In Fires of Liberation, the decorated Ace Combat series roars into the current generation. The scope has expanded to include fantastic online play, and the game has found the perfect balance between a speedy, steady frame rate and quality graphics. The overall experience is innately rewarding, and it ramps up the challenge throughout the course of the campaign and finishes on a thrilling high note that may very well inspire you to replay the final mission (and others, too) over and over again. Ace Combat 6 doesn't always sustain this momentum, and you may actually find the early missions a bit tedious. But if you stick with it, it pays off in grand fashion.
There's a fairly complex web of personal stories that take place between your single-player missions. The breathtaking cutscenes follow a heartbroken mother, a stoic enemy pilot, and other characters on their journeys of discovery and redemption. The story feels somewhat disconnected from the gameplay, given that the scenes don't directly relate to what you're doing in the fiery skies. The bad lip synching (the English dialogue is obviously dubbed over animations meant for Japanese speech) certainly doesn't help the immersion, nor does some of the bland delivery from the voice actors. Yet for all its disconnected personal drama, it gives you a sense of the stakes at hand better than a more sweeping, political narrative would.
This is a key point because you aren't fighting on familiar turf. Like in previous installments, Ace Combat 6 takes place in a fictional world, although aside from geography and nomenclature, it might as well be our own. The Emmerian good guys seemingly represent the Western world, complete with green-lawned suburban homes, whereas the enemy hails from USSR-inspired Estovakia (a comparison that is cemented in every time you hear an Emmerian refer to the residents at "Stovies"). Don't assume that the obvious real-world connection means that this story is the typical Cold War yarn of shining good versus stark raving evil, though. This is a tale that really does have two sides.
In contrast to the moving intermissions, battles are fast and furious, and even if you're a novice, it won't take you long to light up the heavens with your dogfighting prowess. Flying in Ace Combat 6 is a delight. This isn't a realistic flight sim--you won't even be forced to take off and land on your own if you don't want to. Instead, you can simply enjoy the fun, fluid flight model. Your speed is controlled by the triggers, you yaw with the bumpers, and your flight path is controlled by the left analog stick. If you're intimidated by flying games, there is a novice control option, but we encourage you to stick with the default control scheme. It's easy to use and gives you more precise control over your fighter. If you're a veteran and really want to feel like a top gun, you can grab the $150 package that includes flight sticks. The sticks work just fine and give you that great in-the-cockpit feel. But if you don't have the cash or are simply cautious about using a yoke and a joystick, don't worry: Your controller will get the job done serviceably.
There is a good number of real aircraft to choose from, such as the F-22 Raptor and the Tornado, though there aren't nearly as many as in previous installments. Their basic controls are all the same, but the subtleties among them can have profound effects in the battle zone. Before you enter a mission, you're briefed on the multiple operations within it, and you can usually choose from a number of starting positions. When choosing aircraft, you need to take into account whether you need to focus on air-to-ground weaponry over air-to-air, whether you need speed over firepower, and whether your preferred plane supports the most helpful special weapon. You can feel these differences at work in every aspect of flight and combat. For example, executing a high-G turn in slower aircraft may cause you to stall more easily, and piloting a quick fighter may make it tougher to destroy multiple ground targets in succession. You'll want to retry missions with different aircraft once you've unlocked them, just to see how those differences play out in the field.
The missions themselves are quite exciting, though you may not get this impression from the first 5 or 6 of them, because the difficulty level slowly rises for the first few hours. In fact, until you reach the later stages of the game, crashing is your most serious threat. The early slow going is actually a little frustrating; it feels as if you are going from target to target without much sense of urgency or danger. Nevertheless, you'll be glad for the early stages afterward, considering that the later missions present you with persistent enemies that force you to constantly evade their missiles while destroying SAM installations, fighters, missile boats, power grids, and plenty more.
