Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies Updated Preview
There's more to this game than just flying. Our latest impressions detail Ace Combat 04's narrative and plot.
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Namco's fourth iteration of its venerable Ace Combat series will be the first to be released on the PlayStation 2. Graphical niceties aside, however, the game will also be one of the first flight simulators to integrate modern day air-combat maneuvers with a rich storyline and compelling narrative, two elements that have historically been much more at home in RPGs and adventure games than in flight sims. As such, Ace Combat 04 should prove appealing to fans of flight simulators, as well as those who have been somewhat hesitant to try out these kinds of games because they've found them too intimidating. We recently had the chance to play through the entire game, which was recently released in Japan, and if the import version is at all indicative of the upcoming domestic version of Ace Combat 04, then fans of the series should certainly be pleased.
Ace Combat 04 is interesting primarily because it features 21 real-world flyable aircraft from NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, but its setting is entirely fictitious. The game takes place in and around a large continent known as Eugea, which was devastated by a meteor strike a few years before the start of the game. As a means of countering any possible catastrophes in the future, the citizens of Eugea constructed a massive facility with six enormous guns that are designed to shoot down any meteors that threaten to collide with the planet. Soon after this weapon was completed, however, the governing body that sanctioned its construction realized that they could use their newfound power to subjugate the surrounding nations, so the cluster of cannons that was designed to prevent global catastrophe was used to create just that. In Ace Combat 04, this story is narrated by a boy whose town was occupied by these same forces. His entire family was wiped out when an enemy pilot shot down an airplane directly over his neighborhood, and the boy winds being adopted by the resistance group that runs the local tavern. The boy soon grows obsessed with finding the pilot responsible for his family's death, and he eventually discovers that one of the patrons of the very bar he calls home--a man who goes by the call sign Yellow 13--is that pilot. The pilot is the leader of Yellow Squadron, which is made up of some of the best SU-27 pilots that the aggressors have. Unlike the men under him, Yellow 13 isn't brash or cocky--he's patient, meticulous, and fatalistic. Yellow 13 almost longs to find an enemy in the sky who can best his skill and relieve him of his life. The boy immediately begins to hate Yellow 13, but he's also intrigued by him, and he eventually finds himself following the pilot around during his daily routine in the months that follow.
The entire game seems to take place in the past, because the boy's voice is clearly that of a grown man's, and he constantly speaks in the past tense. These sequences are brought to life by static but beautifully drawn animation cells that appear before or after nearly every mission in the game, and they really convey a sense of reading a graphic novel instead of playing a flight simulator.
You assume the role of a pilot who flies for the ISAF, the air force of a group of island nations that are locked into war with the Eugean aggressors. It's interesting that you'll learn more about this boy, his town, and Yellow 13 than you will about your own character in Ace Combat 04--you'll never even find out your own name, just your call sign: Mobius One. As you and the ISAF successfully complete sorties against the enemy, you'll see how your actions are affecting the town's occupying forces and, later on in the game, how successful skirmishes with Yellow Squadron affect Yellow 13's demeanor.
There are 18 missions in Ace Combat 04, and the game's single-player campaign is entirely linear, so if you fail a mission, you'll have to retry it all over again. Before each mission starts, you'll be briefed on the current situation of the ISAF and the Eugean forces. A map of the continent will reveal the progress that the ISAF has made in cutting supply lines, attacking enemy bases, and liberating occupied territory. Your ultimate goal will be to capture enough territory to be able to stage attacks on the massive guns that have terrorized the gameworld for so long. To do this, you'll have access to 21 real-world airplanes that include pillars of US air dominance like the F-16C, F-14A, F-22A, F-15C, A-10A, F-117A, and F/A-18C, as well as former Soviet bloc aircraft like the SU-35, SU-37, and MiG-29. Even European and Japanese aircraft like the F-2A, F-15 Active, F-15E, Tornado-1D5, EF-2000, Mirage 2000, and Rafale-M01 are well represented in Ace Combat 04. Naturally, you'll only have access to older, less powerful aircraft at first, but as you complete missions, you'll earn money with which to buy newer, more advanced planes.
It's interesting to note that the planes you'll do battle with in the game actually behave like their real-world counterparts. A-10s will fly low to the ground, then pull up and go inverted in order to acquire their targets before performing another half roll and firing off their munitions. The former Soviet bloc planes, especially the Yellow Squadron's SU-27s, will constantly perform the infamous Pugachev Cobra and Kolokol maneuvers during dogfights.
The sorties that you'll fly in the game are surprisingly varied, and they range from simple combat area patrols (CAPs) to air-to-ground attack missions, air-to-sea strikes, ground support missions, escort missions, intercept sorties, and all-out air battles. You'll be thoroughly briefed before each mission, and you'll be given a breakdown on how many air, ground, and sea targets you're expected to run into during your sortie so you can make an informed decision on which plane to fly with. You can even further customize your aircraft to the necessary tasks of the mission by purchasing various armaments that range from unguided cluster bombs and massive napalm canisters to precision long-range air-to-air missiles and laser-guided air-to-ground Mavericks. But no level of preparation will be enough for certain missions in the game, since surprises do happen. A seemingly easy mission can turn into a massacre of your squadron because of unforeseen enemy locations, for example. Some of the later missions are particularly hair-raising, since you'll be flying within range of the massive Eugean cannons, which can knock down an entire squadron of planes with only a single shot.
Bringing all this action to life is an impressive graphics engine that can render all the plane models, the terrain, and even various weather effects with great detail. Your missions will take you from the open seas to craggy, snow-peaked mountain ranges, and the weather can range from sunny to stormy and everything in between. Namco has done a great job with lighting, as well--you'll often catch the sun's glare off of the ocean surface--and the self-shadowing and reflection of each plane is equally impressive.
The import version of Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies is certainly impressive, and if Namco doesn't remove content from the game for its domestic release--Ace Combat 3 had some great scenes entirely removed from the domestic version--then this game will surely be one that all action fans should pay close attention to.
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