Over the years, Combat Flight Simulations and consoles never have really gelled together all too well. With the consoles’ limited controls you are more than likely left with is a stripped down version of what could have been so much more, not everyone wants to prime the fuel lines, check the landing gear and position the flaps to their take of position, console gamers just want to take to the skies and let rip with a 120mm chain gun or launch off a couple of missiles. Arcade Simulation is probably the correct term to use when it comes to flight simulations on the console, but it is one franchise from Namco that has always blurred the lines of arcade and real simulation combat with their Ace Combat series.
This year brings us Namco’s sixth adaptation of the successful Combat Simulation – Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. In this title Namco have pulled out all the stops in its attempt to show what they can do with the franchise on the next-generation consoles, bringing us some supersonic visuals, thrusting sounds effects and some adrenaline fuelled multiplayer. So with most of the aircraft analogies out of the way let’s fill you in on the crazy storyline...
In Fires of Liberation it is the year 2015, you take the role of an Emmerian pilot, placed in a fictional country at war between the Republic of Emmeria and the Federal Republic of Estovakia, on the Anean Continent. The first attack is made on the Emmerian capital, Gracemeria, by the Estovakian Air Force. Rather than dragging you in to the politics of this war, the story of the single player campaign follows a mother turned refugee and her story in recovering her daughter who she previously thought was dead during the first attack on Gracemeria. In her travels to the capital she joins with an Estovakian woman who’s also heading that way to meet her boyfriend, a pilot fighting in the skies above. As you progress through the game you revisit these characters and their tales during the war torn conflicts and its influences on them. Sadly these cut scenes do nothing more than tear you away from the actual fighting in the game itself. When returning from a mission, shooting down targets totalling up to three figures sometimes and then sitting through these storylines, it seems like you’re taken to another world and feels distant to the action portrayed in the game.
There is a vast array of licensed military aircraft to pilot in Ace Combat 6, all rendered in glorious detail that would make any PC pilot enthusiast envious. These range from the default F-16 available to you in your first mission to the Mirage 2000-5, Panavia Tornado GR.4, or A-10A Thunderbolt II that soon become purchasable after a few missions. After each further successful mission additional aircraft are unlocked, these include the F-15E Strike Eagle, F/A 18F Super Hornet, F-14D Tomcat, F-117 Nighthawk, Mitsubishi F-2A, Dassault Rafale M, Sukhoi Su-33, Sukhoi Su-47 and the more recent aircraft fighting in the skies today, the F-22 Raptor and Eurofighter Typhoon. So there is enough hardware here to make any plane spotter dribbling into their anorak. Each aircraft can be equipped with purchased special weapons which range from multi-firing Air-to-Air missiles to Laser guided bombs and Air-to-Ground Rockets. At the end of each mission you are awarded with points and it is these points that you accumulate in these missions that can lead to purchasing new unlocked aircraft or weapons. Unlike in previous Ace Combat titles, you cannot get away with using the same aircraft in missions. During each briefing it is worth noting the type of mission it will be and the types of enemies you will encounter, be it Air-to-Air, Air-to-Ground or both. Knowing the mission type lets you plan easily which aircraft to choose and the type of special weapons to equip to your aircraft as well as your wingman. Later in the missions you soon unlock the more powerful planes which make selecting your aircraft an easy decision, as aircraft like the F-22 or Eurofighter are good enough at both Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground scenarios.
Being an arcade simulation game, most of your missions begin with you already in the air only a few miles from your target, so there are no take off procedures to go through or travelling to your target only to get shot down in minutes, and then having to go though the same tiring task all over again. With that said though, this does happen in Ace Combat 6, but in a different way. During each mission you will reach certain checkpoints which you can resume from should you get shot down, destroyed by missile fire, or more embarrassingly, crashing into the ground by accident! Sadly these checkpoints resume from your first entry point in the mission which can be hundreds of miles away from the action. So all you can do here is to head in a straight line and hold down the afterburner button so you can return to the battle zone as fast as you can, and before any mission objectives are failed by the time you get there, which sadly does happen.
