a New Year’s Eve dinner with family. For my final remarks for this last post of 2022, I’d like to thank all readers for having stuck around for excellent conversations over the past year, and look forwards to seeing familiar faces return in 2023. Here’s to a Happy New Year for everyone!

This discussion on the Ace Combat crossover with Top Gun: Maverick is the last post of 2022, and now that we’re at the eve of a new year, it is striking as to how quickly the year has passed. Over the course of this year, a great deal has happened: according to site metrics, I’ve written a grand total of 138 posts, for a total of six hundred and fifty-six thousand words. A hundred and forty-five unique viewers have collectively totalled two hundred and eight thousand views over this time. Despite my uncertainty with keeping this blog running with everything that’s happening, I believe I’ve managed to do a fair job of things (although I will let readers be the judge of this). Beyond this blog, which I assure readers does not constitute the majority of my life, this past year has also been quite remarkable: I’ve learnt new things about iOS and Android development through my work, saw my first-ever move and became a homeowner. Following the move, I’ve taken advantage of the change in scenery to explore the new neighbourhood, its amenities and the community further. Thanks to a gradual return to normalcy, I’ve also had the chance to have new culinary experiences and hit the open roads with my time off. To put things lightly, 2022 has been a very eventful year, and looking back at my resolutions from the beginning of 2022, it does appear that I’ve managed to meet them in a satisfactory manner. In customary fashion, with 2023 only a few hours away for this side of the world, I will need some new resolutions for the New Year. For 2023, I resolve to make a conscious effort to always bring my best forward for the people around me and continue stepping out of my comfort zone: while this isn’t a goal with a quantitative measure of success, I’ve found that resolution-keeping works best for me if I maintain consistency, and that means, so long as I can do something with frequency and do so well, I’ve met my aims.

Top Gun: Maverick – A Reflection and Review, Flying into the Danger Zone With A New Generation

“Fight’s on. Let’s turn and burn.” – Pete “Maverick” Mitchell

Three decades after the events of Top Gun, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell has become a test pilot, and after a test flight ends with the destruction of the Darkstar hypersonic aircraft, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky sends Maverick over to train TOPGUN graduates for an upcoming assignment to destroy an illegal uranium enrichment facility in an unnamed country. After meeting his students and defeating them in dogfighting exercises, including Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, Maverick reunites with Penny Benjamin and reveals that Rooster’s mother had asked him to keep an eye on him and guide him away from being a pilot. Torn between allowing Rooster to fly and respecting his mother’s wishes, Maverick decides to speak with Iceman, who’s afflicted with terminal throat cancer. Iceman suggests that Maverick must let go of the past. When Iceman dies from his illness, and after a training accident, Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson relieves Maverick of his role and resets the mission parameters, making the initial flight to the target longer. However, Maverick seizes an F/A-18 and demonstrates the flight is possible against orders. Cyclone determines that the assignment must be completed, and with the time constraints, decides to entrust Maverick with flying a part of the mission. Although the strike is successful, Maverick is shot down, forcing Rooster to save him, and in the process, Rooster himself is shot down, as well. The pair end up stealing an F-14 and destroy the pair of Su-57s intercepting them, but run out of ammunition and flares. At the last moment, pilot Jake “Hangman” Seresin saves the pair, and they return safely to their carrier. Later, Rooster helps Maverick work on his P-51 and, while looking at a photo of their mission’s success, watches as Penny and Maverick take a sunset flight in the latter’s P-51. Releasing over three decades after 1986’s Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick (Maverick from here on out for brevity) is a phenomenal sequel that has earned its praises and accolades in full – in a rare occurrence, Maverick is an instance where the sequel surpasses the original. Maverick is a superior emotional and visual experience over its predecessor, fully capturing Maverick’s character growth as he learns to promote teamwork and entrust the future to youth. This sentiment is shared by professional critics and movie-goers alike; besides a tepid romance between Maverick and Penny, the remainder of the film hits consistent home runs, with a gripping story, solid thematic elements and authentic aviation sequences making the movie a masterpiece to behold.

Over the course of its runtime, Maverick is a film about the dynamic between older and younger generations. On one end, Maverick speaks to putting one’s faith in the next generation, and allowing younger minds to step into roles of responsibility. At the same time, Maverick also indicates that youth should not be so hasty in dismissing experience – it is to general surprise when Maverick schools the TOPGUN graduates in exercises, surprising even the cocky Hangman and defeating him in a dogfight. Even Natasha “Phoenix” Trace makes the remark, wondering who’s going to be teaching the best of the best. While youth often believe that they’re ready to handle anything and are eager to jump straight in, an experienced professional will hang back, assess a problem and then draw upon their prior knowledge to decide how to best approach a problem. Although the TOPGUN pilots have more vigour and faster reflexes than Maverick, Maverick makes up for this in being able to anticipate his student’s actions and plan accordingly. By impressing the TOPGUN graduates, Maverick shows them that learning is an ongoing process, and learning never really stops. On the flipside, because of his promise to Rooster’s mother, Maverick is afraid to let Rooster fly to his full potential, and even interfered in his application process. It is only upon hearing Iceman’s advice, “let go”, that Maverick is able to see Rooster as a full-fledged pilot and select him for the mission. In reality, veterans often can have a tough time entrusting tasks to youth: it’s natural to feel protective of the people one is asked to look after, but there comes a point where it’s important to let youth test their own strength, and have faith in their ability to get things done. Maverick demonstrates this best when Rooster, on an unexpectedly impulsive act, flies back and saves Maverick from being blasted by a Mi-28 Havoc. After he’s shot down, when Maverick demands to know why Rooster flew back, Rooster retorts that Maverick had taught him to “don’t think, just do”. In this moment, Maverick is completely taken aback, but recovers – evidently, Rooster is competent and capable. Maverick thus suggests that young and old minds, contrary to what internet articles suggest, can get along – young people should be open to learning something from old minds, and old minds should have more faith in young people, trusting them to get things done in a mix of old and new ways.

Maverick is also a visceral show of what leadership looks like. While Maverick himself has had a history of insubordination, which had prevented him from advancing to flag rank, viewers are shown that this insubordination occurs because, since Goose’s death, Maverick has become more mindful of the people around him. This is made clear to viewers right out of the gates during the Darkstar test: when Maverick learns the Darkstar program is about to be scrubbed, he decides to go on a test flight anyways and comments on how, if he doesn’t defy orders to stand down, the program will go under and take the team with it. Maverick is willing to put himself on the line to ensure everyone else is safe. A good leader is someone who puts others ahead of themselves, and while from a command perspective, Maverick is appropriately-named, those who work with him are willing to do so precisely because Maverick is not a glory-seeker; he just wants to make sure everyone succeeds. This is seen again when he designs the mission parameters for the canyon attack – Maverick’s insistent on the fact that the flight be short so that the attacking aircraft have the most opportunity to evade the enemy defenses and return home. Maverick’s experiences with Goose ended up shaping him into a leader, and while this makes him appear very unreasonable, to the point where Cyclone is all too happy to dismiss Maverick after an incident during training, Maverick has one other trait that makes him a valuable leader: he is able to walk the walk, on top of talking the talk. Maverick’s test run impresses all of the TOPGUN graduates, and even Cyclone begrudgingly admits that the mission, as Maverick defined it, is technically possible. A good leader always leads by example, and can do the things they expect of their subordinates, and by showing the TOPGUN graduates that this mission is achievable, the mood suddenly changes, as a formerly impossible mission suddenly becomes a challenge that the candidates are curious to see if they can overcome. Throughout Maverick, Maverick shows that Iceman was right; the other admirals and leadership may not see Maverick as an asset, but Maverick’s traits actually make him invaluable, and it is these leadership qualities that ultimately make the mission successful. In this way, Maverick is a highly inspiring film, demonstrating in no uncertain terms that leaders are people who can do the things they expect of their subordinates, put their subordinates first, and are able to inspire subordinates to better themselves.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • In the 2000s, the top film experiences were the Lord of the Rings and Dark Knight trilogies. Avengers: Infinity War and EndgameFirst Man, Dunkirk and Interstellar were my top picks for the 2010s. Here in the 2020s, things start off strong with Top Gun: Maverick, and ahead of the film’s release, I watched the original Top Gun so I’d be familiar with things. The original film is a fair experience, but things do feel a little less cohesive. In spite of this, the film was still enjoyable, and the music was especially good. Maverick, on the other hand, is on a whole different level.

  • The film actually opens similarly to 2018’s First Man, which had Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) piloting an X-15 and struggling to get it back into the atmosphere during a test flight. From there, the remainder of the film was a powerful portrayal of Armstrong’s journey to being the first man on the moon. Maverick starts with Maverick (Tom Cruise) testing the experimental “Darkstar”, a hypersonic ramjet aircraft intended to reach speeds of up to Mach 10. Although Lockheed Martin representatives vehemently deny Darkstar is based on any real aircraft, it does resemble the SR-72 prototype.

  • Maverick features numerous callbacks to the original Top Gun: as Maverick reaches the stipulated speed of Mach 10, he whispers to himself, “Talk to me, Goose”: in Top Gun, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) had been Maverick’s WSO, but died during an accident when their F-14 suffered a flameout. Both Maverick and Goose had ejected, but Goose broke his neck on the canopy, and since then, Maverick regretted not being able to save his friend. Despite being cleared of wrongdoing by a military court, Maverick continues to be haunted by this failure.

  • As Darkstar reaches Mach 10, Admiral Cain arrives with the aim of shutting the programme down, disappointed by its failure and anticipating that unmanned drones would soon replace human pilots. This concept is not explored in greater depth in Maverick, but Ace Combat 7 delves into the topic in great detail and suggests that drones or no, human pilots continue to be relevant since they can make decisions automaton cannot. On the topic of Ace Combat 7, the Top Gun: Maverick DLC set was released to accompany the film, and I’ve been eying it precisely because it lets me to fly the Darkstar aircraft, along with Maverick’s custom F/A-18.

  • When Maverick pushes Darkstar past its operational boundaries, its airframe disintegrates. Viewers have been very critical of this scene: ejecting conventionally at Mach 10 would liquify the human body, and Tango-Victor-Tango’s John “Fighteer” Aldrich claims that, because this one scene isn’t survivable, the entire movie was undeserving of its praises. In the story, the Darkstar aircraft was likely equipped with an ejection capsule, similarly to the F-111 Aardvark; it’s always amusing to see people like Fighteer taking themselves so seriously, when they lack the ability to reason through things and properly walk others through their thoughts.

  • For someone who still moderates Tango-Victor-Tango to this day, while I appreciate Fighteer’s devotion to a meaningless pursuit (conversation at Tango-Victor-Tango has intellectual value the same way Spontaneous Generation is a valid scientific theory), it is a little surprising to see someone with a complete lack of literary knowledge take such an interest in fiction. I have previously argued that works of fiction like Maverick don’t need to be realistic, but rather, internally consistent: so long as the rules of the fictional world are not broken, and so long as a work can convey its message, it will be successful.

  • The only aspect of Maverick that didn’t work quite as well was the romance between Maverick and Penny: in the original film, Maverick’s attempts to impress instructor Charlotte Blackwood was a part of the story’s way of fleshing out Maverick’s character, but here in Maverick, Penny feels like she came out of the blue. Had the film omitted this piece, I feel that its themes and messages would not have been diminished in any way.

  • On the other hand, the rocky relationship Maverick has with Goose’s son, Rooster, is a central part of the film. On their first day, tensions already run high – Rooster holds Maverick accountable for Goose’s death, and Maverick wishes that Rooster would’ve chosen any other profession besides following his father’s footsteps, a wish his mother had made. The other pilots are shocked to see Maverick as their instructor, having watched him get thrown out of Penny’s bar the previous evening after he made a gaffe and wasn’t able to pay the tab, per house rules.

  • Owing to these initial impressions, the TOPGUN graduates are pretty confident that they can hold their own against Maverick, and during the first day of exercises, Payback suggests upping the stakes after hearing Maverick’s exercise conditions: the graduates must work together to shoot him down before he decides to shoot back. Two hundred pushups is a lot, and the young aviators are confident that they’ll have no trouble besting Maverick.

  • This scene was set the The Who’s iconic song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Like its predecessor, Maverick has excellent music, but unlike Top Gun, the film uses existing music – Top Gun had several pieces written specifically for the film, including Kenny Loggins’ iconic “Danger Zone” and “Playing With the Boys” and the Oscar-winning “Take My Breath Away”. My favourite piece on the original soundtrack, however, is Cheap Trick’s “Mighty Wings” because its iconic opening riff inspired the theme to Ken’s stage in Street Fighter II.

  • Were I in the TOPGUN graduate’s shoes, I’d be nervous to hear Maverick casually accept the terms of the wager: he quickly disappears off the radars and flies between the two F/A-18s from underneath, timed perfectly to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”‘s iconic YEAH moment. Maverick is all business, but the movie has moments of levity to remind viewers that while the TOPGUN graduates are all skilled aviators, and their assignment is deadly serious, they’re still human at the end of the day. It’s a clever way to lighten the film up in the early stages.

