Version tested: Xbox 360
Is there anything in the world quite as intrinsically homoerotic as being a fighter pilot? It's not a topic we'd normally dwell on, but playing Ace Combat 6 this week has caused the question to raise its head.
Every single person who's stopped by to watch has made a point of offering to "be your wingman any time!", generally in their best affected camp voice; the joke got old, but we got the point. Top Gun has a lot to answer for.
We were half expecting a locker-room mini-game after each mission where you have to try to slap your wingman on the bottom with a rolled up towel - your disturbingly needy and passive wingman, that is, who plaintively asks you to choose his equipment for him before you fly. "What plane should I fly?", he whines. "What weapons should I bring?", he implores. "Which flightsuit does my bum look best in?", he simpers.
Okay, we made up the last one. But you get the point. Top Gun really does have a lot to answer for.
We've had a bit of a chequered history with the Ace Combat series here at Eurogamer Towers. While there's no question that it looms large over the combat flight sim genre on consoles, and that its early iterations were bloody brilliant, there's a distinct feeling that Namco has done little but rest on its laurels since the seminal Ace Combat 04.
Titles like Ace Combat: Squadron Leader, Ace Combat: The Belkan War and PSP iteration Ace Combat X have all been little more than effortless rehashes of a well-established formula. It's been very hard to hate them, because Ace Combat is always polished until it's as shiny as any of its line-up of fighter jets, and that's very shiny indeed. On the other hand, it's been very hard to like them either, because they've offered nothing remotely new or interesting to get our teeth into.
Ace Combat 6, then, treads a fine line by introducing itself in terribly familiar terms. A nation called Estovakia, which is vaguely Russian, has come under the control of its military generals, and promptly invades their peace-loving next-door neighbour, the Republic of Emmeria, which is vaguely American. Except for the peace-loving bit, obviously. You are a fighter pilot, and after an abortive attempt to stop the invasion, the first major plot thrust sees you fighting to establish a beach-head and re-take your country.
In other words, it's broadly the same set-up as every other Ace Combat game, so you'll excuse us if our initial reaction was not dissimilar to seeing yet another annoying missionary type appear on our doorstep - different face, different uniform, but you're pretty sure that five minutes in, they're going to be peddling the same crap. And telling you off for immoral sexual activity. (The missionaries that is, not Ace Combat.)
Not so. In fact, despite the unpromising setup, Ace Combat 6 finally delivers what long-suffering fans of the series have been waiting for since Ace Combat 04 - change, innovation, and a welcome refresh of some tired features that have been growing increasingly long in the tooth.
On the surface, admittedly, the changes aren't all that apparent. Ace Combat locked down the fundamentals of handling an aircraft, dogfighting and so on years ago, and there's very little reason for the series' creators to try to fix what wasn't broken. Newcomers to the series should note that it offers two entirely different flight models - an arcade-style system and a simulation mode. The arcade system is likely to be the choice of most players; it arguably gives you less fine tuned control, and is certainly less realistic, but it's eminently satisfying and turns the game into a great dogfighting shooter.
The simulation mode, on the other hand, is a very competent stab at emulating the flight controls of real aircraft - not exactly easy on an Xbox pad, admittedly, but the game doesn't do a bad job all the same. It's somewhat intimidating, frankly, and while we appreciate the solid job the team has done of making it realistic, we suspect most players will give up and go back to arcade controls after crashing into buildings upside-down a few times. Still, it's there, and if flying planes properly is your thing, then its presence will be welcome indeed.
Take My Breath Away
The basic flight mechanics - or fight-and-flight mechanics, if we're to make an awful psychology pun for no good reason - are hugely enjoyable, as you'd expect from a series with this history. Dogfights are satisfying experiences that rarely descent into the kind of endless looping around chasing each other's tails that is found in many other combat flight games, and zooming low over the terrain to unleash a barrage of missiles over a column of tanks delivers a visceral, back-of-the-neck-tingling kind of thrill.
Where Ace Combat 6 really delivers the goods, though - and this, frankly, is where the series has fallen down in its last few iterations - is in the mission design. For the first time, the game delivers a genuine feeling of being a part of a rapidly developing and evolving battlefield, with multiple units on land, sea and air taking part in combat across a number of fronts. Where previous games have delivered fun dogfighting (or less fun bombing runs)and a vague sense that something else is going on around you, this time you're really at the heart of the war.
Most missions have a large selection of objectives - some optional, some not - which are simplified down into a few key mission "strands" for you to follow. An early example is a D-Day style beach-head landing, where one landing force is aiming to retake the airport (allowing you to refuel and re-equip once that's accomplished), another is establishing the beach-head, and a naval fleet is mopping up enemy resistance around some strategically important oil rigs.