Throughout the fifteen missions in Ace Combat 6 you will face a variety of Air-to-Air, Air-to-Ground or a combination of the two. During your briefing it is up to you to select how you wish to tackle each mission, this is done by selecting your starting position on the battle map from the available attack zones in the battle area. Each of these areas need to be completed to finish the mission, though you can fail one or two and still complete the overall mission and continue onto the next. The scenery where all these battles take place range from ice capped mountains to fortified desert canyons. The texture mapping created for each of these scenarios puts other flight simulations to shame, even some recent PC simulations. Granted the flyable area is a little restricted compared to PC titles of the same genre, but mix in the amount of additional aircraft and ground vehicles in the battle, along with their missiles, vapour trails, tracer fire, explosions and smoke then add the sceneries textures, volumetric clouds, atmospheric conditions such as rain, haze and fog, there is so much going on here to easily compete against any high-end PC running a similar simulation experience.
Sound effects in the game have been well constructed and executed flawlessly. Explosions have a rewarding thud with each impact, gun rounds impacting into the ground or aircraft can be heard and even a realistic distance delay is made when explosions and impacts are made from far away. Your wingmen’s banter can be a little cheesy, but to be honest we’re all accustomed to that thanks to Maverick and Goose from the film Top Gun. The audio in the cut scenes on the other hand could do with a little work. Being a Japanese developed title there are some lip syncing issues and the in-game music, though better than previous titles in the series i.e. less rock, cannot be turned off without also turning off the sound in the cut scenes, an issue that is highly frustrating and should have been noted during its development.
It is Namco’s first venture into multiplayer for this franchise and they have done quite well in this department. There are four default multiplayer modes included in Ace Combat 6, these are, “Battle Royale” which is a standard deathmatch mode, “Siege Battle” which is a similar team deathmatch mode, “Team Battle” where both teams must attack or defend a fortified base, and lastly “Co-Op Battle” which sees a team of four online players fight co-operatively against one of the available missions in the single player campaign. Being such a niche genre, only a handful of available games were available over LIVE and only in certain game modes, so finding a suitable server can take some time. When you do finally get into an online battle you will find it a lag free experience, though being a modern combat scenario, firing off homing missiles and hoping for the best while dodging the opposing players missiles left me a little unfulfilled with Ace Combat’s multiplayer. The real duel in the crown is in the online co-op, as you cannot beat letting your online buddies take the hot seat as one of the three available wingmen to really live out those Top Gun moments, though finding a buddy that is into this type of genre could be tough, and flying with a complete stranger over LIVE isn’t as appealing.
One thing that might spring life into Ace Combat 6’s multiplayer is in its achievements. There are plenty of achievements to gain online and offline in this game. Around thirty can be gained offline while the remaining can be achieved online in battle modes and in co-op. After around six hours that it takes to complete the single player campaign you’ll find yourself with around three hundred GamerScore Points, more if you are “Top Gun” and achieved all the goals and medals. At the time of writing there is already some online downloadable content for Ace Combat 6, this comes in the form of aircraft skins or modified aircraft, so unless you are a real kerosene guzzling air-junkie you will be wise to think twice before parting with the required 200 MS points for each plane or skin pack.
Overall, Ace Combat 6 is a well executed addition to the long running series, which has made the crossing well from its home on Sony’s PlayStation to the Xbox 360. This combat simulation, though a little forgiving in gameplay, fulfils its arcade roots and will give any novice pilot a good introduction to the genre while providing the more veteran amongst you a pleasurable and rewarding experience. It was sad to have such a shallow and uninspiring storyline to keep you going until the very end, but with the game’s stunning visuals and effects, arcade pick up and play gameplay, online multiplayer and co-op features there is plenty here to satisfy your appetite in being the next Maverick or Ice Man.