  • Maverick uses the F/A-18E Super Hornet, a twin-engine multi-role fighter that entered service in 1999, replacing the F-14 Tomcat, which featured in Top Gun. The Super Hornet was chosen in the film, over the F-35 Lightning, on the grounds that the newer aircraft and their high-tech suite of electronics wouldn’t be suited for the mission, but in reality, the F-35 is a single-seater, and this wouldn’t allow the film to have been filmed with real pilots. Further to this, the F-35 was designed to launch its ordnance from high altitudes at a distance, so using them would’ve simply meant hanging back and launching missiles, rather than going in for a high-octane low-altitude run.

  • Rooster’s “Not this time, old man!” is one of my favourite lines in the film: having just prevented Maverick from getting behind Payback and Fanboy, Rooster attempts to engage Maverick, but ends up being “shot down” in the exercise. Moments like these are a great way of showing why it isn’t a good idea to underestimate anyone: while Maverick’s reflexes and physicality aren’t what they were thirty years ago, he makes up for this by knowing his aircraft and knowing how other pilots react in certain situations, allowing him to act accordingly.

  • There are a large number of TOPGUN candidates in the beginning, but seeing which characters got more speaking roles hinted at who would be selected to participate in the mission. Among the characters is Phoenix (Monica Barbaro). I was very pleased with how her role was handled in the film – she’s presented as a confident and skilled pilot in the skies, and she’s also got a good sense of humour, even when under stress. Phoenix’s WSO is Bob (Lewis Pullman), a quiet fellow whose call-sign’s meaning is left open to interpretation, and whose name might be a clever callback to the Bob Hoover story.

  • As the story goes, after being shot down behind enemy lines, Hoover was taken as a prisoner of war, escaped during a prison riot and then managed to find a pistol. After reaching a German airfield, he held a mechanic at gunpoint and forced him to start up a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, then proceeded to fly it over to the Netherlands. This actually lines up with how the end of Maverick goes, so a part of me wonders if Bob was named after Bob Hoover. Here, watching the other TOPGUN graduates taking a selfie while Rooster is doing the pushups was an amusing sign of the times; smartphones didn’t exist back in 1986.

  • More amusing was what happened after Maverick bests all of the arrogant and brash airmen, prompting Bernie “Hondo” Coleman to remark that “it was all fun and games in that selfie”. A chief warrant officer who worked with Maverick on Darkstar, Hondo joins Maverick in the TOPGUN programme. The whole point of the dogfighting drills here is to test how pilots and WSOs work together as a team under pressure, and also to prepare them for the sort of flying they might be up against when in the air over hostile territory.

  • When it’s Phoenix and Bob’s turn to go up against Maverick, they’re paired with Hangman (Glen Powell). Hangman is easily the cockiest of the bunch, being the only pilot with a kill to his name, and his first act is to ditch Phoenix and Bob, leaving them to be shot down. Hangman’s remarks to Bob and Phoenix are mildly disrespectful, speaking to his character and reminding viewers of a younger Maverick. Again, speaking to Maverick’s experience, he comments on how “leaving your wingman” is something he’d not seen in some time.

  • While Hangman proves a formidable pilot capable of some skillful manoeuvres, without a wingman to help him spot, Hangman is surprised by Maverick, who ends up shooting him down. The importance of this moment is to show that individual skill only takes one so far – having been around the block for some time, I can speak to this. As a developer, my skills lie in mobile platforms, and while I am capable of doing a few things with backend and web client code, I count on other members of the team to ensure those aspects are working smoothly.

  • Once the initial exercises are done, the story in Maverick steps up when Rooster goes up against Maverick a second time. Maverick’s up to his old tricks, and decides to fly inverted, daring Rooster kick the party off. In the original Top Gun, Maverick and Goose had done this to an enemy combatant, taking their photo with a Polaroid camera before flying off. The scene really serves to show the sort of animosity between Maverick and Rooster: it turns out that Maverick had intervened and delayed Rooster’s application to the naval academy.

  • The resentment in the moment causes the normally-cautious Rooster to begin flying much more recklessly, and the pair are locked in a spiral down to the hard deck. The hard deck refers to a preset altitude in which aircraft during training are not permitted to go below, otherwise, it counts as an impact with the ground. This element had been a point of discussion during Top Gun, when Maverick had dipped below the hard deck to get the kill on Jester – strictly speaking, if Jester was below the hard deck, this would be counted as a ground collision, and the exercise would end. Thus, there was no need for Maverick to continue pursuing.

  • The tense exchange between Rooster and Maverick suggests that both are having trouble dealing with their respective pasts; Rooster is more open about things, whereas Maverick attempts to talk Rooster down from things even as he himself struggles to deal with what had happened to Goose. Conversations like these give a bit of insight into the characters and, when they’re set during a tense moment, such as a dogfight, it allows a film to show, rather than tell: the way Rooster and Maverick fly and move both reflect on their internal turmoil, with the small difference being that at this point, Maverick is experienced enough to identify things are going bad and is willing to pull out before anything can happen: he breaks from the dive moments before Rooster does. In the end, Rooster is unable to outmanoeuvre Maverick and is shot down yet again.

  • Maverick (and Top Gun) remain highly dramatised accounts of what being a naval aviator is like, but as a work of fiction, one must allow for the presence of creative liberties to be taken in order to facilitate the plot. I’ve previously discussed this before; as long as a work is internally consistent, then even if there are overt elements of fantasy one knows to be impossible in reality, they can still accept it because it remains within the bounds of what the writer has defined. However, even when a work is internally consistent, there remain some people who adamantly insist on analysing it for flaws.

  • As it turns out, if a work of fiction fails to engage with an individual at the emotional level, one will instinctively attempt to rationalise why. It takes a degree of emotional intelligence to do this, and where one cannot readily explain why they are unable to relate to a work, they will fall back on picking at the small details. This would explain why Fighteer immediately picks apart the Darkstar scene as “unrealistic”, and why Reckoner of Behind the Nihon Review griped about K-On! The Movie: the respective films simply don’t appeal to them, but because it takes maturity to do introspection, neither Reckoner or Fighteer are able to articulate why a work didn’t click with them personally. Their displeasure thus manifests as gripes about trivial details that have no bearing on the story.

  • I have stated before that it’s perfectly normal not to like something, and this stance hasn’t changed. However, when people use realism as the reason for why, I now know that they’re probably having difficulty in expressing themselves. I concede this isn’t easy to do: for instance, Stella no Mahou didn’t work for me, and it took a few days for me to determine that the payoff at the end of the journey wasn’t consistent with what I’d previously experienced. At a personal level, the anime didn’t succeed, but I simultaneously note that some folks might like it anyways. Back in Maverick, Maverick spends a bit of time with Penny, and while I will hold the story could have worked without the romance piece, Maverick courting Penny does have a nontrivial impact on him by showing him there is a world outside of his career.

  • The Su-57s in Maverick are referred to as “fifth-generation fighters” exclusively. The ambiguity of the foreign power with the illegal uranium facility in Maverick was a brilliant way of avoiding any political controversy, and shows that writers can indeed keep politics out of their work without impacting its quality. Here, the enemy nation is irrelevant: what matters is the presence of an assignment that drives Maverick and Rooster’s growth. While some people insist that all fiction is political by definition, I disagree. At their core, works of fiction are about individuals within a given system, and depending on the story, politics may or may not be relevant.

  • One of Maverick‘s most moving moments was the return of Val Kilmer as Iceman; now an aging admiral with terminal cancer, Iceman is unable to speak, but still retains a very healthy amount of respect for Maverick. The pair had been rivals in Top Gun, but developed professional and mutual respect for one another following their first combat sortie together. Having seen what Maverick can be like at his best, Iceman had kept Maverick around, knowing he could do the things that needed to be done. Maverick treats Kilmer and Iceman respectfully: Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015 and has found it difficult to speak since then, and this was woven into the film to create a very poignant meeting.

  • The fact that Maverick seeks out Iceman for advice shows how he’s changed: no longer cocky and self-assured, Maverick occasionally acknowledges that he needs help from others, and similarly, when his conversation with Iceman ends, and Iceman asks, “who’s the better pilot” in jest, Maverick simply smiles and embraces his old friend. Maverick is best known for its aviation sequences, but interpersonal moments act simultaneously as callbacks to the original film, as well as giving Maverick a way to acknowledge the older actors and their contributions.

  • Despite knowing the stakes, the training exercises aren’t going well: the mission entails flying through a narrow canyon to evade enemy surface-to-air missiles, popping up and delivering a pair of precision strikes with laser-guided munitions, and then escaping before enemy Su-57s can engage them. During one drill, Payback passes out from g-LOC and nearly crashes, while Phoenix and Bob both are forced to bail following a bird strike. No matter how many times the pilots try, they seem unable to fly the stipulated route in under two minutes and fifteen seconds.

  • The turning point in Maverick comes when Rooster confronts Maverick over the latter’s decision to impede his application into the naval aviation programme. Maverick had done so to honour his word to Rooster’s mother, but now finds himself at a crossroad; if he sidelines Rooster on this assignment, Rooster will resent him for the remainder of his days, but if he chooses to select Rooster as one of the pilots and Rooster is killed, then he’ll have to live with the guilt of having seen both his best friend and his son’s deaths.

  • According to interviews, when Val Kilmer was shown the sections of Maverick he appears in, he was moved by how things were done, and director Kosinski, upon seeing Kilmer’s reaction, felt that they’d gotten right such a critical moment in the film. After Iceman dies from his illness, Cyclone removes Maverick as the instructor and changes mission parameters in light of the incidents during training. If Maverick were to be entirely faithful to reality, this would be the end of Maverick’s time in the film: an instructor dismissed from an assignment won’t be returning.

  • However, assuming that viewers accept Maverick as a work of fiction, they’d be treated to one of the most thrilling moments in cinema this side of the 2020s: after Cyclone explains the updated mission parameters, the TOPGUN graduates suddenly hear a transmission from Maverick, who’s taken a Super Hornet and is now flying the course. When the range controller informs Maverick he’s not scheduled for a run, Maverick’s reply, “I’m going in anyways”, earns him a “nice” from Phoenix. As Maverick pushes his F/A-18E to the limits, the students, along with Cyclone and Warlock, suddenly find themselves cheering Maverick on internally.

  • I’ve heard that Maverick’s breathing during the whole sequence is actually deliberate, a means of forcing air into the lungs and stave off hypoxia. From a cinematography point of view, these moments really emphasise how taxing flying is on the body. To put things in perspective, we feel our heads spin when a commercial aircraft banks more than ten degrees, and in science fiction works, technologies like G-force dampeners are supposed to nullify the extreme forces that occur as a result of the demanding manoeuvres pilots engage in.

  • As Maverick nears the simulated target, the entire room waits with bated breath, hoping that Maverick will successfully hit the target. For this exercise, Maverick is using the laser module on his F/A-18E to designate the target, making a successful bulls-eye strike all the more impressive. For the actual run, the aircraft will fly in pairs: a front aircraft will drop the bombs, and a supporting aircraft will provide the laser. When the training bombs, characterised by their blue colouration, strike their target, the entire candidate group is impressed.

  • Warlock’s silent fist pump says it all, and in the aftermath, Maverick’s demonstration the mission could be done changes the tenour of the film. Of course, Maverick’s actions are not without consequence; his career’s been dotted with reckless acts of insubordination, and this latest stunt earns him yet another reprimand from Cyclone, who comments on how Maverick’s choices have left him in a difficult position. On one hand, following protocol means discharging Maverick dishonourably, but on the other, Maverick’s actions here show that the mission is doable.

  • In the end, because the consequences of allowing a rogue nation to achieve nuclear capabilities far outweighs the need to discipline Maverick, Cyclone’s decision ends up being a relatively simple one. He assigns Maverick to fly the lead aircraft and asks him to pick his pilots. Rooster, Phoenix, Bob, Payback and Fanboy are selected for the mission. With the mission now set, the fun and games in Maverick ends as the film becomes deadly serious. For the viewers’ benefit, the mission outline is given to viewers again: the supporting fleet will launch Tomahawk cruise missiles at the enemy airfield to cripple their aircraft, and Maverick’s team will fly in and destroy the target before the patrolling Su-57s can intercept them.

  • Maverick and Rooster share one more personal conversation before taking off from the carrier: Maverick promises they can chat after everyone comes back in one piece. Throughout Maverick, Maverick had emphasised the importance of coming back alive, and this mindset had stemmed from his own experiences. While this meant making the mission requirements seemingly unreasonably demanding, it’s Maverick’s way of expressing how he values life following Goose’s death. With these personal thoughts set aside, it’s time to get all of the aircraft in the air.

  • Upon seeing the mission for myself, I was immediately reminded of Ace Combat 7‘s Cape Rainy mission, which required players to fly through an extremely narrow canyon to evade enemy radar, while at the same time, avoiding searchlights placed throughout the canyon. Viewers familiar with Ace Combat immediately saw the similarities, and after watching Maverick, immediately went about recreating the film’s most iconic moments in-game. Project Aces saw these similarities and released the Top Gun: Maverick expansion for Ace Combat 7, adding six new aircraft, ten Maverick-themed emblems and twelve call-signs.