It sounds like chaos, and it can feel a little overwhelming at times. But even when the stakes are high, the game never works against you, and it always gives you the tools you need to succeed. One of the most helpful of those tools is your special weapon, which you choose before the mission starts. Depending on your mass-destruction instrument of choice, you might be able to take down multiple enemy aircraft at once, blanket the ground with a barrage of rockets, or throw missiles out of your tail. Not only can these weapons be crucial in your fight to survive, but they're also another reason to replay missions, just to see how a different choice might affect the tide of war.
Another helpful tool is your wingman, who will provide support or attack an enemy target if you want him to. He's a pretty smart cookie, and he manages to draw enemy fire when necessary (way to take one for the team, Shamrock!), and shows a good amount of prowess in bringing down the foes you specify. And when you have shot down enough bad guys, you can even order an allied attack or allied cover, which brings every friendly jet to your aid. Allied attacks are awesome to watch because your computer-controlled buddies will zoom to your side, setting the landscape on fire and bringing with them a barrage of radio chatter.
The chatter does a good job of setting just the right tone for the game. The radio is constantly abuzz with status updates, shouts of encouragement, warnings of incoming missiles, and the occasional humorous aside. Most of the lines are delivered with the kind of excitement and urgency you would expect from men fighting for the future of their country, though some dialogue--particularly that of your commanding officer--is flat and uninspiring in its delivery. It's all accompanied by a rousing symphonic soundtrack that would be perfectly at home in a stirring war epic. Of particular note is the main theme, first played by a lone French horn, and then expanded in full orchestral splendor. And to round it out are some truly incredible sound effects that fill your ears with constant explosions, machine-gun fire, and the whooshes of air rushing past your aircraft.
The great sound design is accompanied by equally fantastic visual effects. The explosions are some of the best we've seen, particularly when there are cruise missiles in play. They are accompanied by soft billows of white and gray smoke that spread realistically through the sky. You'll play in a variety of environments, above cities and mountains, and through canyons and above the sea. They all look amazing, at least from afar. Of particular note is the unbelievable draw distance, which displays distant objects in more detail than you might expect. The one drab notch on an otherwise pristine visual presentation are the ground-texture maps, which look fine from afar, but are blurry and a little unsightly if you get too close. But you'll rarely have the time to notice because you'll be constantly in motion. And it all runs great, at a consistently smooth frame rate that never falters, even when there are a ton of enemies and explosions onscreen.
Of course, much of this is standard for the series, so if you've played any of the previous games, you know some of what to expect. In fact, you may be disappointed that the single-player campaign isn't as lengthy as the one in Ace Combat 5. However, the addition of some great multiplayer features makes it easy to forgive, especially because the online experience is a good deal of fun. The online menus sort of stink, particularly because unlike in the single-player mode, you can't view the available aircraft when making a selection. However, there are a number of great ways to play online. You can participate in free-for-all and team battles for up to 16 players, both ranked and unranked, and choose from a variety of aircraft without having to unlock them in the campaign. These battles are as fun and exciting as you would expect, given that the game is at its best when you have to be on the defensive.
You and three others can also take part in stand-alone co-op missions, and as with most action games, it's even more fun to attack your goals with gusto when a friend is along for the ride. However, our favorite online mode is siege battle. In this mode, two teams take turns attacking and defending an entire region of targets, and the team that scores the most points is the winner. Dealing with both your real-life opponents and a bunch of antiair weaponry (those flak guns are nuisances indeed) at the same time is nerve-wracking and exciting, and there's really nothing quite like it.
Aside from online play, Ace Combat 6 doesn't break any real new ground for the series. In fact, some cool past features, such as AC5's radioed yes/no questions, are nowhere to be found. Yet Ace Combat 6 makes up for it by providing the most immersive experience yet in an arcade flight combat game, thanks to smooth, gorgeous visuals and polished gameplay. And you'll want to play again and again: There are medals to earn, aircraft and special weapons to purchase with the points you receive during missions, and a good selection of Xbox Live achievement points to earn that are spread out evenly among the campaign and multiplayer modes. You can also save replays of your matches, and the cinematic camera views make them a pleasure to watch. Whether you're an Ace Combat veteran or a series newcomer, you won't be disappointed.