The Ace Combat series has enjoyed a long and prosperous life on consoles, and whilst I think my first foray into the series was the Japanese version of Ace Combat 3 on the Playstation, I throughly enjoyed the mixture of storyline with the mayhem of shooting foes in the skies. Sadly, the European version of Ace Combat 3, ditched the story aspect and favored a more arcade approach to proceedings, which was a shame. Well that was then and this is now. We’re up to game number 6, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation (AC6). The game opts to bring back a story element through gameplay and some well produced cut-scenes. It also provides the arcade flying thrills we’ve all become accustomed to.
What is there to say here, other than you get to fly aircraft in a fictitious modern day setting, which is uncannily based on US versus Russia (or some other Eurasian country). Well obviously there is more to proceedings than that, because this time we get a sub story to drive the game along and to make the shooting down of targets have a little more meaning. The game’s opening starts off pretty mundane, with a nice sunny day, a girl going off on a school trip and a peachy silence that seems almost too good to be true. Well this doesn’t last long, as a neighboring country which has suffered over the years (due to being hit by a meteor storm) unleashes an invasion. The tale is quite surreal, but you can obviously draw parallels to our own reality; especially as those in the attacking nation who are impoverished due to the government investing in its military rather than the people the military is supposed to protect. It’s a tale of two countries, and as a pilot for the good guys it’s your job to undertake various missions to stop the war. The underlying story also shows the plight of two women from each country joining forces as they hunt for their missing partners. It’s all very touching, and makes for a nice distraction from the real meat of the game.
The actual gameplay is as you would expect from a flying game, however there are a few differences here and there. As with previous games in the series, you earn points for completing missions (based on how well you performed) which allow you to purchase new planes, and also this time you’ll be able to buy special weapons. The special weapons are a little more flamboyant compared to the regular arms you have at your disposal, as they will often allow you to unleash an unrealistic number of missiles or bombs at your foes. Don’t be too disheartened, as Ace Combat games have never been known for their realism, even though aesthetically, Ace Combat 6 is the most realistic of the series to date.
The aircraft at your disposal are all based on real world fighter craft of our time, including the likes of the F15, F-22 Raptor, A10, Tornado, F-11 etc. However, you’ll have to earn enough points to buy them, and of course progress through the story for this chance. Each aircraft has it’s uses, for example the A-10 is more suitable for bombing ground targets, and flying at low speeds; whereas the Su-33 is more suitable for aerial combat. There is a subtle difference between craft and obviously upgrading to the next available craft during the story highlights this.
The missions themselves are pretty much standard fare for flying games, and obviously include the typical, protect, bombing and attack missions that seem prevalent in all flying games. However rather than present a tried a trusted formula that the series has stuck to for years, this time we are able to choose which part of the mission to undertake first. Each mission has multiple facets that are divided into groups, by selecting the insertion point on the map prior to the mission, and then flying to the relevant location, sees you thrust into a specific part of the battle. This is a great way to give some sort of freedom to proceedings, and is most certainly welcome compared to being chaperoned by the game. What is more, your allies, who are there to help using a simple attack/cover command system will gather strength as you complete various aspects of the sub missions, which in turn grants you more allied attack power, when you order them to attack specific targets on your command.
The basic game play does revolve around missile lock on shooting, which can’t really be avoided considering the time period featured. However, to address this somewhat, there are certain ground and air targets that are easily dispatched using the classic mounted cannon. Shooting these manually takes a little more skill and is ultimately far more rewarding.
Graphically AC6 is utterly amazing to look at. On the one hand, you have some highly detailed aircraft models that cannot be faulted; on the other there are photo realistic environments, which are probably the best I’ve seen in any console flying game to date. It’s almost as if the team carbon copied Google Earth (satellite Images) and added a flying game to it. Actually, there’s probably some truth in there somewhere, as the environments must have been taken from satellite images and then edited. From a certain height at least, you will see some views that look so real, it is simply unbelievable and a great accomplishment for the team to provide us with such realism. It’s not all glory though, because the closer you fly to the ground you’ll notice the detail becoming blurry and less defined. In the game’s defense, you won’t, or shouldn’t be spending that much time flying at such low altitudes anyways.
There’s a nice mix of environments to fly in, including countryside, city, snow, mountainous and such like, and so you have a mixture of locales to marvel at. What is more, there are some truly wondrous volumetric clouds to fly in and out of (I think I have used the correct term). These clouds aren’t just patches of fog, but proper masses, of which viewing them, and then flying through is as realistic as you can expect, more so if you’ve flown in a passenger craft before.
Ace Combat 6, features some impressive sound effects, but on the downside will have the ringing beep of missile lock on, tormenting your head – even long after you’ve switched the game off! It’s a side effect of these games, and one that you should become accustomed too. To break this up, there’s enough radio chatter during missions to keep things intense throughout. The narrative during the game’s cut-scenes is well done, albeit a little on the emotionless side for my tastes. The in game and menu music is actually really good, featuring some great up-tempo tunes that seem perfect for this type of game. In fact, I don’t recall the sound of screeching guitar, which is usually synonymous with flying games of this type. I have to give full credit, to the composers of the soundtrack for providing some really fitting pieces of music.
The single player portion of the game isn’t the longest, and with 15 missions to mess around with as well as numerous difficulties, should keep you well entertained for a reasonable amount of time. There are some frustrating moments within some missions, where you’ll be nearing completion, only to be shot down and have to start over. There are checkpoints included, which helps, but I felt the spacing to be a little unforgiving on some missions. Ace Combat 6 features some fiendish offline achievements to strive for, which will surely test the mettle of the most proficient of flying game gamers. For those of you who just want to relax, then a free flight option is available for you to take in the sights and just wonder at the technical accomplishment laid before you.
For those of you who like to mix it up a little, then there’s the online play to sink your teeth into. Included in the package are some co-op missions as well as the rather hectic versus modes, featuring team battles and such like. I found these to be a little frustrating, not only due to hosts disconnecting frequently but the nature of missile lock ons requiring less actual skill than proper dog fighting with cannons. Either way, these do add a little more to the overall package and shouldn’t be scoffed at.
Ace Combat 6 is certainly a welcome addition to the Xbox 360 library of games, and although we’ve already had a few flying games to date, none can match the quality of Namco’s efforts. The game ticks all of the right boxes when it comes to the genre, but the real star of this game are its looks. That’s not to say the gameplay is lacking, but a genuine feeling that the game provides a sense of aesthetic realism unmatched by any game thus far. If you like flying games or are a fan of the series, then Ace Combat 6 is well worth the purchase. If you are on the fence with these types of games, then I suggest a rental, even if that is just to sample the graphical prowess on display here.