  • The DLC ordinarily retails for 26 CAD, but past sales have seen prices drop as low as 13 CAD. At this price point, I feel that it would be worthwhile, and I am now waiting for the Steam Winter Sale before I add the Maverick set to my library; during the Winter Sale, purchases also give players event cards, and since I do enjoy jazzing up my Steam profile, I feel that I can wait a few more weeks before I fly Darkstar or Maverick’s custom F/A-18E for myself. Having said this, I am quite excited to do so: Darkstar equips pulse lasers and can reach a maximum speed of 5000 kilometres per hour.

  • Mach 4 is only 40 percent of what Darkstar in Maverick is capable of reaching, but even this renders the aircraft brazenly overpowered: the AIM-9 Sidewinder has a maximum speed of Mach 2.5, so in theory, if an enemy aircraft fires on Ace Combact 7‘s Darkstar, evading the missile would simply be a matter of opening the throttle and accelerating. In fact, this is how SR-71 Blackbird pilots were taught to deal with missiles: after surface batteries detected the aircraft, it’d be too far away to hit by the time the missiles were ready.

  • Back in Maverick, the Tomahawk missiles impact the airfield, and this causes the patrolling fifth-generation fighters to immediately divert and head back to defend the uranium site. Although Maverick and Phoenix are on track, Rooster begins falling behind after spotting the surface-to-air batteries. The unnamed enemies in Maverick use S-125 Neva/Pechora missiles, which are Soviet-era weapons that were designed to hit smaller, more mobile targets. I imagine that the missiles seen in Maverick are the V600 variant, which have a fifteen kilometre range and carries a sixty kilogram warhead. V600s have a maximum speed of Mach 3.5, so F/A-18E/Fs are not outrunning them.

  • Maverick’s experience allows him to reassure his fellow pilots: when the fifth-generation fighters begin diverting, Maverick remarks they’re headed to defend the uranium plant, and the S-125 batteries remain on guard. After taking a moment to gather his thoughts, Rooster opens his aircraft’s throttle, allowing him to make up lost time. According to the air speed indicator, Rooster begins reaching 800 knots. This corresponds to roughly 1400 kilometres per hour, an impressive speed considering how narrow the valley is.

  • The computer imagery used to brief the pilots had made the canyon seem narrower, and the mountains look steeper, than they did in reality. This doesn’t mean that the flight was a walk in the park, but for me, seeing the actual terrain itself helped to put things in perspective. While Rooster, Payback and Fanboy follow from the rear, Maverick, Phoenix and Bob prepare for the first strike. They pop up over the ridge, invert their aircraft and bring their planes into a dive. Having dug around, there’s more to this manoeuvre than the cool factor; it’s done to maintain positive loading and prevent the airframe from failing, as well as allowing the pilot to maintain consciousness.

  • Here, the GBU-24 Paveway IIIs can be seen on Maverick’s pylons: these laser-guided munitions carry a two ton warhead and require a beam from a designator to lock onto their target. In reality, the Paveway III is indeed accurate enough to be guided down a ventilation shaft so long as the laser is not lost. Military tacticians comment on how a single B2 Spirit carrying the BLU-109/B bunker buster would’ve completed the mission more readily, and while this is true (I would’ve probably recommended a Tomahawk strike), it is akin to wondering why the Eagles didn’t just carry Frodo and Sam to Mordor.

  • Common sense causes fiction to break down, and while this is important in reality (I favour simple solutions over complex ones), it also takes the fun out of a story and diminishes its ability to convey a specific message. Taking a more convoluted route allows for characters to grow, and this is one area where Maverick did unexpectedly impress in. Being the most soft-spoken and low-key of the TOPGUN graduates means that Bob has my respect: although he’s a skilled WSO, he lacks the same bravado and swagger as the other pilots, preferring to do his work in the background. By having Maverick select him as a part of the strike team, Maverick acknowledges that the quiet folks can walk the walk even if they choose not to talk the talk.

  • The more subtle lessons about teamwork, trust and humility are present in Maverick, even if they can occasionally be buried by the more bombastic, thrilling moments, and having now taken the time to give thought to both Maverick and the Yuru Camp△ Movie, I can see why there might be a case where the two films might be compared against one another, especially since both were quite successful. Both movies deal with people coming together to achieve something against the odds, persevering and overcoming both external and internal challenges.

  • Such themes are hardly unique to either Maverick or the Yuru Camp△ Movie, but the films do share quite a bit in common despite being in totally different genres. This has led Hinataka, a writer for the blog Netorabo, to claim that when compared side-by-side, the latter is a movie that “surpasses” the former as being the best film of 2022 without any additional explanation or context. Since Hirakata never elaborates, I conclude that this remark was probably an off-hand comment; Hirakata is free to enjoy movies however he wishes.

  • Film opinions can and will vary from individual to individual, but things become trickier when Centcom08 repeated this statement at Wikipedia. To the casual reader, it would set the expectation that the Yuru Camp△ Movie is a technically superior film or possesses a message that’s more cohesive and meaningful than what Maverick presents. In reality, neither film is better than the other; the Yuru Camp△ Movie excels in presenting an incremental tale of perseverance and making the most of the hand one is dealt, while Maverick is a story of trust, teamwork and learning to let go of the past.

  • Between this and the radically different premises (Maverick never goes camping with Rooster, Phoenix, Bob, Payback and Fanboy, and Rin, Nadeshiko, Chiaki, Aoi and Ena aren’t about to take on fifth generation fighters), I don’t feel that such a statement should be taken as anything more than a personal opinion. While a valid opinion, it should be common sense that this is by no means the end-all. While I am tempted to sign up for a Wikipedia account and strike that particular line from their Yuru Camp△ Movie article with due haste, I am aware that users like Centcom08 spend every waking moment monitoring the page – any changes I make will be reverted within minutes. I have better things to do than drop to Centcom08’s level, but I will remark that the Wikipedia article on the Yuru Camp△ Movie is unreliable and filled with factual errors.

  • Back in Maverick, after Bob provides the laser that allows Maverick to hit his target, Rooster follows up so he can drop his Paveway IIIs down the hatch. When Fanboy reports that his laser is malfunctioning, Rooster decides to drop the bombs blind. As luck would have it, both bombs find their mark, and seconds later, the entire uranium enrichment facility collapses. The moment this happens, the enemy forces are now aware of their presence, and all of the S-125 sites come to life, filling the air with missiles. In the chaos, it’s all the pilots can do to evade the missiles, dropping flares in a bid to throw them off.

  • When Rooster runs out of flares, Maverick sacrifices himself to keep Rooster alive. In the process, one of the V-600 missiles hits him. The moment brought to mind the likes of the 2001 film Behind Enemy Lines (starring Owen Wilson) as Chris Burnett, although flares and missiles behave a little more plausibly here in Maverick: the missiles in Behind Enemy Lines switch between heat-seekers and radar guided modes at times, allowing them to turn around and ignore flares, and they appear to fire buckshot, whereas real missiles carry an explosive warhead.

  • However, viewers generally agree that despite the lack of realism in Behind Enemy Lines, the scene where Burnett and his pilot, Jeremy Stackhouse, evade the surface-to-air missile does capture the intensity and terror that accompanies air combat. Since Behind Enemy Lines captured this well, it can be said to be authentic, even if it isn’t realistic. I have found that a lot of folks who demand realism in their fiction oftentimes are conflating lack of realism with a story they can’t relate to or connect with at an emotional level.

  • Despite being a solid story from a narrative perspective, Maverick cannot be said to be realistic by any stretch. After Maverick is shot down, he survives and finds himself face to face with a Mi-28 Havoc. He manages to somehow evade 30 mm rounds from its Shipunov 2A42 autocannon and survives long enough for Rooster to show up and shoot it down. In the process, Rooster himself is shot down, and he manages to eject. In another situation, the odds of survival would be quite slim, but viewers must set this aside and accept that, if Maverick were realistic, the film would’ve probably ended an hour earlier.

  • It is necessary that some aspects of a story be contrived such that one can be granted a satisfyingly experience. Here, Maverick manages to catch up to Rooster, and after their initial shock wears off, Maverick devises a plan for getting them back home. The lighting and tone surrounding the moment is evocative of how Behind Enemy Lines had felt after Burnett and Stackhouse were shot down, but in that film, the story had been about how Burnett evades capture in the Balkans, and here, both Rooster and Maverick are only shot down late in the game. Maverick’s plan is as bold as it is daring: see if there’s any airworthy planes left at the airfield their forces just took out and use one of them to get back into the skies.

  • At this point in the film, the reasonable viewer accepts that this is the only route Maverick and Rooster have for getting back home, and spots that, given how an earlier briefing had mentioned that F-14s might be present, opens the floor up to an exciting possibility: seeing Maverick and Rooster fly an F-14 as a clever, well-written homage to the original Top Gun. Indeed, this is exactly what Maverick has in mind, and after sneaking up to a hangar unseen, he and Rooster get one of the F-14s online. For Maverick, it’s the return of an old friend, but for Rooster, who’s accustomed to the F/A-18 and its glass cockpit, the F-14 feels ancient.

  • This scene in Maverick was reminiscent of the Yuru Camp△ Movie‘s finale, which had similarly seen the return of an old piece of hardware from the originals; when Rin’s motorcycle develops a fault, her father suggests that she fall back on her original ride, the Yamaha Vino, and it ends up playing a big role in the film’s climax. Having seen Maverick first, it was nice to see echoes of Top Gun in Yuru Camp△ Movie, although here, I note that an appreciation of the similarities between the two movies despite their drastically different premises is about the extent of my wish to compare the two films.

  • In typical Maverick fashion, both aviators are airborne after a harrowing takeoff: Maverick has used the F-14’s variable sweep wings to generate more lift and accommodate for a very short takeoff, surprising Rooster. To emphasise this, the F-14’s front landing gear is knocked off, but for the present, Maverick and Rooster are aloft, to the surprise of the command staff back on the carrier. Of course, it just wouldn’t be a Top Gun movie without dogfighting in a live environment, and now that they’re in the skies, the patrolling fifth-generation fighters intercept the pair.

  • Any experts or fans of military aviation will immediately recognise the Su-57, a Russian multi-role fighter that began development back in 2010 and entered service in 2020. Although widely considered to be inferior to the American fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, the Su-57 is still leaps and bounds ahead of the F-14 owing to superior avionics. In an engagement, what would likely happen would be that the Su-57 would simply fire a missile from outside visual range and score a kill before the F-14 could even flinch. Moreover, even though the Su-57 lacks the same the same thrust vectoring that the F-22 possesses, it still has an impressive turn rate and would easily overcome the F-14 in a dogfight.

  • The idea of an F-14 going toe-to-toe against an Su-57 is the sort of exercise that military fans love thinking about (experts are more concerned about how their hardware stacks up against hardware that’s presently in service, versus against older hardware), and in fact, reminds me of the thought experiments I did regarding hypothetical matchups like pitting a single M1A2 against twenty Tiger Is, or a head-to-head battle against the Panzer VIII Maus. For the most part, comparing technology from different periods is akin to comparing video cards more than two generations apart: the newer technology comes out on top every time.

  • When the Su-57s show up, Maverick reasons that at least for the moment, the pilots don’t really know what’s going on and attempt to hand signal to them. While pilots do know hand signals so that they can continue to communicate in the event of a radio loss, or during an exercise, it is possible that the Su-57 pilots operate on a different set of standards, ones that Maverick and Goose are unfamiliar with. Some folks with a background in aviation translate the pilots’ signals as requesting them to “divert to heading 3-3-0”, suggesting that they’re to defend the facility from further attack.

  • Thus, when Maverick signals he’s not understanding the message, the other Su-57 prepares to engage the F-14, which they now interpret as being under hostile control. The setup here is a bit of writing that allows Maverick to shoot down one of the Su-57s and take it out of the fight: in a prolonged dogfight, the F-14’s odds are extremely slim, even with a good pilot at the stick, but since the F-14’s M61 Vulcan is simply an older version of the M61A2 that newer generation aircraft carry, it’s not inconvincible for an F-14 to disable an Su-57 with a well-placed shot, the same way a Tiger I could score a mobility kill against an M1A2 that was standing still.

  • Much as Top Gun had previously done, the hostile pilots wear helmets with tinted visors. Protagonists wear clear visors simply so we can see their expressions: in reality, all helmets have tinted visors, but this is another instance of how being realistic would diminish the film’s impact, similarly to how portraying the combat performance differences between an F-14 and an Su-57 would prevent the film from telling its story. Once Maverick and Rooster realise their ruse isn’t going to work, Rooster persuades Maverick to give this fight everything he’s got.

