panning eight games and three platforms, the Ace Combat franchise has made a name for itself as the definitive arcade-style air combat game on consoles. Others have tried to take its crown, but none have yet matched the series' polish or its intuitive controls. In an interesting move, Namco recently released Ace Combat 6 as an exclusive for the Xbox 360 after a dozen years as a PlayStation staple. I gladly took this iteration for a spin to see what else had changed.
The biggest criticism I've seen leveled against Ace Combat is that too little has been done to advance the series' game play in the most recent titles. Although I'll agree to a certain extent, I'd argue that the same could be said for most sports game franchises. The changes implemented in Madden's yearly releases, for instance, tend to be more evolutionary than revolutionary. The same would certainly hold true for Ace Combat, although anyone who's spent a lot of time with the series will notice some dramatic changes in this most recent release.
It really does look this good.At the heart of Ace Combat is one of the most well tuned control interfaces in all of console gaming. The introduction of dual-analog sticks on the PlayStation's original DualShock controller was a definite boon for the series, and the developers haven't had to change much since. Shoulder buttons control thrust and yaw, while the face buttons manage weapon and radar controls. The left stick controls your roll and pitch, and the right controls the game's camera. Nothing needed to be changed in Ace Combat 6 due to the Xbox 360 controller's similarity to the DualShock. Your aircraft's response seems a little less "snappy" this time around, but I'd rack this up as a positive since it decreases your odds of crashing during low-level maneuvers.
One area where you'll see many changes is level design. There are far fewer missions in Ace Combat 6 than in previous games, but those that are there are much larger in scope. Most battlefields are broken up into several different "operations", and you can choose to complete the bear minimum for mission success or every last one if you feel so inclined. These huge levels are stuffed to the gills with enemies – you'll find yourself changing your radar's scale more than usual just to discern your current target. Weapon load-outs have increased to match this target-rich environment. Though this didn't turn me off too much, I wonder if the decision to increase the player's special weapon allotment may have upset game balance a bit. It's definitely easy to wreak havoc on an enemy squadron when you have fifty AIM-54s at your disposal. Still, I can only imagine that the challenge (and the fun) of these multilayered environments will open up on the game's higher difficulty settings.
Of all the changes in Ace Combat 6, few will impress newcomers as much as the game's drastically improved graphics engine. This game is absolutely gorgeous, and begs to be enjoyed on the largest high-definition display you can get your hands on. The aircraft, though fewer in number than we've seen in past games, are modeled to perfection. Environments are also stunning, though detail could still be improved when flying over cityscapes or large expanses of flat land. Although newer players are probably best off enjoying the game from the first-person "HUD only" view or the third-person perspective, I'm a huge proponent of the game's in-cockpit camera. Each aircraft's dials and controls are fully functional and uniquely modeled – although some details like the F-14's blast screen or the F-117's multifaceted window elements can obscure your view in some instances, I enjoy the added difficulty and sense of immersion this provides.
Wondering what they're saying?
Don't. Push start.The only real negative in Ace Combat 6 is its utterly abysmal story. For some reason, the writers at Namco have felt inclined to inject the game with a heavy-handed tale that attempts to show the many "casualties of war" from a variety of perspectives. Although the cutscenes are top-notch visually (like in any Namco game), the voice acting and writing is downright amateurish. I realize the game's designers feel compelled to show off the talents of Namco's in-house animation team, but they'd be better off telling their stories directly from the briefing screen as was done in Ace Combat 2. Mercifully, you can skip any of these cutscenes with a single press of the "start" button. I urge you to do just that.
For the first time in the series' history, Ace Combat 6 features online play. There are a number of game types available, from two player cooperative missions to sixteen player free-for-alls. Though I wasn't able to try out cooperative, I was thoroughly impressed with how lag free the game's versus modes were. Even with sixteen players, I rarely noticed any slowdown or glitches. Xbox Live is already starting to provide what I'm sure is just the first wave of downloadable content. Considering the small roster of aircraft that shipped with the game, I can only imagine that Namco intends to earn a few dollars selling aircraft and paint schemes to any willing customers. More interesting marketplace content includes the new missions and multiplayer maps that have been promised.
In the decade that I've been a serious player of modern console games, few franchises have captivated me as much as Ace Combat. Although the series' arcade bent may frustrate sim veterans, armchair aviators are sure to delight in the intuitive controls and fast-paced action. Ace Combat 6 continues and builds on this tradition, giving the Xbox 360 the best flight game of its current library.