Ace Combat 4 Preview

Ace Combat 4 gives you a chance to step into the cockpits of the world's most technologically advanced fighters. While its photo-realistic graphics clearly separate it from its PlayStation roots, you can expect the series' arcadelike gameplay to remain intact.


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Military technology may be a real-life boon, but in the world of video games, it's become a gameplay curse. The continued evolution of "smart weapons"--such as heat-seeking, image-guided missiles and onboard computers--may do well to ensure the safety of those charged with defending our borders, but they also continue to separate humankind from the tactical skill (and visceral thrill) required in hunting a foe. Nowhere has the shift to computer-aided combat become as evident as it has in the world of air combat, which (at least in video games) has often become a tedious exercise in lock-on duels punctuated by chaff bursts--for example, never approaching the thrill of a World War II-style turning duel.

It's somewhat surprising, then, that Namco's Ace Combat series (games that concern modern air combat) has quietly established itself as one of the original PlayStation's more successful franchises. The series' success can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the games arbitrarily bend the rules and reality of air combat to suit a more arcade style of gameplay. Critical response and sales figures indicate that the concept has worked. Now, Ace Combat 4, due out later this year on the PlayStation 2, marks the series' jump to the next generation of consoles. Already, the game's jaw-dropping graphics have won appreciative onlookers; the question now is whether Namco will be able to continue to provide the gameplay to match.

In Ace Combat 4, all the action takes place on a continent known as Eugea. Once home to a group of powerful countries teetering on the brink of war, the continent has recently suffered a natural cataclysm. A gigantic meteor has rained down a fiery death on the continent, altering civilization irrevocably. Millions of lives have been lost, and the former superpowers have become disorganized and have splintered into dangerous factions. Ace Combat 4 concerns most of its story on several ragtag groups fighting for control of a distinctive crater island off the coast of Eugea. This island is home to a vital port that has remained operational through the carnage, as well as a ring of powerful radar stations in the island's northern mountain chain. None of this means much to your main character, though; despite all this setup, you've joined the fight to avenge your parents' murder at the hands of a rival faction.

The Ace Combat series has never been a simulation, and we shouldn't expect Ace Combat 4 to make many changes in this regard. Most missions will feature a lot of dogfighting and sparing amounts of reconnaissance (essentially, a flip-flop of air combat reality). For gameplay's sake, there are other significant changes. The game allows you some insane control--you can pull all the Gs you want. There are no redouts or blackouts here. You'll also have enhanced visibility--aside from the pertinent gauges and HUD, the canopy is transparent. When it comes down to actual combat, the game makes missile locks tough to establish while it beefs up your cannon fire to disproportionately strong levels. You'll be required to do much more than just keep your crosshairs on a bogey if you want to down him. Namco's idea is to have dogfights with jet fighters become affairs that are up close and personal--akin to classic World War II-fighter duels.

Ace Combat 4 promises more than 20 aircraft included in the final product. Expect most of the USAF's current roster, such as the F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, F-18 Hornet, F-117 Stealth Fighter, and the new F-22 Air Superiority Fighter, to make the cut. There are also some high-profile aircraft from around the world: Look for the new SU-27, as well as standbys such as the Mirage, Rafale, and Foxbat (among others yet to be finalized). Namco promises that each fighter's handling will be based on its real-world performance. Like most everything else in Ace Combat 4, you can take this to mean that a fighter's performance will be inspired by, rather than identical to, the real thing.

At least Ace Combat 4 looks the part of a superrealistic air combat simulator--even if it doesn't end up always acting like one. The game features incredibly detailed aircraft models, with high-resolution textures and metallic reflections. Looking at replays of the jet fighter action, you may be frequently fooled into thinking you're watching a movie. Jet trails, silky-smooth frame rates, and awesome particle explosions look like something straight out of Top Gun. Additionally, the game's rendered backgrounds blend fogging, nonrepetitive texturing, and reflective surfaces for photo-realistic quality. Also notable is Namco's attention to lighting. Light sources cause reflections not only in aircraft but also on the landscape, a feature that noticeably enhances the game's realism. In particular, missions that take place over the aforementioned crater harbor look like a lot of fun. Instead of dull repeating textures stretching into the horizon, the picturesque Crater Lake with its shimmering water dominates the screen--serving as a panoramic backdrop for the aerial carnage.

Visual chills and thrills are important in establishing a game's realism and atmosphere, but easy-to-control fighters and action-packed missions are what Ace Combat 4 really needs to be a standout success. Namco knows this. If Ace Combat 2 and 3 for the PlayStation are any indication, we should expect its sequel to maintain the series' arcadelike dogfighting style, as well as its variety of missions, which focus on gameplay more than authentic air combat experience. If Ace Combat 4 plays anywhere near as well as it looks, gamers should be in for a treat.

Look for Ace Combat 4 this fall on the PlayStation 2.

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