  • Spurred on, Maverick uses the element of surprise to disable one of the Su-57’s engines, and immediately breaks off. In a moment of pure savagery, Maverick manoeuvres his F-14 so that the damaged Su-57 shields him from the other fighter’s missiles, and this results in the first of the Su-57s being taken out of the fight. With the second pilot dead-set on taking the rogue F-14 out, it’s an all-out fight. The entire scene is set to some of the tensest music I’ve heard throughout the whole of Maverick: with Hans Zimmer listed as a composer, there is no surprise that the incidental cues in the film are well-suited for the moments they accompany.

  • While motion blur means that it’s difficult for me to get good screenshots in a live-action movie, some of the stills for this post turned out quite well. This is the biggest challenge I face whenever writing about live-action; in anime, this isn’t a problem since everything is smooth. I don’t mind admitting I had a bit of difficulty in writing this post; cutting down the screenshots to a manageable number was probably the biggest challenge, and originally, while I have had the pool of screenshots and an idea of the post’s contest ready since late October, it’s taken some effort to distill everything into a post that isn’t the size of a graduate thesis.

  • One of the most thrilling moments during this dogfight happens when the Su-57 suddenly executes what appears to be a flat corkscrew. Immediately, viewers are reminded that Maverick and Rooster are dealing with a highly skilled pilot who isn’t just depending on his aircraft’s technology to get by. Maverick spots this and decides that it’s time to go for a lower altitude, claiming that the terrain will confuse their adversary’s targetting system. Assuming that the Su-57s in Maverick is carrying the R-77, this holds some truth: the R-77 is a radar-guided missile, but some versions are outfitted with infrared seekers that use radar to acquire an initial lock. By flying closer to the ground, the Su-57’s radar system is prevented from quickly acquiring its target.

  • Maverick ends up getting behind the Su-57 and uses his guns to damage its engine, causing it to crash. Only in a film could such an old aircraft stand any chance against a current-generation fighter, but it is a thrilling show of skill. In fact, the mindset of going up against a fifth generation fighter with an F-14 is equivalent to watching Graham Aker fighting the Exia to a standstill with a Flag, or seeing Char Aznable giving Amuro Ray’s RX-78 II trouble. The idea of skill being able to overcome technological disparity is a staple in fiction, offering a satisfying experience.

  • Rooster cheers after seeing the second Su-57 crash into the canyon’s ledges. Moments later, he’s able to get the radio on. Having Rooster act as Maverick’s WSO is a direct callback to the original Top Gun and shows how Maverick and Rooster have both overcome their pasts to be able to work together as a team, much as how Maverick and Goose originally had. For Maverick, Rooster has become a full-fledged pilot in his own right, while Rooster now sees why his father was able to work well with Maverick. However, even after getting in touch with the carrier, the fight’s not over yet.

  • A third Su-57 appears on their nose, and with their F-14 out of missiles, guns and countermeasures, it’s all Maverick can do to keep the fighter off them. During the dogfight, the F-14 takes a few hits. The portrayal of aircraft guns in Maverick is one of the few gripes I do have about the portrayal of things: the M61 Vulcan fires with a distinct buzzing noise rather than the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun, while the Su-57 is armed with the 30 mm GSh-30-1, which is a slower-firing autocannon that can destroy enemy aircraft in as few as three shots. The fifth generation fighters appear to fire the same guns as the F-14, and moreover, despite taking three hits, the F-14 continues to fly.

  • This is yet another moment created to maximise dramatic effect, and it is actually quite rare for movies to correctly depict aircraft guns, so I will clarify that the guns have no bearing on my overall enjoyment of the movie. Realising that there’s no other way, Maverick orders Rooster to eject, but the ejection handles are damaged and fail to fire. Having come so far, Maverick is filled with regret at not being able to protect Rooster. However, moments after the Su-57 fires one of its missiles, it’s blown out of the sky. Hangman has come to the rescue, and while he was chosen to be a reserve pilot, he ends up being given permission to sortie and cover Maverick and Rooster.

  • Although Hangman is portrayed as being arrogant and self-assured, at the end of the day, all of the TOPGUN graduates are on the same side and work towards the same goal. The rivalries between the candidates is secondary to the fact that everyone is fighting on the same team, and this is a piece of Top Gun I’ve always loved seeing: a healthy rivalry encourages growth, but when the chips are down, everyone has one another’s backs. On the topic of Hangman, Glen Powell had previously appeared as a trader in Dark Knight, and he will be starring in Devotion, which portrays naval aviators in the Korean War.

  • I’m suddenly finding myself excited to watch Devotion: the Korean War isn’t portrayed all that often in film, but it’s also a critical part of the Cold War. The film opened a week ago in North America, and I might just go catch a screening if time allows (I do have a fair amount of vacation time banked up). Failing this, I imagine that Devotion will be available for streaming in the new year. Back in Maverick, after ensuring Maverick and Rooster are okay, Hangman breaks off and heads back to the carrier for a landing. Since Maverick had broken the nose landing gear while taking off earlier, his landing will be a little trickier.

  • As a bit of a clever callback to Maverick’s tendency to buzz the tower after a successful flight, he ends up doing exactly this, causing Cyclone and Warlock to duck for cover. Previously, doing this has landed Maverick in hot water, but here in Maverick, the successful operation means that this is probably the last thing on Cyclone’s mind: all that matters is that their hit was successful, and everyone’s come back in one piece. I’ve heard that carrier landings are one of the hardest parts of being a naval aviator, and things only become more tricky if the carrier is bobbing up and down in rough waters.

  • Tom Clancy’s Threat Vector captures the details that are involved in touching down on a carrier, and through reading the novel, I became aware of the fact that aviators will prefer to increase power when touching down. This is because if the aircraft misses any of the arresting wires on deck (I think this is called a “bolter”), it has enough power to climb back into the air and try again. Of course, this beats coming in too low. Since Maverick’s experienced, and since the oceans seem quite calm, the technical aspects of a carrier landing aren’t shown; Maverick and Rooster’s return to the carrier has the same feel as returning home after a difficult drive.

  • Overall, I found myself immensely satisfied with Top Gun: Maverick, as it tells a solid, self-contained story, is respectful to its predecessor and is accessible to both old and new viewers alike. The story isn’t something that demands familiarity with the original Top Gun, but folks who’ve seen the original film will immediately appreciate all of the references made to the original movie. Moreover, despite being a film about the navy, Maverick manages to elegantly handle the matter of politics: for this movie, the biggest enemy is actually within oneself (fear and doubt), with the hostile nation and pilots acting merely as the driving force for Maverick and Rooster to overcome their inner dæmons.

  • While Maverick has been criticised for glorifying the American armed forces and acting as propaganda promoting the military’s actions, I’ve always felt that war films are simply just a highly visceral way of portraying a given theme, the same way that first person shooters are simply a game of resourcefulness and being observant. The healthy mind is able to make a distinction between fiction and reality, and here, I would argue that the themes of Maverick are actually not too different than the themes from 2015’s Creed, which saw Adonis Creed enter the ring and fight to create his own legacy with help from Rocky, who had similarly been reluctant to train Creed initially.

  • The ending of Maverick does prompt the question of whether or not Top Gun will continue in any way: Miles Teller has expressed interest in a follow-up film, and given the quality of Maverick, I am curious to see what such a film would entail. On the flipside, Maverick is successful mainly because it tells a self-contained story that respectfully wraps up elements from the original Top Gun, and a continuation is not strictly necessary simply because Maverick closes things off on such a decisive note.

  • Observant readers may have noticed that in my screenshots, letterboxes appear in some stills, but are absent in others. This is because the action scenes were filmed in IMAX, which allow more to be shown. For dialogue scenes, the aspect ratio is a standard 21:9. The hybrid approach allows a film’s most critical moments to completely immerse viewers, and admittedly, this can make for some inconsistencies in a screen-shot heavy review: when I wrote about Dark Knight Rises back during the summer, I elected to go purely with the IMAX stills.

  • However, this had also been because that particular post was an unconventional discussion. For Top Gun: Maverick, a more ordinary review, I utilise a mixture of stills so I have a chance to cover all of the thoughts on my mind. I admit that my talks can be on the long side, but this is primarily a consequence of a given work providing a lot to consider. For readers in a rush, reading the paragraphs will give a complete insight into what I make of something; the figure captions are meant to provide various thoughts, trivia and asides.

  • With this in mind, I’m not about to change the way I blog: I believe that celebrating fiction and what one enjoys is best achieved by being thorough. While lengthier posts can be discouraging to readers, I contend that this is a matter of UX. This is why my posts are structured the way they are. Everything important, I provide up top, and then I use the screenshots and figure captions to talk about details that are not relevant to the more important topics. The conclusion at the end then sums up my personal thoughts and allows me to speculate on what future directions look like, or otherwise address elements that aren’t quite as important to readers.

  • It goes without saying that Maverick was a superbly enjoyable film for me, and having now written about the film in full, I am filled with an inclination to go back and revisit both Project Wingman and Ace Combat 7. I am glad to have taken the time to lay down what made the movie so entertaining for me, and while Maverick does seem far removed from my typical predisposition for slice-of-life anime, it is always fun to branch out and explore different forms of media every so often.

  • Since Maverick opened with Maverick working on his vintage P-51, I’ll conclude this post with a screenshot of him taking it out for a flight with Penny. This just about brings this talk on Top Gun: Maverick to a close. This is going to be my last post of November; I was originally planning on writing about Itsuka Ano Umi de, but production issues shook things up somewhat. Entering December, readers can expect more posts on Yama no Susume: Next Summit, a few special topics posts, and my thoughts on Itsuka Ano Umi de once the fourth episode airs. Before any of that, however, I do have a talk on Battlefield 2042‘s third season lined up. The game’s come a very long way since last year, and the latest additions make the game feel like a proper Battlefield title.

There is a reason why Top Gun: Maverick is 2022’s top movie – the themes are inspiring, the flight sequences are phenomenal, and elements from the original Top Gun make a return. Unsurprisingly, it is 2022’s highest grossing film, and the film is nearly universally acclaimed. However, when Netorabo’s Hinataka suggests that the Yuru Camp△ Movie surpasses even Maverick in terms of enjoyment in their review of the former, eyebrows are raised – Hinataka doesn’t explain what specifically about the Yuru Camp△ Movie makes it the superior film. Both films, despite their radically different premises, actually share quite a bit in common. The Yuru Camp△ Movie and Top Gun: Maverick both are set some time after their original, deal with an ongoing assignment that requires Maverick, Chiaki and their respective teams to pull through and get things done in creative ways, and similarly see the return of an iconic piece from their original works (in the Yuru Camp△ Movie, Rin’s Yamaha Vino makes a comeback, and in Top Gun: Maverick, Maverick and Rooster steal an F-14). However, whereas the Yuru Camp△ Movie is a highly cathartic experience which gently reminds viewers of what it means to be an adult, Top Gun: Maverick is meant to be a thrilling and inspiring adventure that shows viewers what leadership and trust look like. The two films are quite different in this regard, and where the Yuru Camp△ Movie is meant to portray its story in a relatable context, Top Gun: Maverick uses a much more dramatic story to convey its themes in order to fire up viewers. As a result, Top Gun: Maverick is endlessly quotable, and scenes from the film are endlessly rewatchable. The Yuru Camp△ Movie reminds me of the fact that I’m probably conducting myself in a reasonable manner, but Top Gun: Maverick shows me one vivid example of what leadership looks like. In conjunction with the fact that I’m rewatching moments like Maverick flying the course in the two minutes and fifteen seconds, or managing to take on a pair of Su-57s in an F-14, on a daily basis, and making bad jokes about real life situations with lines from Top Gun: Maverick, it is clear that the two movies cannot be compared side-by-side as Hinataka does. Consequently, in response to Hinataka’s comment, I would counter that Top Gun: Maverick isn’t “surpassed” by the Yuru Camp△ Movie in any way, and in fact, I would suggest to readers that both movies are worth watching on the basis of their own distinct merits.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown- Flying Up So High With The Superplanes and Remarks on Balancing Power with Experience

“It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot” –Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Top Gun: Maverick

As players became increasingly proficient in Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, they would slowly progress towards unlocking the Erusean-made X-02 Wyvern and Gründer Industries’ ADF-01 Falken, two of the most powerful aircraft in the game. The unlock requirements for both aircraft are steep: the Wyvern is earned by buying at least one of every other aircraft in the game, while the Falken is unlocked by destroying five special hangars hidden throughout the campaign missions, and then on top of this, earning enough currency to buy the aircraft. The efforts in doing so, however, were quickly apparent; the Wyvern and Falken are both incredibly manoeuverable, allowing players to accelerate and decelerate with ease, turn on a dime and maintain a bead on other foes thanks to its impressive handling. These planes excel in very specific roles: the Wyvern equips advanced long-range AA missiles that can lock onto four targets at once at long ranges and is capable of destroying entire squadrons at once, while the Falken’s iconic tactical laser torched anything it touched on short order. Being the most capable aircraft in The Unsung War, I’ve longed to fly both the Wyvern and Falken. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown‘s Season Pass offers instant access to these aircraft on top of three additional campaign missions: representing a chance to realise a dream I’ve had since I was in middle school, I picked up the content and immediately found myself with Skies Unknown‘s most powerful aircraft. At that point, I’d already completed the campaign once, so I was already familiar with the mechanics, and upon hopping into the game, it became clear as to why these superplanes were included into the game. Besides being a nostalgic callback to earlier titles, the superplanes live up to their reputation as the most advanced aircraft available to players. However, while The Unsung War required players to earn access to these veritable game-changers, Skies Unknown had made these planes available to anyone with a credit card. At first glance, this diminished the thrill of having the superplanes, since next to no effort needed to be spent in-game to earn them, but looking back, Skies Unknown perfectly balances their aircraft out so that players aren’t given an overwhelming advantage merely because they could buy the DLC.

