Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War Hands-On

We were more than eager to fly the unfriendly skies in the playable E3 build of Namco's highly anticipated flight combat sequel, and we left the demo feeling the rush.

"Nothing even comes close" is a pretty bold tagline for a game, but if your game is Ace Combat 5, perhaps you can afford to be a little cocky. After all, the next installment in Namco's flight combat series looks as though it's going to deliver everything that was great about Ace Combat 04, and much more. Specifically, the game will feature approximately 50 real-world aircraft, a 30-mission campaign that promises to be lengthy and involved, and most importantly, tons of intense dogfighting. The game is being shown in playable form for the first time at this year's E3, so we quickly took the opportunity to take the game for a test-drive. Long story short: Now we're more excited than ever about it.

First off, Ace Combat 5 looks beautiful. By looking at the trailer and screenshots you'd have every right to be skeptical of whether it's representative of the game's actual good looks. But try to imagine graphics of that quality also running at a silky smooth 60 frames per second and you'll have an idea of how this game actually looks. The plane models--we specifically got to try out the F/A-18 and the F-14 fighters--look stunningly realistic and feature fully articulated parts as well as most excellent afterburner and heat-wash effects. Weapon effects are great, too. There are missile contrails that streak across the sky, as well as visible damage to planes that have been hit that eventually catch fire and come crashing down to earth. Environments look wonderful, as well. Fly dangerously low to the ground and you can clearly make out individual trees on the horizon.

The action already has a good, solid feel to it. Lining up your shots can be difficult, but that's where your guided missiles come in. The planes feel very nimble and maneuverable, so Ace Combat 5 certainly has arcadelike controls--but the core thrills of flight seem to be delivered here in spades, as the action seems to be all about tactical maneuvering and split-second decision making. Every button on the PlayStation 2 controller does something in Ace Combat 5, and incidentally, a lot of the interesting functions are mapped to the directional pad. You use the directional pad to easily issue orders to your wingmates, causing them to attack your targets, form on your wing, cover you, and more.

The specific mission we got to play charged us with hunting down a number of defenseless transport planes, which can soak up a fair amount of damage before losing their ability to fly. This would have been an easy task if not for the waves of enemy fighters bent on preventing us from getting the job done. This sequence gave a good sense of what the gameplay of Ace Combat 5 would eventually be like, though we had hoped to see something in the way of air-to-ground combat, too. During the mission, we heard a great deal of radio chatter with our wingmates, who are actual characters you'll need to manage through the course of the campaign. Since the last Ace Combat game had such a surprisingly good story, we're hopeful that this next game's narrative will be every bit as compelling.

Ace Combat 5 is exclusively headed to the PlayStation 2 this fall. Most of all, we're looking forward to bringing you more on this game. (It will be the perfect excuse to actually get to play the game ourselves!)

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