When I was given the opportunity to review Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation for the Xbox 360, I was quite intrigued. I have always had a small place in my hart for air-combat games or flying simulators, dating way back to the Commodore 64 days. Although I had no previous experience with the Ace Combat series, I did a little homework and liked what I saw.
Before I get into the various modes and gameplay, one thing about flying games that I am always curious about is how complex are the control schemes for the various planes. I was more than a little stoked to discover that the control setting were customizable to allow for the expert and novice fliers to take to the air. The options included detailed control such as controlling the pitch and yaw using the bumper buttons to just using the left analog stick having full in-flight controls. Targeting can be a chore due to the Y button being the primary selection agent to find who you want to shoot at. However, winning a dogfight still comes down to the skill and savvy of the players behind controls.
As for getting into the gameplay, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation offers up three separate game modes for players to use their favorite warplane of destruction. Players can choose single player campaign, co-op or multi-player action. Simply select a mission, plane and then target the bad guys highlighted in red.
The campaign storyline of Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation is actually kind of weak, and almost seems a contrived afterthought in order to tie everything together at the end. The basics are that a peaceful country (Gracemeria) was invaded by another country that has a large military force, including flying fortresses, a large naval contingent and literally tons of mobile and fixed SAM sites. The worst part is that the story is told in these incredibly annoying cut-scenes focusing on several different individuals, which appear to have very little to do with the actually combat that follows. However, I, like most people, will probably play the game for the combat and not to find out whether the lady and her daughter were reunited after the invasion. The single-player campaign is relatively short though and can be completed in 10 hours or less.
The co-op missions are scarce (two total), but are challenging and intense. In each mission, the objective is to accomplish multiple tasks (destroy ships, planes, ground sites, etc) all within a designated time limit. What makes it even more challenging, is that each time a member of the co-op team is shot down, they re-spawn, but take a time penalty plus the amount of time to get back to the Battlezone. Once you get into battle, the order in which you do things impacts what kind of help you may receive deeper into the mission. For example, in the first co-op, if you take the time to support the helicopter group and save them from the ground attack they are under, they will help destroy the ships at sea near the end of the mission.
While most of the co-op tasks are not terribly difficult, you can count on at least one tough battle that usually involves enemy Ace pilots. These guys are not only frustrating to shoot down, but they eat away your time while chasing them around. I found the co-op to be one of the most enjoyable parts of Ace Combat 6, and hope that this is a point of emphasis for future downloadable content. Adding another mission or two would be a great addition to this game.
Multi-player has the potential to be outstanding, if you can hook up with the right group of people. Like most games, Ace Combat 6 does suffer from a case of Punk-itis, where it seems every jerk on Xbox Live is keyed in to your matchmaking session. Once you get past the fools that intentionally blow up their allies, the online play features some fantastic players who really are good dogfighters. I found myself in one match where I just spent several minutes watching two incredibly skilled players match wits in and out of a cityscape. The degree to which they used the environment and landscape to dodge each other was breathtaking. In the end, I snuck behind the “chaser” Top Gun style and cherry-picked him with a missile cluster. He wasn’t thrilled, but it clearly illustrated why you have to keep your guard up in this game at all times. Based on the relatively short lengths of Campaign and Co-op, multiplayer is where most of the replay value falls. Getting together a group of friends to spend some quality time chasing everyone all over the place and shooting each other down is actually more fun than it sounds.
Graphically, Ace Combat 6 is one of the best looking games I have seen, with some of the finer details being simplest. The exhaust plumes from the planes as they dissipate across the sky and the heat signature rippling a fuselage are done quite well. The plane detail has been covered numerous times, and truly helps sell the authenticity. However, I think the key to this game is how well the physics engine handles the graphics while you are tooling around at 450+ kilometers an hour. The ground, other aircraft, ships et al not only keep their impressive details, but actually look more real to a degree.
At the conclusion of each mission, there is a fully animated re-cap from start to finish. Whether there were two people involved in co-op or a campaign mission with you versus 30 nasty AI planes, you get the full skinny on your moves and the tally of the destruction caused by your trigger finger. Some people may skip these, but if you take the time to review the briefing you can learn about your enemies tactics as well as see how close you were to several near-death experiences.
The game audio, like other parts of Ace Combat 6, are basically hit or miss. Pretty much any voice acting in the game, whether a cut-scene or in-combat chatter, is poor. The lines are lame, clichéd and lack any kind of true emotion. The worst offender is the mother that lost her child, who shows up repeatedly in many of the cut-scenes. The voice actress must have studied at the Ben Stein School of no emotion, because she delivers her lines like she is reading off a list of people missing from the Titanic. On the positive side though, the background music provides a great lead in to the missions and sets the stage for what will happen next and the audio for the weapons and planes appear dead on, lending a sense of authenticity to the gameplay.
If you are looking to whore some achievements, you will have to work for them. Like many games that have been released on the Xbox 360, there is a disproportionate amount of points tied to online play. Out of the 49 achievements, 17 of them are online multiplayer and co-op for a whopping 460 points. That means putting in the effort to complete the campaign will get you 65% of the achievements, but only 54% of the points. Especially considering you have to win 300 online matches to earn a paltry 120 points (40 points each for winning 100 Siege, Team Battle and Battle Royal matches). Not exactly a great use of the achievement system, something that game developers or Microsoft need to get together and develop some stricter standards for.
Ace Combat 6 is one of the best air-combat games I have played, yet it has a lot of flaws outside the core game that drag it down a bit. The cut-scenes look and sound terrible, have no attention detail and appear like they were created by a group of interns that have already been told they won’t be brought on full time. The co-op, which could be one of the best parts of the game, is agonizingly short with only two excellent missions that leave you longing for more. Despite these issues, Ace Combat 6 features some spectacular in-game graphics and physics that draw you in and keep your attention. The missions are just challenging enough that you must work for it, but you won’t become frustrated with the inability to complete your objectives. The controls and gameplay are set in a way that novices can fly with veterans and still have an enjoyable experience. Other than a targeting system that is a bit quirky, most players will pick it up relatively quickly and enjoying blowing the hell out of everything whether it is on the ground, in the air or coming by sea.
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