While the Falken, Morgen and Raven are exceptional aircraft with excellent handling traits, far above those of the other aircraft available in Skies Unknown, their base weapon performance remains unaffected. One must still master dogfighting and aerial manoeuvres to enter a position where they can shoot down their targets. The planes still share the same limitations as other aircraft in that one can only carry a single special weapon with them at a time, and weapons still require a certain amount of knowledge to use effectively. The Raven has unlimited pulse lasers as its gun, but pulse lasers are blocked by moisture, leaving one without a good close-quarters tool if their foes should fly into a cloud. Bringing a tactical laser into a mission with large numbers of ground targets, or wasting a multi-purpose burst missile on an F-16 is unsound. It becomes clear that, while the superplanes are a cut above the other planes available to players in Skies Unknown, their efficacy is determined by one’s ability to operate the plane and understand what its weapons are configured to do. In practise, an inexperienced player will not perform well with a superplane in a given mission, whereas a skillful player will always find ways of making a less-than-optimal aircraft successful. This parallels reality, where having the most top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art tools do not make a difference to anywhere nearly the same extent as having the experience and know-how of how to approach a problem. For instance, the average Macbook is likely used as a note-taking machine that doubles as a great way of watching Netflix, but in the hands of an iOS developer, that same Macbook can be used to debug and compile apps that have a tangible real-world impact. This is why the line from Top Gun: Maverick, is so applicable: as important as it is to have excellent tools, this alone doesn’t mean anything unless one also knows how to utilise their toolset fully. In tuning the superplanes so that they reward skilled players but otherwise don’t offer novice players an overwhelming advantage, Skies Unknown has done a fantastic job of incorporating real-world lessons into its mechanics. Having the Falken, Raven or Morgen isn’t going to make this game any easier, but for players who’ve beaten Skies Unknown and are yearning to fly their favourite superplanes from earlier titles, the Morgen, Raven and Falken are a superb way of seeing iconic planes brought out into the present.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • The last time I wrote about Ace Combat 7, it was almost three years ago: 2020 had just arrived, and I’d been looking to the new decade with optimism. At the time, the startup I was with was amidst a push to complete a version two of our app, and while the seed money had run out, investors had expressed that, contingent on us producing an app that had a very clear business case, they would be willing to commit to Series A funding. At that point in time, I’d been a few endpoints short of a working app, and I vividly remember struggling with the Facebook API, as well as integrating the Stripe workflow through their SDK.

  • It wasn’t until February that I had a complete app: the founder had been extremely pleased with the completed app and investors had been quite confident this app would be a strong foundation for scaling the business up. However, right at this time, the global health crisis had finally hit. At the beginning of the new year, I had heard of a virulent new coronavirus strain that was wrecking havoc halfway across the world, but once it arrived here, everything suddenly shut down. I certainly had no idea this would happen when I played through and wrote my thoughts on Skies Unknown‘s DLC at the time.

  • Since then, I’d not returned to Ace Combat, but recently, after watching Top Gun: Maverick, I suddenly found myself with a desire to fly awesome aircraft around again. I’d beaten Project Wingman earlier this year, and it hit me that both games, because of their unique approaches towards the air combat experience, had their own merits. In Ace Combat, limited special weapons and more forgiving missiles means players are made to be mindful of their choice of aircraft, as well as how they approach a mission given its parameters. Project Wingman lets players run with up to three special weapon types, but on the flipside, has less mission variety.

  • After beating Skies Unknown, I quickly replayed the campaign a second time so I could earn the funds needed to unlock the X-02 Strike Wyvern. This was Mihaly’s aircraft during the campaign, and until the first DLC was launched, this was the only superplane available to players. The road to the Strike Wyvern is similar to how one unlocked the Wyvern in The Unsung War, and when unlocked, the Strike Wyvern provides players with a then-unsurpassed platform. For me, I immediately chose to unlock the electromagnetic launcher for the Strike Wyvern.

  • With its variable-geometry design, the Strike Wyvern proved to be a highly versatile aircraft best suited for anti-air missions. It is capable of running with a long-range anti-ship missiles or multiple lock-on missiles, giving it some options. Having now played The Unsung War, I found that the option to pick a special weapon meant being able to wield a plane in a greater range of mission types. For my revisit of Skies Unknown, I ran the Strike Wyvern with the electromagnetic launcher: this is the ultimate skill weapon and is devastating against individual targets when a shot connects.

  • Having not played Ace Combact for some time, I decided to ease back into things by flying the first mission, where I’d utilise the electromagnetic launcher against the slow-flying bombers. While the electromagnetic launchers aren’t as flashy as the Cordium railguns of Project Wingman, they are still fun to use, and here, I land a kill against a bomber. I’d forgotten how blue the skies of Ace Combat 7 were on this first mission: one of the great joys about any flight game is that it allows one to soar into the skies without needing to book a plane ticket.

  • Next, I decided to run with the ADFX-01 Morgan. The first of the superplanes developed by Gründer Industries, the Morgan was designed purely for firepower and foregoes stealth. In-universe, lore states that Belka originally intended to use the Morgan, but Osean forces ended up capturing a prototype. The Oseans never did develop their own equivalent, and in subsequent years, Gründer Industries would build the ADF-01 Falken from data acquired during the Morgan’s development. Designed to carry an unwieldy tactical laser, the Morgan’s manoeuverability is reduced to minimise strain on the airframe, although the Morgan can also be outfitted with the powerful multi-purpose burst missiles.

  • However, the Morgan’s most powerful weapon lies in its Integrated Electronic Warfare System (IEWS): when activated, this simultaneously provides ECM and electronics support to both the Morgan and nearby allies. It becomes difficult for enemies to lock onto the Morgan or nearby allied aircraft, and similarly, one’s missiles can lock on much more quickly. While equipping the IEWS precludes the addition of more specialised weapons, the tradeoff means that one’s basic weapons are augmented to a considerable extent.

  • The IEWS represents another tool that enhances a skilled player’s ability further: special weapons in Ace Combat are meant to make specific tasks, like hitting multiple ground targets, or neutralising an enemy squadron from afar before they can get into dogfighting range, easier, so forgoing these weapons in favour of making the basic missiles and gun work better represents a commitment to the basics. This double-edged sword is reminiscent of how, after missiles were introduced, pilots lost their ability to dogfight and found themselves at a disadvantage when aircraft stopped carrying an integral auto-cannon.

  • By 1968, aircraft loses were mounting, and the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme was established to produce pilots that could operate with all aspects of their aircraft, including dogfighting. The programme, better known as TOPGUN, yielded dramatic results; the kill-to-loss ratio improved drastically on subsequent sorties. As a bit of trivia, it turns out that TOPGUN students are fined five dollars every time they reference the Top Gun film: the actual TOP GUN programme is about leadership and professionalism, and the film is fiction, so making light of the programme can be seen as an insult of sorts.

  • When I picked up the season pass back in December 2019, I immediately set about flying the Falken, using it in the first of the DLC missions. The Falken is my favourite of the superplanes: with excellent all-around statistics, its The Unsung War incarnation had a tactical laser so powerful even a momentary, glancing hit against a foe would destroy them. Here in Skies Unknown, the tactical laser on the Falken has been dialed back compared to its original appearance for balance reasons. However, the Falken’s laser is still more powerful than the lasers that the other aircraft could equip.

  • Bringing the Falken to defend the 444th Air Base was plainly overkill: when I originally played this mission, I believe I was flying a MiG-21 outfitted with the gun pods. At the time, I’d just started Skies Unknown and didn’t have access to parts for bolstering my aircraft’s performance, so I reasoned that having additional gun pods would help me keep up with the enemy bombers. The mission had, admittedly, given quite a bit of trouble, although in the end, I was able to pull things off. Returning with the Falken made the mission trivially easy: with the parts for extending the tactical laser’s hitbox and duration, I was able to destroy bomber groups before they could even see the base.

  • While it’s easy to attribute the mission’s reduced difficulty to the fact that the Falken is considerably more powerful than the MiG-21, the fact is that I’ve also got more experience in using the aircraft of Ace Combat by this point in time. This is where the choice of page quote comes from: what one can achieve ultimately boils down to their skill and experience. This definitely holds true in reality, and my example about the MacBook Pro is one I have personal experience with: when I entered my first year as a university student, some of my old high school classmates were quite smug about how they were running the best MacBook Pro of the time in their courses, letting them take notes faster and use social media more efficiently than their peers who didn’t have the latest and greatest tech.

  • I stuck to my old-fashioned approach of taking notes by hand, and by my fourth year, during a research symposium, I borrowed one of my lab’s MacBook Pros to do a demo. Said classmates had seen my presentation and had been gobsmacked that it was possible to create and run a full renal system visualisation on the same machines they’d been running. I remarked that this was made possible by the fact that the game engine running my model had been built by exceptionally skilled people, and that with an active imagination and creativity, one will find their machines can always pleasantly surprise them. Since four years had passed, my classmates had matured, and were amazed that technology could accomplish impressive things.

  • While I take considerable pride in achieving my goals with whatever tools are available to me, I won’t say no to a hardware upgrade, either: being able to do my job more effectively is something I always welcome, and I will note that good hardware is the difference between night and day. I primarily do my work on a company 2019 model MacBook Pro nowadays, but for my own side projects, I work off a 2017 iMac. The aging hardware is quite noticeable now: Xcode is considerably slower to compile apps and run the iOS simulator. However, because these side projects are for my own edification more than anything, I don’t see a particular need to upgrade my iMac just yet.

  • The last of the superplanes that came with the season pass is the ADF-11F Raven, an evolution of the ADF series. Originally an unmanned aircraft, the DLC gives players a manned version they can pilot, and despite its bulky airframe, it shares similar handling traits to the Falken. For my test-run of this aircraft, I decided to fly the mission to defend Stonehenge and decided to equip the tactical laser. Having said this, the Raven’s best weapon is the UCAV, autonomous drones armed with pulse lasers that function similarly to DRAGOONS, Bits and Funnels.

  • To ensure things are balanced, the Raven can only send out two UCAV’s at once. Were one able to send out eight UCAVs at the same time, the Raven would become as overpowered as a Gundam, and there’d be no challenge at all to the game. Similarly, were Ace Combat to allow the same approach as Project Wingman, in allowing players to carry additional special weapons into the skies, the balance would be gone. While Project Wingman‘s approach increases combat versatility dramatically and make the ordinary aircraft capable of adapting to different scenarios, the end result of this is that the game’s ultimate aircraft, the PW Mk.I, becomes obscenely powerful.

  • I am looking to write about my experiences with Project Wingman‘s best aircraft in a separate post, since it completely alters the way one plays the game. Having said this, it would be interesting to see if the upcoming Ace Combat title will expand aircraft customisation options and potentially allow players to carry a second special weapon type at the expense of bringing performance-improving parts. In such a scenario, there could be a set of special weapons all aircraft could equip (such as the Mark 81 or Mark 82 unguided bombs, 70 mm rocket pods and missile variants, such as high-velocity missiles that sacrifice explosive payload, or high-impact missiles that sacrifice speed). One could then select these additional weapons in place of upgrade parts to increase their firepower.

  • I do not imagine that the next Ace Combat title will allow this, since Ace Combat games have traditionally emphasised the idea that certain planes are more suited for some roles than others, and this encouraged players to mix up their planes in a mission to achieve the goals more effectively. For me, the Stonehenge defensive mission with the Raven proved quite manageable: on my original run, I flew an F/A-18C and found success by prioritising targets on the ground. Having now returned to Skies Unknown and replaying some missions, I am reminded of how much fun I had when going through this game three years ago.

  • I am therefore curious to see what the next Ace Combat title entails; at present, there is no information on what story this game will tell, but excitement is high because of Unreal Engine 5, which has proven exceptional in tech demos. In the meantime, having found newfound engagement with Ace Combat 7, I will be looking to pick up the Top Gun DLC when there’s a sale: I thoroughly enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick, and the opportunity to fly the Darkstar hypersonic aircraft, Pete Mitchell’s custom F/A18E and equip the Rooster and Hangman emblems would be quite entertaining. This might perhaps incentivise me to revisit the entire Skies Unknown campaign again. Until then, all eyes are on the Modern Warfare II campaign. While the game is going to cost 90 CAD, the trailers for it have been very promising, and if the play-throughs I see of it instill sufficient excitement, I anticipate picking up Modern Warfare II shortly after launch and making my way through the campaign early November.