Far from simply letting you take part in one operation to the exclusion of all others, the game operates some intelligent, well-considered AI on the battlefield level - so your forces will continue to fight and advance, or fight and lose badly, even without your assistance. Radio chatter isn't just background noise here; often a comment about a battalion being cut to ribbons is your key cue to haul up the battlefield map, find out where your units are in trouble, and go and take out the howitzers that's making mincemeat of them.
Moreover, allied units aren't just there to be saved from you like heavily armoured damsels in distress. To a certain degree, you can also command them to assist you; instructing units to engage enemies in specific areas, or to give you defensive covering fire. With enemy units thick on the ground (and indeed the air), that's something you'll definitely need as the difficulty level ratchets up. It's not exactly RTS style fine-tuned control, but it's a nice level of input to give the player, without distracting from the core task of blowing stuff up.
This may sound like a small difference, but it's exactly the shot in the arm that Ace Combat has needed. Call us spoiled, but we've simply come to superb, well-polished flight and combat systems in this series - it's the staid, linear and repetitive nature of the missions which has bored us to tears over the last few iterations. Making the battlefield into a dynamic theatre of war where you have to weigh up decisions rather than just shooting wave after wave of enemies genuinely breathes new life into the experience.
It helps, of course, that Ace Combat 6 looks absolutely, gloriously beautiful. It's not the kind of game that screenshots do justice to; it's very easy to pick apart the graphics when you examine them closely, pointing out that the ground is often a flat texture, or that the buildings aren't very detailed. In motion, though, it's the sense of scale that strikes you - and the relentless focus on the graphical elements that really matter.
Cities, for example, may not be incredibly detailed, but they're realistic enough that it doesn't matter; flying high above, they look the part, and flying low down, they move past so quickly that it doesn't matter. Key landmarks are modelled with excellent detail, as are the planes and military vehicles in the game; but more importantly, the sky itself is alive with detail and realism.
That ranges from the contrails of planes and missiles (especially useful with missiles, as you can see where they were fired from), which billow and blow realistically, through to incredible heat haze effects from jet engines and superb explosions. On the way, they take in fluffy clouds that actually look real when you fly through them, stunning sunsets and gorgeous water effects. The combined effect of these details, and the huge number of planes, missiles and vehicles the game throws around, is fantastic.
Playing With The Boys
This, of course, is also Ace Combat's first outing on the Xbox 360 - and it's not just fantastic graphics that have been facilitated by the series' leap to next-gen platforms. Online modes, too, are fully supported - and as well as the obligatory deathmatch style mode, there's also a solid co-op mode in evidence, which pits up to four of you against waves of enemy fighters in a variety of missions.
Yes, that's right; finally, you really can go and find someone to be your wingman, any time. Rolled up towels at the ready, boys.
The deathmatch style games, although somewhat frantic, may well have some longevity in them. A free for all mode, supporting up to 16 players, is something of an exercise in chaos, but the 4v4 Team Battle and the 4v4 Siege Battle (which sets you alternately as an attacker and a defender of a fortress location) are interesting twists which could well see some cool strategies emerging from dedicated players.
One down-side - which is a bit of a perpetual moan about Ace Combat, really - is that the series is still stuck with some bloody awful storytelling. The real-time cutscenes between levels are actually stunningly good quality, in graphical terms, and the music for this outing is pretty good - but most of the script is outright cringeworthy.
As an attempt to show various different perspectives, both civilian and military, on the conflict, it's a nice effort, but one which falls down very hard under the weight of its own pretension. If anything, the cutscenes actually take you out of the game badly; the graphics and radio chatter in the missions build up a superb atmosphere, and the laughable storytelling in the cutscenes drags it all down.
As you progress through the game, it all definitely becomes somewhat more fantastical as well. The bulk of your arsenal - both of planes and weapons - stays somewhat true to reality, and indeed many of the planes are actually licensed vehicles. The enemy units, however, are rather more wild, and of course there are giant enemy planes which serve as atmospheric aircraft carriers and other such crazy military fantasies to be encountered as you advance. We actually find this trait of Ace Combat quite endearing; fans of realism may well differ.
Ace Combat 6 still can't quite mark itself out as an essential game; it's certainly true that the series is moving forward again, and we're delighted to see it, but this is evolution rather than revolution. Those who weren't enamoured with it in the first place will find nothing to change their minds in Ace Combat 6, and that's fine in its own way; a series update that delights the fans is no bad thing.
More than anything else, we're just happy to have another Ace Combat game we can genuinely say we really like, rather than just saying we don't dislike it. The series has rated a categorical "meh" for some time now; but no longer. Ace Combat 6 can be our wingman any time.
8 / 10