You have to admit, at some point in your life you probably wanted to be pilot of some sort. Whether you have seen the Blue Angels, watched Top Gun, or enjoyed the stories about the Red Baron, the notion of hoping into a cockpit and banking for negative Gs might get your blood pumping…into the Danger Zone. Okay, Top Gun references aside, there are few console titles which can deliver a proper flying experience; in its essence, it’s a niche-genre that still holds strong to the PC format. In 2007, Namco Bandai looked to reclaim its dominance of console-based flight action with Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. Presented more as an arcade title than simulator, AC6 integrates licensed aircraft with fictional conflict for an exceptional entry into the franchise.
Stovies are to Soviets, as Emmerians are to Americans…
Back before Namco had a surname, Air Combat was released on the Playstation, introducing the mid-90’s to a new arcade, flight-simulator. Fast forward to our current-gen, and we see how the franchise has evolved: An engaging, conflict-ridden title with beautifully recreated fighter jets. Ace Combat 6 doesn’t deviate from the established formula of past titles, but this 360-exclusive takes competent gameplay and delivers action well.
Like earlier Ace Combat games, Fires of Liberation is set on a fictional continent, and is divided between the nations of Estovakia and Emmeria—although the names may be made up, it’s entirely possible to call Estovakia, Soviet Russia, and Emmeria, the United States. The story starts off as Estovakia invades Emmeria years after a giant meteor has destroyed the infrastructure of Estovakia, with military generals taking over political power. The plan is simple: take over Emmeria because it is a prosperous country that didn’t suffer from the Ulysses disaster. Apparently, in this alternate world, either international aid doesn’t exist, or the Emmerians are totally selfish.
In either case, you play as Talisman, Garuda Team leader of the Emmerian Air Force, and your routine day has just been ruined by the attacking Estovakians, complete with Russian accents. As you retreat from the capital, after specialized missiles demonstrate your military inferiority, the goal of the game becomes recovering your republic from the invaders through a succession of 13 missions, and two epilogue sorties.
The story elements unfold through cutscenes before and after each mission. Instead of following Talisman, the story is about the people affected by the conflict, as well as how they influence the missions. The only kind of character development you’re going to get on Talisman is how you perform in missions, and this setup actually works. While the story is severely lacking in terms of dialogue, it’s possible to find yourself intrigued by what is going to happen next to the games ancillary characters. The game delivers an outline of what has motivated the Estovakians to invade, and why there is a tension between the nations, but even though it’s not fully explored, it functions; it’s actually kind of nice to see what the main character’s actions do to others, instead of focusing solely on their life.
Choices, choices, choices…
Even if you don’t find the story engaging, the gameplay delivers a top-notch mix of flight-sim and arcade fighter. Missions are divided into multiple operations which split up the way the game is played. While you may start out on an escort mission, clearing the way for ground troops, you may end up in a full-blown dog-fight with multiple enemy aircraft. These types of varied operations keep things interesting as you choose which type of fighter you and your wingman want for the mission. However, it can be a bit annoying to choose an attacker for an air-to-ground assault, only to find you get ambushed by far faster fighters on your way home.
But there a plenty of fighters and bombers to choose from, and are unlocked by purchasing them in your hangar. The system for awarding money may seem a bit arbitrary, but as long as you complete missions, you’ll be able to buy better planes for each mission. Unfortunately, while each plane is licensed from manufacturers, and although they may be beautifully rendered after real-life aircraft, once you have the top-of-the-line fighter and attacker, there’s no incentive to go back and play with less-effective planes; such amazingly representative models go to waste after you complete the game and play through a new game with the unlocked F-22 Raptor—though it is completely up to the player how they play through their next game.
And, most likely, you’ll be playing several times over. For the completionist, Ace Combat 6 is a dream. Not only does beating the game on Hard unlock the CFA-44 Nosferatu super-fighter, but playing through the game multiple times also gives you a chance to win medals and assault records. Both types of awards involve completing certain criteria or defeating specific enemies, with assault records yielding a bit of extra information on different characters from the game.
“That's right! Ice... man. I am dangerous”…
Replay value isn’t reserved for the campaign only however, as this sixth Ace Combat game utilizes Xbox LIVE for both downloadable content, and online competitive and cooperative play. Online, you have your standard match types with free-for-all and team deathmatches, but there’s also a capture-the-base derivative, Siege, and co-op missions to play. All of these gameplay types are augmented with downloadable content which extends their life through added planes and missions. The gameplay has its own flavor, but with radio chatter that sounds like it’s coming from a pilot’s mask, there’s an incentive to return for online duels. While newer players may feel a bit lost as they continually fly in circles to lock onto enemies, there are many nuanced strategies that enrich the experience.
Technically, the game is a stand-out and plays extremely well. With all that is happening on-screen there’s only a few instances of slowdown which don’t affect gameplay, and are over in a flash. Online, everything runs smoothly, and with the ability to record replays you’ll be able to capture your battles both online and off. Also, while we didn’t have a chance to compare the standard controller with the limited HORI flight stick, the default controls work extremely well and don’t interrupt actions.
Luckily, you don’t need an anti-G suit to play…
In sum, Fires of Liberation is the complete package for any fan of the franchise, or anyone looking for a fairly accessible fighter-sim. The game is extremely impressive in both the audio and visual departments with the aforementioned fighter modeling, as well as a competent soundtrack backing up radio chatter and sound effects—although, the scenery may look a bit like Google Maps with some added buildings, but it integrates well and gets the job done. Gameplay may boil down to attack this or that, but the variation between air-to-air and air-to-ground operations make for enjoyable, changing mission dynamics. Ace Combat 6 is certainly a must-own 360 exclusive.
+ Gorgeously rendered plane models
+ Varied operations in missions
+ Strategic online play
Oh, hell no:
- Poor dialogue
- Surprising battles while flying the wrong plane
- Not-as-impressive scenery