In practise, being the earliest of the ADFX prototypes, the Morgan is the weaker of the superplanes. Its tactical laser has a six-second recharge, but on the flipside, it is able to carry the obscenely powerful multi-purpose burst missile, which I’d previously used to destroy the Alicorn’s weapons and structures in the DLC missions. The Raven’s special weapons and performance make it an immensely powerful dogfighter, and its drones are able to make short work of the targets its assigned to. Moreover, it was one of the few planes that had the pulse lasers as its gun. In situations where there isn’t much cloud cover, the Raven can decimate aircraft without expending its missiles. On the other hand, the Falken is probably the most versatile of the superplanes; it has the most effective tactical laser of any aircraft (signified by the fact that the beam is blue, rather than pink), and it is capable of carrying the fuel-air bomb, whose large blast radius makes it suited for missions with an anti-ground focus. Finally, the Strike Wyvern, Skies Unknown‘s upgraded version of the Wyvern, lives up to its role as a plane for aces: beyond a weaker anti-ground rating, it shares similar performance statistics as the Falken, and its most powerful weapon, the electromagnetic launcher, demands utmost precision because it fires projectiles at hypersonic velocities. Unlike the tactical laser, which can be directed to focus on a target after it’s begun firing, the electromagnetic launcher only fires individual rounds, so one must be certain of their aim before pulling the trigger. In the hands of a capable pilot, any one of these superplanes will deal a significant amount of damage: each represents a novel way of experience Skies Unknown to the point where it is a worthwhile exercise to revisit the campaign with these new aircraft and see how far one has come, both in terms of their skill and the tools available to them, once they’ve completed the campaign. Of course, having finally returned to Skies Unknown after two years, and with the recent release of the Top Gun: Maverick accompaniment DLC, I am now intrigued to fly the Darkstar, a superplane that is capable reaching a top speed twice that of the Raven, along with Pete Mitchell’s custom F/A-18 and the fifth-generation fighters seen in this film. Top Gun: Maverick was a superbly gripping film that, in my eyes, surpasses even the original to deliver an unparalleled movie-going experience, and in doing so, revitalised my enjoyment of the Ace Combat and Project Wingman games.

Project Wingman: Reflections on A Virtual Reality Experience

“VR is so immersive, and when it works, it draws you into the story in a way that is truly unique and powerful.” –Doug Liman

When Project Wingman is launched in VR mode with Oculus Link, and one is in possession of an Oculus Quest, the resulting experience is unparalleled – Project Wingman was developed with virtual reality in mind, and unlike Ace Combat 7, offers full support for every mission in the game, from the opening mission to the final duel against Crimson One. Within moments of donning the headset, I found myself immersed fully in the Cascadian conflict. While I was lacking a dedicated HOTAS or even a controller, muscle memory allowed me to utilise my keyboard for flight, Upon entering my first mission, I found that the ability to shoulder check and freely look around may seem extraneous, this ability soon became an integral part of my gameplay as I look around to keep an eye on enemy fighters and missiles on my six. Behind the cockpit of a multi-million dollar combat aircraft, surrounded by panels of sophisticated controls, the landscape surrounds me as I fight to keep my gunsights trained on an enemy fighter. A short burst of 20mm cannon fire later, my foe detonates, and I fly through the wreckage. Although I know it’s a simulation, for a fraction of a second, I faintly feel the flash of heat from the explosion. However, there’s no time to celebrate the kill – my warning indicator lights up, and I glance down at the radar. A bogey has just launched a missile straight at me. I immediately bleed off my speed and break left. To my surprise, I’m not experiencing motion sickness: I’m comfortably seated, and my eyes are on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later, the mission’s completed: the Cascadians have finished evacuating Presidia, and I take the headset off, thoroughly impressed with just how smooth everything was. I’ve long been looking for an arcade air combat simulator for my headset, and while the Oculus Quest’s app store did come with a wide range of apps, the most impressive of which is SUPERHOT, I’ve longed for a chance to fly the skies, Ace Combat style. No dedicated app offering this specific experience exists for the Oculus Quest, and while there are some apps that come close, their experience feels decidedly limited. As such, Project Wingman‘s VR capabilities and Oculus Quest represents a chance to see what an arcade air combat experience is like – it is a gripping experience that takes things up a notch, to the point where one could say that it is the next best thing to Top Gun.

Virtual Reality technology has always represented a curious subset in video gaming – the technology had gained a resurgence of interest when Oculus VR launched a Kickstarter to build a virtual reality headset in 2012. The concept of virtual reality is not new: Sega VR had been exploring VR technology back in 1991, but primitive display technologies meant that they never took off. Oculus wasn’t doing anything particularly novel, but they had come during a time when displays were beginning to approach a point where they could render sharp images with a refresh rate approaching the limit of what the mind can perceive. Their early device was cumbersome and unwieldy, being little more than two screens strapped to one’s face. By 2015, the second iteration of the Oculus Rift had improved the resolution and refresh rate, making it a viable tool for experimental use. As a graduate student, I utilised the DK2 to create a 3D environment for my biological visualisations as a part of my thesis work, and towards the end of my programme, I would attend a Virtual Reality conference in Laval, France. Here, I had the chance to try the HTC Vive – this headset was leaps and bounds ahead of the Oculus Rift in capabilities. With room-tracking cameras, the headset was able to reliably respond to controller movements, and the high-resolution display allowed me to play something like Arizona Sunshine with ease. However, the drawback was that setup was especially cumbersome: one needed an entire room to set the environment up for usage, and the headset still needed to be tethered to a computer. Both Oculus and Valve would come up with competing headsets for use in the coming years, but Oculus would pull ahead with their revolutionary Oculus Quest, a wireless headset that came with built-in room tracking cameras. The Quest represented a major leap in the technology, and in practise, it proved to improve accessibility to VR in a way previous headsets could not – one was no longer tethered to a computer, and while lacking in processing power (the Quest has its own onboard hardware rather than counting on a computer’s hardware), it offered unparalleled freedom. While unable to play more demanding games on its own, the Oculus Quest opened VR up in new ways. When Oculus Link was introduced, this was the final piece of the puzzle in making VR accessible in an unprecedented way: one uses their desktop to stream the video feed over to their device wirelessly, providing the best of both worlds. Being able to play Project Wingman this easily shows how far the technology has come in a decade, and while we’re still a long way from the NerveGear in Sword Art Online, at the very least, I can now fulfil a childhood fantasy of hopping into the cockpit of a warplane and blowing stuff up with it, just like in movies such as Top Gun.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • What both Ace Combat and Project Wingman do particularly well is the reproduction of details in all of the different cockpits for each of the aircraft available in their respective games. When playing in VR mode, Project Wingman understandably locks players into the cockpit view. Previously, I only played Ace Combat and Project Wingman in third-person mode, since that allows me to maintain a better awareness of my surroundings and respond to threats more effectively.

  • Sitting in the cockpit itself gave me an idea of how much spatial awareness pilots need to have: parts of the canopy can block one’s view of the airspace, and this was actually no different than when I first learnt how to drive: in video games, I have a much greater sense of comfort when playing in third person, and first person feels really constraining. Over time, one does end up learning tricks for estimating, with great consistency, where their vehicle is. However, my experience is with cars, rather than combat aircraft, and it did take some getting used to.

  • Remaining inside the cockpit made me appreciate the designs of certain cockpits over others, and here, I attempted a mission with the F/E-18, which has a relatively spacious canopy and good visibility. The frame around the HUD is light, so I can see more of the area in front of me. When I played my first mission, I crashed into a ground target because I’d grossly miscalculated my position: from a third person perspective, I can see clearly where my plane is, but this information is absent from a first-person perspective.

  • Once I got used to deriving information off the HUD and looking around, flying became much easier, and I really got to appreciate the subtle details that were placed into Project Wingman. When one flies through clouds or rain, water droplets and streaks appear on the canopy. They’re actually visible in this screenshot here, and similarly, sharp-eyed readers might also spot reflections from inside the cockpit in an earlier screenshot, as well. Similarly, small scratches can be seen on the canopy itself: these details first appeared in Battlefield 3 and impressed players greatly, showcasing just how much the Frostbite Engine was capable of rendering.

  • For my VR experience, I’ve chosen to play the earlier missions, where dogfights are less intense, and therefore, less likely to induce motion sickness – against Crimson One, there’s a plethora of aerobatics one needs to pull off in order to survive, and this might be a little much to handle for me – the most intense VR experience I’ve had until now was SUPERHOT VR, which has players stand in-place. While seated in a comfortable chair, and with my eyes focused on the horizon, things haven’t been too bad, but making sharp-turns and loops could be quite taxing.

  • For my second mission, I’ve gone with the F/D-14. The visibility in the cockpit is reduced compared to that of the F/E-18 because the frame is larger, and this makes it tougher to spot foes directly ahead. Seeing the complexity in each cockpit is a reminder of how much training it takes to effectively operate combat aircraft – video games are able to abstract out everything into a few buttons on a keyboard, or a HOTAS, because modern aircraft are designed so that most of the plane’s functions can be done without the pilot ever taking their hands off the throttle and main control stick.

  • The remainder of the switches and buttons are analogue circuit breakers for manually restarting systems that are a part of the aircraft, operate the landing gear, and communications equipment. Similarly to cars, aircraft have gauges for things like airspeed, altitude, turn coordination, fuel levels and the like, while more advanced aircraft have what are known as a glass cockpit and display the information on screens. The sheer sophistication in aircraft mean that a flight simulator for aircraft can cost tens of millions per unit, and even the most advanced flight simulator games cannot match the real deal in terms of detail.

  • Much as how first person shooters reduce the act of reloading a firearm to pressing the “R” button, arcade air combat games simplify controls significantly so players can immerse themselves in the story. I admit that operating every switch and button will be overwhelming, but having spent the past eight years playing Wolfire’s Receiver, being made to be mindful of every single step in reloading a handgun made me appreciate how much complexity there is in everything.

  • This would in turn heighten my awareness that every occupation has its nuances: this is why I tend to be understanding of mistakes that are occasionally made. There is exactly one occupation I do not count to be meritorious of this respect, but I will leave it to readers to determine what exactly this is, and back in Project Wingman, I remark that the single toughest part about the cockpit-only view was that it was tricky to keep an eye on my aircraft’s status: normally, I have an entire HUD that gives me all of the information I need at a glance.

  • Inside the cockpit, everything is condensed onto the HUD UI, and the biggest piece of information I found less accessible was the hull integrity. Ironically, while I tend to take more damage in VR than I otherwise would, I’ve never actually crashed or been shot down yet – I imagine that this would be quite terrifying. A subconscious fear of having this happen meant I flew with more caution than I otherwise would, which was a nice touch.

  • While I’ve yet to unlock every aircraft in Project Wingman, I now have most of the planes available to players early on, including the MG-29. In most arcade air combat games, I tend to go with American planes owing to their familiarity, and because American aircraft are built with survivability in mind. This means that compared to their Russian equivalents, American aircraft are generally superior in weapons capabilities, ergonomics and maintainability. By comparison, Russian jets emphasise durability and ease-of-production. In-game, these differences are not quite as apparent, but overall, I would probably be more comfortable behind an American fighter.

  • Project Wingman‘s MG-29, the in-game equivalent of the MiG-29, is a solid all-around fighter for the mid-game, with good performance in all of its categories and providing hardpoints for a mix of air and ground weapons. I ended up kitting the MG-29 out with multiple lock-on anti-air missiles here to simplify things – in practise, while being able to carry a good mix of weapons means having versatility for missions one has no knowledge of, once a player has finished the game, one can begin tuning their loadouts and optimise it for the mission at hand.

  • The deep blue skies in Project Wingman never grow old for me, and while missions give the most in terms of excitement, like Ace CombatProject Wingman also offers a free flight mode where one can fly around a map without the demands of shooting down enemy forces. Free flight modes are the single most enjoyable way of enjoying VR, and one can completely kick back without worrying about being shot down. In the absence of any foes, small details in the map can be appreciated.

  • One other thing I particularly enjoyed in VR was flying through explosions after gunning down enemy aircraft. In real life, one would never fly into a wreckage: pieces of fuselage can damage one’s airframe with the same viciousness as an exploding missile or 20 mm rounds. Project Wingman excels in this area – wreckage can one-shot players, and I found this out the hard way when playing through the game for the first time. To avoid this, I tend to bank and move away from destroyed aircraft now as a reflex: Project Wingman‘s lack of checkpoints makes the game very unforgiving.

  • With a VR headset, flying above the clouds and seeing the deep blue skies above felt even more immersive than it had when playing Project Wingman conventionally. When on an airplane, I’m particularly fond of looking at the scenery below and wondering what a routine would look like for the folks on the ground. On the ground, it’s also fun to gaze skyward and wonder what destination a plane is headed towards.

