Hands-On Preview: Fly the unfriendly skies.
Formerly a PlayStation staple, the venerable Ace Combat series is now exclusive to the Xbox 360 ? at least with the latest edition, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. The reason for the switch? It's simple: the Xbox 360 came out first and Namco Bandai wanted to release a sequel as soon as possible to satisfy their fans. The fact that Xbox Live allowed them to implement online multiplayer, an important and exciting new addition to the franchise, didn't hurt either.
The story takes place in the fictional city of Gracemeria, which is hit by a surprise air attack courtesy of the evil Republic of Estovakia. The enemy forces take out the King's Bridge (which looks exactly like the Golden Gate Bridge) along with several strategic targets. It's up to you to take to the skies to push back the baddies and give them a taste of their own medicine.
To help you do that, you will be able to pilot one of 15 licensed combat aircraft, from classic F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons to the ultra-modern F-22 Raptor, in any of three different classes: Fighter (best for air-to-air combat), Attacker (best for taking out ground targets) and Multi-Role (a mix of both). No matter which aircraft you choose, you will be amazed at how incredibly beautiful they are. Each one is rendered in stunningly accurate detail; in fact, each plane took six weeks
to render, and the effort shows. Even the control panel in the optional in-cockpit first-person view is accurately recreated down to the finest details. Wow.
Fortunately, the sharp looks don't stop with the planes. The entire game is a real treat for the eyes with incredibly realistic sunlight, cloud and smoke effects. Missile and jet exhaust trails look amazing, and explosions are satisfyingly cool.
You will be flying over huge
maps measuring a mind-boggling 100km by 100km. Whoa. Locations include the sprawling city of Gracemeria which is filled with skyscrapers, parks and miles of streets; it looks very impressive from several thousand feet up, but fly down to treetop level and you can see how muddy the low-detailed buildings and land textures really are. However, that's perfectly acceptable considering all of the action is in the air, and there's really no reason for you to be flying that low anyway (unless you're about to crash, in which case low-res textures are the least
of your concerns). Other locations in the 20 single-player levels include forests, mountains, deserts and open water.
New to the series is the Allied Support (AS) feature. You fill a meter by blasting enemies from the sky; when it's full, you can then select an air, ground or naval support unit and order them to either Attack a specific enemy unit (useful against bosses) or provide Cover by shooting at everything. AS is not only a powered-up attack option but also a key tactical tool you will need to complete your missions and defeat bosses. As well, helping support units in earlier missions will unlock them as an AS option you can use later; think of it as payback for saving their butts.
The exciting new Dynamic Operation System helps create a realistic warfare environment by having up to six independent battles occur simultaneously on land, sea or in the air. Not only will this add to the chaos of battle, but also give you an opportunity to choose which one of the multiple objectives you want to tackle at any given time. Objectives range from escorting, attacking or defending and you can switch between them simply by flying to the appropriate area on the huge maps. Be careful, though, since your success or failure on objectives will affect gameplay; for example, if you successfully defend a friendly airfield, your AI teammates can launch planes and you can land to reload and repair damage. On the other hand, if you fail to defend a power plant, your friendly AI ground units will lose radar coverage and be fighting blind; and if those ground units are destroyed, they won't be available as a future AS option.
The game starts with an impressive rendered cutscene of planes scrambling on the tarmac that looks so stunningly realistic, you will seriously wonder if you're looking at actual video. You are then tasked to take out the Estovakian forces attacking the city. You are joined by an AI wingman along with several other AI squadmates as you hunt down enemy B-52 bombers and attack helicopters.
Before you can start blowing planes from the sky, you will have to select one of two control schemes: Novice, which is your standard arcade-style setup where the left stick controls all directional movement; and Normal, which emulates actual aircraft controls by using the left stick for rolls and pitch, and the shoulder buttons for yaw. The former is definitely the best for beginners but the latter ? while awkward at first ? provides tighter and more responsive maneuvers.
The right stick controls the camera, so you can pan around your aircraft to admire the striking detail, or check behind your back to find that pesky bastard taking potshots at you. If you prefer, you can also switch to the cool in-cockpit first person view.
You fly at a constant speed but can temporarily adjust it by hitting the afterburners with the right trigger or the air brakes with the left. The face buttons fire your cannon, missiles or special weapons.
Despite the emphasis on realistic control setups and accurately detailed planes, this is not a sim; instead, the focus is on fun fast-paced arcade-style dogfights. For example, real fighters carry around six to eight missiles; in AC6, your plane can carry 20 times that amount or more, along with unlimited cannon ammo. You'll need all that armament too because the sky will be filled with dozens of enemies eager to blast you and your teammates into little bits.
Your HUD looks realistic but is quite busy; it's often difficult to tell if that black dot in the distance is an enemy aircraft or a friendly, despite being surrounded by a HUD-enhanced colored square. Fortunately, when you get within missile range, any enemy aircraft in front of you will be highlighted in a red square, and when you fire your missiles, you will automatically fire one missile per enemy ? so if there are six enemies in range, your screen will be filled with six missile trails. Nice.
However, enemies can dodge your missiles so don't assume you can ?fire and forget.? Your best chance of scoring a kill is to fire from behind them, and if you hold the B button and you will switch to a missile camera that follows your shot all the way to your target (but be aware that while you're enjoying the view, enemies are still shooting at you). If enemies get close enough, you can blast them with your cannon for a very satisfying kill.
Your HUD will turn red and a warning klaxon will go off every time an enemy has a missile lock on you. Breaking the lock is pretty easy; simply jig your stick around a bit. However, the warning system goes off constantly, which can be annoying when you have to keep breaking off engagements to avoid enemy missiles. Sure, it might be realistic but I want to shoot planes, not dodge missiles. Hopefully the frequency of these alarms will be reduced somewhat in the final build.
Overall, the action is very fun as you keep blasting planes out of the air but the busy HUD and the fact that it's very difficult to tell if that enemy dot is moving away from you or towards you can create some confusion. However, the potential for some intense dogfights ? especially online ? is clearly evident. The combat isn't as tight or in-your-face as Crimson Skies, but is rather a nice blend of arcade dogfighting with a comfortable dose of realism. Throw in the gorgeous graphics and this has the makings of possibly becoming the top air combat game on any platform.
Sadly, we were unable to try multiplayer, the franchise's big new addition which will support up to 16 players over Xbox Live. There will be three gametypes, including Battle Royale, which is your standard every-man-for-himself deathmatch; Team Battle, which as the name suggests is team deathmatch pitting Alpha squadron against Bravo squadron; and Siege Battle, where one team must destroy an enemy installation while the other team must defend it. There will also be an online co-op mode where you and your teammates must complete a mission before time runs out.
For the seriously hardcore gamer, there will also be a $150 Special Edition bundle which includes Hori's cool two-piece Ace-Edge Flightstick controller, consisting of a traditional flight stick and a separate throttle control.