Thursday, November 15, 2007

Review: Dance with the angels in "Ace Combat 6"

The flight sim drought on the Xbox 360 has been hard. For virtual fighter jocks, the choices were very limited. You could enlist Taito's "Over-G Fighters," an uber realistic flight sim, to fulfill your need for speed or go retro with the original Xbox hit, "Crimson Skies." Fortunately, Namco Bandai answered the call and produced a video game that truly takes flight.

Namco's arcade flight sim dates back to 1995 on the original Playstation. The premise has always been the same - you fly some of the hottest aircraft and save your fictional country from total annihilation. Each installment of the series often brings vast improvements. The latest installment, released in the U.S. on October 23rd on the Xbox 360, is loaded with tons of features.

The game starts out with a mother kissing her daughter goodbye. The little girl is heading on a field trip to the country's capital. On the way to the building, one of the city's bridge is hit in an aerial bombing attack. The mother sobs and wonders if she'll see her daughter again.

"Talk to me, Goose ..."

The game cuts back to the player and immediately thrusts you into the thick of action. The first thing that hits you are the uber sweet graphics. The devs at Namco Bandai have made one of the coolest looking pieces of eye candy currently on the 360. It will take your breath away. (No pun intended ...) Photo-realistic environments make air combat a work of beauty.

Back to the game - you will find yourself in your first jet, an F-16 Fighting Falcon, leading your unit against a much superior force. It's a huge battle - jets, helicopters and bombers fill the sky. Imagine the battles in "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," only vertical. Get the picture now? With all of those aircraft on-screen, the framerate remained constant. I'm really impressed ...

Though the game isn't based in reality (you can carry over 90 missiles, depending on the jet's payload), the tactics are. You will see tons of enemies you can chase with missiles, guns and bombs, but your goal is to focus on the primary targets, marked in red (TGT). Once you eliminate the primary targets, gameplay goes much, much faster.

Your allies are good in knife fights, too. They are highly trained, and can be commanded too. While your wingman will do whatever you ask - attack this, bomb that, cover me, bring me a latte, fool - he will also let you know when threats are coming your way.

Your boys (and girls) got your back ...

As you progress in the game, you will be able to command allied force, who will attack your targets - in force. It's a new feature for the Ace Combat series, and definitely, a welcome one. Trust me - try are very effective in a pinch, especially when members of an elite enemy squadron are trying to take you out.

You can also use them to take out several ground targets, making your mission much, much easier. And don't think you are in charge of just air units - oh, no ... you can also control naval and ground units as well. You will feel like General Kenobi telling the Jedi where to wreck shop.

The storyline is pretty intense - and the animation is fluid. You can't help but grin as you hear the enemy - and loved ones - say your name. You will definitely find yourself moving up the ladder of the enemy's most wanted list.

The story is very engaging and somewhat believable at times. This is one of the first games recently that I didn't want to skip the cutscenes, but actually listen to what they had to say.

The deeper you get into the game, the more jets become available to you. From the F-16 Falcon, to the F-22 Raptor, you have several aircraft to choose from. I love the A-10 Warthog, though I was having this infamous ground-pounding mud slinging flying tank cruising at close to 900mph. Uh, I think this may need a wii bit of calibration because it doesn't go that fast in real life unless it's A: about to crash ... B: in a vertical dive or C: riding a solid-rocket booster into orbit.

You can also buy upgraded weapons to really bring it home to your enemies. You can choose from bombs, rockets, missiles and bomb cannisters (they drop tons of bomblets). And during the flight, if you run out of weapons, just take five, fly back to base, re-arm and finish the fight.

There will be no time to get bored in this game. You have tons of objectives to finish missions, and the action rarely lets up. You may be shooting down a few bandits, shift gears and bomb a radar shack and then, chase drones that are beacons for cruise missiles. Yes, cruise missiles.

A departure from the norm

You can also perform takeoffs and landings during missions. You can elect to skip them or prove your mettle. Skip them, I say ... but don't skip the refueling. The last game I remembered that offered this cool feature was "Top Gun" on the Nintendo. Yes, the console with the cartridges you had to blow like a harmonica. The minigame is pretty fun - trying to slow your jet to a reasonable speed to refuel midair.

Another new feature is the ability to fly around levels you have finished without enemies trying to shoot you down. Basically, it's free flight - and an awesome addition.

Time and time again, as much as I loved the "Ace Combat" series, and even "Over-G Fighters," being able to fly rocks ... and to do it in a game is even better.

Even with the solid storyline, the beautiful graphics and the stellar gameplay, the main draw is going online. You can play several modes online, the first feature in the Ace Combat series. There are the deathmatch style missions, all-out battle for air supremacy, team death matches and co-op games, where you and friends cooperate to bring the rain on AI enemies. If you like competitive play, take this game on Live for an hour or two.

Gameplay is sweet. The action is too fast and furious to worry about inaccuracies. You will find yourself trying to own your enemies. And the sounds? Legit. You can listen to the jet whine, the firing of a missile or salvo of rockets, the ever-calm AWACs radar guy telling you what to do and keeping track of enemy kills. And the soundtrack is way cool.

Controls are tight and precise. You don't have to worry about losing track of your target, but you may find yourself shooting the back of buildings, bridges, hills and mountains by accident. Unfortunately, your radar tracks your enemies, even through objects. This can be annoying, especially during intense battles.

Hopefully, Namco will correct the minor gripes some have with the game. However, it's hard to have great improvements on something close to perfection.

Check six, buddy!

Why should I care: "Ace Combat 6" is one of the best flight action games on the 360. You love "Top Gun?" You need to take this game for a flight or two.

The good: Killer gameplay, uber sweet graphics, excellent storyline, online multiplayer and co-op play, solid controls, allied assaults via land, sea and air, in-flight refueling, free flight

The bad: Not being able to find a single god-mode cheat ... and shooting mountains, buildings and bridges because the silly radar tracks it, but doesn't know the difference between air and land - DOH!!!

The pretty (a change for this week only): The character animations and side stories and the rich and lush game graphics.

Overall: 9.25 (out of 10):
Each installment, "Ace Combat" adds features that make it worth buying. This is no exception. The intense and epic aerial battles, calling your allied posse if things get too rough, free flight on all levels and the list goes on. While I didn't like the faulty radar and the AI of the elite pilots, the game is still an awesome ride.

No comments: