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TVG pops in the Top Gun CD soundtrack and takes a look at the newest instalment in the Ace Combat series…
Ever since mankind first stepped out from our cave and saw the birds fly in the sky, weâ??ve had the unrelinquishing urge to fly; and for the past couple of centuries weâ??ve done just that, from the hot air balloon of the 18th Century through to the dawn of the 20th Century and the emergence of powered flight.
For most of us, the closest that we ever get to controlling aircraft is when we sit in uncomfortable seats, 20 feet behind the cabin (and thatâ??s if weâ??re lucky)â?¦and if we fly them in videogames, of course.
For years now, if you were to mention that you enjoyed playing flying games, you were thought of as some kind of weirdo, a trainspotter of the videogames world. It would be expected of you that your time was spent sitting in front of your screen for hours on end as you piloted an exact replica of a Boeing 767 at 37,000 feet from London Heathrow and New Yorkâ??s JFK International â?“ in real time. Now, we certainly arenâ??t knocking those who enjoy that sort of thing, but for us flying games mean that you spend time flying sorties and dog-fighting bogeys (no snot jokes please) at low altitude.
Thankfully, thereâ??s the Ace Combat series, which has helped to bring air combat to life and satisfied even the most ardent Top Gun fanatic. Three years ago, Namco released Distant Thunder (Shattered Skies in the US), and now they return with Squadron Leader (The Unsung War in the US.) Set 15 years after the war against Belkans, Ace Combat 5 follows the war in a parallel world between the Osea Federation and the Yuktobania Republics. Gamers play the part of a fighter plot whose call sign is â??Blazeâ? and forms part of Warthog Squadron, a small group of fighters based on the Osean Sand Island Air Base in the middle of the sea that separates the two countries.
Much in the same way as Ridge Racer Type 4 on the good olâ?? PSone, Squadron Leader does include a narrative thread throughout, which does make all the more interesting than if it were a straightforward shoot and destroy game. This is typically Namco, and is some respects Ace Combat 5 is to Ridge Racer Type 4 what Top Gun was to Days of Thunder - you donâ??t find narratives running through Project Gotham or Microsoft Flight Simulator (although to be fair, the latter could benefit from that.) As Blaze, gamers begin the game as tail-man for the group leader, Captain Jack Bartlett, a cynical veteran who has been responsible for training new fighter pilots for years. Youâ??re soon elevated to Flight Leader after an enemy Surface-to-Air Missile shoots down Bartlett over the ocean.
The game has been developed by Namco, and is associated with pretty much every big aeronautics company in the world including Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, BAe Systems, and the Japanese Air Defence Force. What this means is that you get to fly and destroy some of best known fighter jets from the last 30 years including the Tornado, the Harrier, and the MiG-21. As you rack up the point after the missions, players can decide to buy new planes for you and your team, with the jets having their own pros and cons so itâ??s worth thinking about the appropriate planes for the mission ahead.
The planes look very nice and are very faithful representations of their real-world counterparts, and although we may not be fighter Pilots ourselves the manoeuvrability of the jets certainly feels how we would imagine them to feel. In-game, the view is first person, but after a mission is complete or after you crash your multi-million war machine players get the chance to review their performance by way of a reply, which allows you to view the action from a variety of angles. Itâ??s from this replay mode that gamers can begin to comprehend the high speeds reached in a mission, and where the near misses with other jets and ballistic missiles can be replayed in scary crystal clarity. The game also features a post-combat debrief and allows gamers to review the theatre of combat using a 3D-Vector system, substituting the planes with kite-like icons that flow across the screen effortlessly.
There is an argument of desensitisation that says people become immune from violent or disturbing sights if they see enough of it over time. For instance, how many of you cringed or exclaimed when you saw your first crash in Burnout? And how many times do you do it now? These days we are quite used to seeing car crashes in video games, and itâ??s quite rare that we react unless itâ??s a particularly bad incident. All we have to say is that it when you are travelling at speed in excess of Mach 1 and you have a near miss with another jet travelling at a similar speed, something quite primeval occurs â?“ a sharp intake of breath is involuntarily taken. At those speeds you canâ??t help it, you see the other plane fly over for a split second before it disappears again and you realise that if you had been travelling at just a fraction quicker, then you would have joined the big flight school in the sky.
Although the game looks nice enough at 15,000 feet, the closer you get to the ground the clearer it becomes that there is a distinct lack of detail in the ground-level environments. This is somewhat of a disappointment when you consider that for a majority of your time you spend flying at reasonably low altitudes of 2000 feet and under, and for certain missions flying under 500 feet is necessary. In fact, during certain points in the game we were flying so low (no zipper jokes please) that we were virtually cutting the heads off daisies.
Controlling the jets does require some sensitive movements of the analogue sticks, but the fact of the matter is that the system is very intuitive â?“ we werenâ??t given the control guide and it only took a matter of seconds to work everything out. Acceleration and braking are controlled with the shoulder buttons, whilst the weaponry is activated by the Circle and Square buttons. Finally the new command system is managed through the use of the d-pad.
The command system essentially allows gamers to control how the rest of the 3 / 4 man team in combat. Four different commands (Attack, Disperse, Cover and Special Weapons) are available to choose from, with the first three fairly self-descriptive. Switching between the Special Weapons is achieved by pressing the Select button, and allows you to move from missiles to bombs â?“ very handy in Air-to-Surface Combat. The system allows you some scope to switch strategies and youâ??ll find that the squadron follows the orders down to the letter. In the aforementioned debrief, you can actually see the transition between orders from Cover to Disperse â?“ the other three planes literally separate out and fight their own battles.
Besides controlling the actions of the rest of the team, the d-pad is used to respond to various questions posed by your colleagues. There is quite a bit of banter and various other conversations in-flight (over 14 hours worth of recorded dialogue) and from time to time gamers are asked whether they understood various commands and whether as Squadron Leader you wish for the tam to disperse. What it actually means in terms of gameplay is that you do actually feel to certain extent at least, part of a team. You donâ??t feel isolated and individual, and in fact the questions that they sometimes pose can actually help decide the outcome of missions, especially where time is a factor.
Although the game is quite exhilarating, especially at low levels, the missions are essentially â??blow these planes upâ? and â??destroy those tanksâ?, which means that it does become quite repetitive early on. The storyline and in-flight conversations do break-up the flow of the game so it doesnâ??t feel like one long mission, although with 30 sorties in the game, it is quiet difficult to keep up your levels of enthusiasm. We found ourselves going slightly off mission and flying as high as we could then as low as we could â?“ fun, but thereâ??s only so much belly-scraping action we could take. The game also features the track Blurry from Puddle of Mudd, which according to Namco, was a song that they had in mind throughout development to feature in Ace Combat 5. It might not be â??Danger Zoneâ?, and is hardly the bandâ??s rockiest songs, but itâ??s a nice touch in the game and youâ??ll find yourself listening out for it.
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