  • In reality, I’m not a big fan of flying because the lower cabin pressure causes some discomfort for my stomach – in recent years, I’ve taken to drinking flat beverages like water and apple juice, which has a tangible difference. VR eliminates this and lets me to enjoy flying without those challenges. Here, I’m rocking the Sk.25U for the assault on the communications facility. Thanks to the Gulf War, deserts are synonymous with ground attack missions, and while Project Wingman has no A-10 Thunderbold, the Su-25 Frogfoot offers an equivalent experience; strafing ground targets with its cannon is immensely satisfying.

  • The weather and lighting conditions in this mission is reminiscent of the weather in Calgary during the summer – back in March, I wrote of wishing to experience this mission on a hot summer’s day. However, I’ve not yet played this mission on a day where the thermometer rose above 25ºC; since the move, I’ve been busy capitalising on the weather to take walks around the new neighbourhood, visiting the local mall or browsing books at the local bookstore. I will likely revisit this mission on a day when I’ve finished tending to the housework, and it’s a shade too hot to be out and about.

  • At this time last year, we’d broken several temperature records as a result of the heat dome that had settled over interior British Columbia. The temperatures reached 35ºC, and I vividly recall heading out to get my second Pfizer dose under sunny skies. After taking the vaccine, I became quite tired and proceeded to spend a quiet Canada Day resting up. This year, heat is less of a concern; it’s been relatively mild in my neck of the woods, and the hottest days so far have been quite comfortable.

  • Having said this, the new place is a ways better equipped to deal with heat: we have air conditioning for when things get really hot, but the first line of defense is the fact that we have energy-efficient windows, which prevent radiant heat transfer. Because air conditioning is very power consuming, we’ll likely leave it off except for days where things rise above 32ºC, and for now, I am rather looking forwards to playing this mission on the sort of day where I could look outside and see identical weather from my window as I do on my screen.

  • We’re rapidly approaching the end of June now, and this means Machikado Mazkoku: 2-Chōme will be wrapping up. I will be writing about what my thoughts are for this series before the summer season kicks off. The Steam Summer Sale is also under way now, and while I’ve hit a sort of gaming saturation, a few smaller games have caught my eye. I am looking to purchase Routine FeatFirewatch and Симулятор Одиночества В Русской Деревне (“Simulator of Loneliness in a Russian Village”): my interest in these loneliness simulators comes from the fact that these act as very cathartic experiences that stand worlds apart from my usual games.

Having finished Project Wingman back in April, I’d unlocked about a third of all the aircraft. However, I’ve not even touched the conquest mode yet, which is where the fun is supposed to really begin in Project Wingman. Before I look into conquest mode, I aim to unlock all of the aircraft – of note is the PW-Mk.I, Project Wingman‘s super-plane, and the SP-34R, a fighter equipped only with guns. If the description for these aircraft are to be believed, these aircraft would fundamentally change the way one plays Project Wingman and turns Monarch, already a fearsome pilot, into an unstoppable monster. The developers have indicated that they are looking at adding more aircraft into Project Wingman, and even working in previously unfinished missions. New content for a game is always exciting, and I’ve long found that the promise of new content is always an incentive to finish things up so one has a clean slate for when an update does become available. Beyond this, it would be nice to cut my teeth with the conquest mode: this mode is supposed to be endlessly replayable and is a true test of a player’s skills. It is clear that there is no shortage of things to do in Project Wingman, and having now tried the VR mode out, I am quite impressed with how well things work. Beyond the initial work of opening Oculus Link, connecting my headset and then running Project Wingman for Oculus, the game runs out of the box without further effort. Project Wingman thus sets the bar for what Project Aces must accomplish with their next Ace Combat title – unlike Project Wingman, which was developed by three people and a budget of around a hundred thousand dollars, Project Aces has teams of talented developers and millions in budget. There isn’t really an excuse that VR levels need additional resources and effort to craft, now that we’ve seen how games can be made to work flawlessly in both traditional screens and with VR headsets. This represents a very exciting possibility, and at present, the anticipation for both Project Wingman‘s update and a new Ace Combat title is tangible.

Project Wingman: Dethroning Crimson One and Avenging the Fallen At The Endgame

“They say it was three men.”
“Bullshit. How could three men do this?”

―Radio Chatter in Kaffarov, Battlefield 3

With the Federation’s supply routes in disarray, Cascadian forces move to retake their capital city, Presidia, before the occupying Federation forces have a chance to fortify their positions. The Cascadians launch a joint operation with Sicario, swiftly destroying their air forces over the city. Meanwhile, the Eminent Domain takes on the Federation fleet stationed in Presidia’s port. Hitman team assists the Cascadian forces in sinking the Federation fleet, and, having now established both air supremacy and neutralising whatever naval forces remain, the Cascadian ground forces capitalise on the chaos to advance and capture strategic locations. The Federation forces find themselves pushed back to the Port Authority building, but before they can be surrounded, the Federation government manages to negotiate a ceasefire with Cascadia. Cascadian forces are ordered to stand down and allow Federaation soldiers to evacuate, bringing an end to the war. However, some Federation forces refuse to accept this, and collaborate with the now-rogue Crimson One to detonate Cordium warheads throughout Presidia. The entire city is levelled, and along with it, the whole of the Cascadian navy is sunk. Piloting the experimental PW-Mk.I, Crimson One engages Monarch in a mano-a-mano duel. Driven mad by the loss of his squadron and the resulting damage to his pride, Crimson One attempts to utilise the PW-Mk.I’s overwhelming arsenal in a bid to kill Monarch. Despite being outmatched technologically, Monarch manages to evade Crimson One’s weapons and deals enough damage to the PW-MK.I’s Cordium engines, causing the plane to explode and kill Crimson One. Before he dies, Crimson One warns Monarch of his own mortality. Although Cascadia ultimately wins the war and inspires other nations to secede from the Federation, much of their own nation now lies in ruin, and the survivors must grapple with the millions of casualties resulting from Crimson One’s final act of defiance. Monarch lives to fight another day, although the cost of this operation lingers long after Monarch downs Crimson One in a titanic battle of one-sided indifference. With this, Project Wingman‘s campaign comes to a close, and I was left with an unparalleled experience, one that speaks both to the capabilities of Sector D2’s excellence and the Unreal Engine.

Having now beaten Project Wingman, it becomes clear that this game is the ultimate love letter to Ace Combat, albeit with several critical changes. In three key areas, Project Wingman actually surpasses Ace Combat. The first of these is the weapons and loadouts that are possible. Aircraft are permitted up to three special weapons in some cases, greatly expending their versatility. Ace Combat limited players to only a single special weapon type per aircraft, and this in turn made aircraft highly specialised of a certain role. If a plane could only carry anti-ship missiles, it would only be valuable on missions with anti-fleet operations. Similarly, carrying a tactical laser would reduce one’s ability to shoot down larger numbers of individually weak foes. Project Wingman has no such limitation: one can carry a mixture of weapons for anti-air and anti-ground combat alike, allowing them to remain effective in any situation. For instance, were a player to fly a fighter into a mission with large numbers of ground targets, having bombs would provide an additional option beyond the standard missiles. The guns in Project Wingman are also better thought-out compared to their Ace Combat counterparts; the integral cannons are more powerful, but different planes actually come with distinctly different cannon types. Most planes come with the M61 Vulcan or an equivalent 20 mm cannon, but the Sk.25U is equipped with a 30 mm cannon. With a lower firing rate and capacity, each 30 mm round does considerably more damage. Further to this, there’s four different kinds of gun pods, each with a specific use-case, and the guns find applicability in situations where missiles are less effective, making them a true part of the game: it takes skill to make full use of the guns, and Project Wingman encourages players to make full use of their aircraft’s capabilities. Finally, Project Wingman‘s presentation of devastation is nothing short of impressive: entire maps show the cost of large scale warfare, as forests burn and buildings crumble. Of course, Ace Combat has its own strengths. The progression system is deeper, with more options for aircraft, and there is significantly more mission variety. Similarly, Ace Combat is also better polished. However, the fact that Project Wingman gets so much right speaks volumes to the competence and creativity of Sector D2’s three-man team, showing that one doesn’t need a multi-million dollar budget to put together a memorable and engaging experience.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • In Project Wingman‘s final act, Monarch returns to the Cascadian capital of Presidia for one final titanic clash against the Federation’s remaining forces. For this mission, I’ve opted to fly the F/S-15 again: it’s the most advanced aircraft I could afford entering the endgame, and my goal is to ultimately pick up the PW-Mk.I, the ultimate aircraft in the game. Until then, the F/S-15 has proven to be more than adequate: the mission to re-take Presidia is a combination of both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, and efficient ammunition use is key here.

  • In a way, this mission represents the culmination of all of the experience a player has accrued in Project Wingman. By this point in time, I’ve completely adjusted to the missile mechanics in this game: while it took a little getting used to, once I acclimatised, the missiles of Project Wingman are reliable and effective. They’re most useful against foes approaching one head on, or, if one is flanking their enemies, then they work best between 1200 and 1600 metres. Any further, enemy planes will be able to dodge them or deploy countermeasures, while at closer ranges, the missiles won’t be able to track.

  • The F/S-15 is able to carry a ludicrous amount of multi-target missiles: if the first two special weapon slots are outfitted with these missiles, players will be able to lock onto up to ten targets simultaneously. This gives the F/S-15 the ability to clear out entire squadrons in seconds, although the extremely large volleys mean that if one isn’t careful, their entire store of missiles could become depleted very quickly. Here at Presidia, I was finally able to try out how a prototype aircraft handles in dogfights, and it becomes clear that the higher cost for prototype aircraft is for a reason.

  • While the F/S-15 is the most inexpensive prototype in Project Wingman, it still surpasses all of the previous aircraft: it accelerates and can maintain a top speed comparable to that of the interceptors, while at the same time, possesses handling traits befitting a fighter. Aircraft in Project Wingman are well-balanced against one another; prototype planes tend to have good all-around traits and excel in all roles. Interceptors have great acceleration and top speeds, while fighters are highly manoeuvrable. Strike aircraft carry weapons suited for anti-ship combat, and attacker aircraft have a large number of hardpoints capable of carrying a range of anti-ground weapons.

  • Multi-role aircraft perform well in both anti-air and anti-ground operations, and prototypes fit into the spectrum as being extraordinarily powerful multi-role aircraft. Strictly speaking, prototype aircrafts are not necessary for beating the campaign: the standard missiles and integral cannons in any plane are enough to get one through any mission. This was especially true in Ace Combat games, where players could complete entire missions, even on higher difficulties, without relying extensively on their special weapon stores.

  • The use of the stock missiles and gun is a trait I call the “stock weapons paradigm”: this is a concept that dates back a decade, and it states that any well-balanced game will be designed such that a player will be able to do just fine with the starting weapons a game provides them with. This came about in Team Fortress 2, when I noticed that the default weapons were really all one needed. In some games, like Agent Under Fire, weapons are clearly tiered, and the endgame weapons are definitively more powerful than the weapons found early on. In a balanced game, weapons all fit specific roles, and one should be able to do well enough with what’s available to them from the start, whether it be the start of a match, or the start of one’s journey through a progression system.

  • Planes in Project Wingman all handle slightly differently and carry different special weapons to give them an edge under certain circumstances, but overall, a competent pilot will be able to make any plane work with their default loadouts. This speaks to the excellent design in the game, and accounts for my wish to go back through the campaign a second time so that I can unlock the remainder of the aircraft available: I’m particularly keen on flying the F/E-18 again. For now, I’ll return the focus to whittling down the Federation’s remaining airships. Despite their railguns, downing airships are old hat at this point, and their presence is hardly intimidating now.

  • During this operation, I was blowing things up left, right and centre: even this late into the game, the visual effects for destruction look superb, and I found myself admiring my handiwork every time a plane or airship was shot down. At this point in time, I’ve become versed enough so that I’m not slamming into wreckage of destroyed aircraft, but there have been occasions where I will be strafing an airship with a M61 Vulcan, only to smash into it because I neglected to check the distance indicator. During combat, enemy combatants can be closer than they appear, and this really gives a sense of how scale can be misrepresented in the skies.

  • It suddenly hits me that the pressure waves in Project Wingman are much more visible (and a little more rudimentary) than their counterparts in Ace CombatAce Combat 7 has fair-looking pressure waves, but for me, it is actually Ace Combat: Assault Horizon that had the best-looking pressure waves from an explosion. There, explosions created a subtle lensing effect. I would imagine that Ace Combat 7 simply increased the emphasis on these blast waves so they’d be more visible, but the end result was that explosions look a little less realistic. In Project Wingman, there is no lensing, and no refractive effects from explosions.

  • Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was my first Ace Combat experience, and while it was a fun game, looking back, it was also quite unlike anything I would later play: the game’s use of “Dogfight Mode” took a lot of the control away from players, and the fact that there were multiple perspectives meant the overall story felt more disjointed. However, Assault Horizon‘s being on PC did mean that for the first time ever, I had a chance to really experience an Ace Combat game for myself, as opposed to watching YouTube playthroughs from other players.

  • Project Wingman is often referred to as a “poor man’s” Ace Combat. Hving now gone through the game in full, Project Wingman offers a tangibly unique and enjoyable experience such that I would say that it is a worthwhile experience for any Ace Combat fan, and similarly, anyone who’s wondering if Ace Combat is right for them could gain a modicum of insight if they go through Project Wingman. Had Ace Combat 7 not released on PC, Project Wingman would’ve been the definitive answer to players looking for an Ace Combat-like experience, but I’ve found that for the most enjoyable and complete experience, one would do well to give both a whirl, since both Ace Combat and Project Wingman have their own distinct strengths.

  • There isn’t one game that is decisively better than the other. Project Wingman excels with its weapon mechanics and design, as well as its ability to portray the scale of each battle, while Ace Combat overall provides a more polished experience, deeper progression system and mission variety. The perfect arcade combat game would therefore allow players to tune their planes like in Ace Combat 7 and equip a much larger array of special weapons, showcase battles of a grand scale and vary up the mission objectives while at the same time, having full VR support as Project Wingman does.

  • With this in mind, I am curious about what the upcoming Ace Combat title is going to be like: so far, all I know is that it’s the eighth instalment in the series, and producer Kazutoki Kono has stated that it’s going to be their biggest game ever. I wonder if Project Aces’ team would’ve seen Sector D2’s Project Wingman and saw what alternatives were possible; an Ace Combat game allowing players to vary hardpoint configurations and perhaps even feature different types of guns would be a major improvement on an already successful approach, furthering the level of depth to dogfighting in Ace Combat.

  • While the guns in Ace Combat tend to be more generic, later iterations of the game feature faster-firing guns for fighters and slower, harder-hitting guns for attacker aircraft. By Ace Combat 7, American aircraft utilise the M61 Vulcan, while Russian aircraft use the GSh-30-1. The guns do handle differently, but the differences are not as pronounced as they are in Project Wingman, and overall, the guns have a similar DPS. In general, guns play a large role both Project Wingman and Ace Combat, being an essential part of one’s arsenal, but the mechanics in the former are a bit more sophisticated, giving guns slightly more specialised scenarios where they are most effective.

  • According to the history books, the difference between American and Russian aircraft guns are simple: American designs favour the 20mm calibre because it’s light enough to be mounted on an aircraft without compromising handling, has a high enough rate of fire to ensure a target is hit, and good ballistic properties. On the other hand, a 30mm round can carry more explosives, so a few hits would be devastating. Differences in methodology resulted in different weapons, and I’ve found that, at least in Project Wingman, the faster-firing guns are more effective in dogfighting, whereas the slower-firing guns are better for strafing ground targets.

  • Once the air battle over Presidia is won, the focus shifts over to the Federation’s remaining navy forces. Since I was flying the F/S-15, I simply switched over from the anti-air missiles over to the anti-ground missiles and pounded the fleet into oblivion. The multiple lock-on anti-ground missiles proved more effective against static ground targets than they do against ships: while each missile is capable of knocking out a ship’s weapon component with ease, each missile can only deal damage to its target, and ships in Project Wingman only go down from direct hits to its main structure.

  • As such, if one were to get a lock onto a ship’s weapons, they’d destroy only the weapons. This would demand that one circle around and hit the ship again in order to sink it. For this reason, anti-ship missiles are exceedingly powerful in Project Wingman, and balanced accordingly so one isn’t sinking ships left, right and center. A reasonably experienced pilot will be able to optimise their runs so that they aren’t reliant on anti-ship missiles when fighting fleets, and indeed, the basic gun and missiles is, more often than not, enough to take out fleets of enemy ships on short order.

  • Like Ace Combat, particularly skilled pilots can fly though some features on a map that would be counted as foolhardy or unwise. In the middle of a battle, one is so focused on the objective that stunts aren’t likely to be the first thing on their mind. Doing this sort of thing is usually reserved for the free flight mode, which Project Wingman does offer, and while I’ve indeed pulled off these stunts in Ace Combat 7, my priority now remains focused on finishing off Project Wingman. Flying stunts are far easier to achieve than some would suggest: after Ace Combat 7‘s launch, TV Tropes’ “Imca”, a charlatan who claims to be from Osaka, suggests that he only took damage in Ace Combat 7‘s campaign twice and “flies through the wires of suspension bridges for fun”, implying that only Japanese players had the skill to perform trick manoeuvres.

  • Said individual has a propensity for acting like a big-shot at Tango-Victor-Tango’s American politics (despite supposedly hailing from Japan) and military threads. Imca’s latest round of fabrications include claiming that he owns a Tesla. Going from a rule of thumb, which suggests that one can afford a car that is equal to or less than 35 percent of their annual income, Imca would need to be pulling in around 135000 CAD per year (assuming we’re going off of the price of the entry-level Model 3, which costs 47000 CAD). Someone who “[plays] way more video games than westerners do and have more practise” and spends their time at Tango-Victor-Tango’s forums is unlikely to be dedicated to their career and advanced it far enough to make six figures, so either Imca is exceptionally poor with money management, or is being untruthful.

  • Fabrications always fall apart upon scrutiny, and while anonymity online makes lying as easy as breathing, I make it a point to never exaggerate my experiences and exploits, whether they be related to video games or reality. This is why I don’t have any objections to admitting when, in a given game, a certain area gave me particular trouble. In Project Wingman, a few missions did present to me a bit more trouble than usual (especially the ninth mission), but overall, my experience with the campaign was quite smooth, and I never died from sustaining too much damage from enemy fire.

  • Project Wingman does not have checkpoints, so deaths are particularly unforgiving: dying sends players back to the start of a mission, and while missions are of a moderate length (usually, 15-25 minutes), losing that amount of progress can be incredibly frustrating. This forces players to really keep an eye on their hull integrity and fly in a way as to minimise damage: making full use of the flares and keeping an eye on missile indicators, as well as taking care not to fly into the path of enemy aircraft or their burning wreckage. In fact, I’ve died more to colliding with enemy air combatants than I have from missile damage or gunfire.

  • In the end, after clearing out everything in the skies, on the ocean and on the ground, the Federation begins to realise they’ve been beaten, and a ceasefire is declared. This is the outcome that players were hoping for, being a close to what was ultimately a meaningless and brutal conflict. However, the astute player will have spotted that the battle for Presidia ended without a showdown with a fanatic foe in an über-powerful aircraft. Almost right on cue, the skies fill with a bright flash of light moments later, and when the dust settles, Presidia is in complete ruin.

  • The culprit is none other than Crimson One, who’s managed to acquire the PW-Mk.I, a super-plane whose capabilities surpass anything that Monarch had previously faced. Crimson One promptly uses the PW-Mk.I’s universal burst missiles to shoot down every remaining combatant who’d survived the Cordium detonations, intent on squaring off against Monarch, whom he holds personally responsible for the world’s evils. Besides the burst missiles, the PW-Mk.I is armed with multiple railguns and a plasma launcher.

  • For this fight, Crimson One’s attack patterns are broken up into four phases. In phase one, he only utilises the burst missiles, and these can easily be evaded, even without making use of flares. In the second phase, Crimson One adds railgun fire into the mix: his aircraft comes with multiple railguns, and if these impact simultaneously, Monarch will be devastated. By phase three, Crimson one utilises the plasma orbs, as well. Owing to the PW-Mk.I’s unmatched mobility, missiles are all but useless against him, and to this end, one will rely almost exclusively on their guns.

  • An aircraft with gun pods will have an easier time of whittling down Crimson One’s health: even the less manoeuvrable aircraft, one can still keep up with Crimson One and train their guns on him. Keeping up with him at close quarters can be tricky, but in order to engage, Crimson One will fly off and make some distance, and this provides players with a window to attack. Crimson One will spend the entire fight badmouthing Monarch, and while this is hilarious in bringing to mind the sort of trash talk that Aaron Keener treats players to in The Division 2, the choice of words suggests that Crimson One is someone who’s now fighting purely for revenge, having lost everything as a consequence of the player’s actions.

  • Moments like these serve to remind players that in war, there are no victors: there is a macabre truth to what Crimson One is saying, and even if Monarch does shoot him down here, it won’t change the fact that millions of lives were lost during the Cascadian conflict. Here, I narrowly dodge a railgun round from Crimson One: unlike the railgun turrets seen earlier, Crimson One can fire multiple rounds at players with every shot. In spite of the gap in technology, however, this fight never once felt impossible. I simply broke off my engagement when he was firing and capitalised on cooldowns to get my shots in.

  • This final boss fight was about as thrilling and challenging as the fight against Mihaly in Ace Combat 7: while Crimson One might have an incredibly sophisticated aircraft that puts all of the other aircraft in the game to shame, the fact that Monarch is able to go toe-to-toe with Crimson One is yet another reminder that technology notwithstanding, it’s ultimately the pilot that makes the difference. In the end, I beat Crimson One without too much difficulty, bringing the campaign to an end. At this point, I unlocked the player version of the PW-Mk.I: it’s the most expensive aircraft in the game and will likely take some time to unlock.

  • Besides replaying the campaign to unlock all of the aircraft (primarily for completeness’ sake), Project Wingman also offers two more avenues for replayability. The first is the conquest mode, which is a procedurally generated collection of missions where players must fight off wave after wave of Federation aircraft to secure Cascadian territory. Along the way, one can purchase new aircraft and even upgrade the reinforcements that come to assist them. Death is permanent in this mode, although one’s unlocks carry over, and this gives one a chance to really test their skills in a more open, sandbox mode. I imagine that I’ll start this mode once the summer arrives; May is going to see me revisit several iconic games, like Titanfall and Go! Go! Nippon!, as I reminisce about upcoming milestones.

  • The other avenue is VR: since Project Wingman has complete VR support, I would be able to free flight or revisit older missions using my Oculus Quest headset. My previous desktop lacked the CPU and connectors for such an endeavour, but with my new build, I anticipate that I should be able to utilise the Oculus Link setup. If Project Wingman‘s VR mode proves viable, I would be in a position to consider Half-Life: Alyx – my GTX 1060 60 GB is capable of running the game, and this would allow me to continue my Half Life experiences.  Overall, Project Wingman is a very impressive experience, and I have no problem recommending this as the definitive experience for what independently developed games could be like; with the right skill set, such games can easily rival triple-A titles in quality.

  • As it is, Project Wingman is a worthwhile experience for both Ace Combat fans and folks looking to try out the arcade flight combat genre. I’ve heard that a major update is in the works for Project Wingman, which Sector D2 is suggesting will add new weapons, introduce previously unavailable aircraft and perhaps even bring in some new campaign missions. All of this is worth writing about, and while my Project Wingman campaign experience is in the books for the present, I have a feeling that I am going to be returning in the future to discuss my experiences with the game’s super-planes, VR missions and conquest mode. The time is also nigh to return to Ace Combat 7: during my playthrough a few years back, I ended up unlocking the Strike Wyvern, and I picked up the DLC which gives me access to iconic super-planes like the Falken, so I’m now curious to see how my experience changes when I’m rocking the best planes in the game.

The very fact that Project Wingman exists speaks volumes to how much a competent team can do with the tools available to them: despite lacking the resources available to a Triple-A studio, Sector D2 was able to not only put together a polished and smooth experience, but they created a game that rivals the quality of something that ordinarily takes an entire team of developers, graphic artists, voice actors, composers, sound engineers and QA testers to accomplish. In fact, Project Wingman exceeds expectations because Sector D2 was able to implement a complete VR experience within the game. To put things in perspective, Ace Combat 7 only had a partial implementation of VR, providing the experience only across three levels. What Project Wingman is able to achieve is therefore a show to large studios that standards are increasing, and that as the technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, expectations correspondingly increase: having now seen what a three man team can do with a small budget, one must wonder why larger studios, with their increased human resources and funding, cannot put together stable, content-rich and fun games when three people, working with just north of a hundred grand (Canadian dollars) were able to assemble a title that plays well, immerses players entirely and possesses features that are absent in games from much larger teams. Project Wingman represents independent development at its finest, and with Ace Combat 8 on the horizon, expectations are now especially high; both Ace Combat 7 and Project Wingman have shown that the arcade flight combat simulator genre is still alive and well. Having now seen what’s possible in these games, it is fair to expect that a successful title must tell a compelling story, immerse players in a world that’s rich in details, provide a deep progression system that makes replay and customisation worthwhile, and above all, give players the feeling that they can single-handedly change the course of a conflict, much as Project Wingman and Ace Combat‘s past ace pilots have done. In the meantime, Project Wingman‘s thematic elements remain strong for a game whose strong suit is allowing one to fly cool aircraft and blow stuff up in cool places: it speaks to the futility of war, and how regardless of one’s intentions going in, even a desire to go good and fight for what one believes in can become distorted and twisted as one witnesses horror upon horror. Although not quite as direct as how Ace Combat presents its themes, Project Wingman nonetheless is successful in presenting a coherent story. In response to the question I posed about mercenaries, I find that Project Wingman is suggesting that at the end of the day, one should not be consumed by their ideology and continue to do what’s right so long as it doesn’t cost them everything. As Monarch, one gains the sense that while Monarch is successful in this assignment, there are things that they will need to live with in the aftermath of a conflict that has cost so much.