Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies Review
We all know the history of Namco. It's no secret that this 3rd party was once the most dominant force in the arcade industry back in the early 80s. To think, it all started with a yellow ball shaped character that gobbles up dots and beats off ghosts. It's been nearly 20 years since Pac-Man saw the light of day, and it's also been nearly 20 years since it was the most popular arcade nation-wide. Times have greatly changed haven't they? Arcades have become obsolete by consoles, as the trend of 'quarter-dropping' has slowly faded away. It's an arguable case, but it can be said that Namco redefined various genres, by introducing them to the third-dimension. Ridge Racer, Tekken and Ace Combat were some of the first (if not the first) of their kind. Ridge Racer was a true 3D racer with sophisticated visuals, not just a measly looking polygonal racer. Tekken wasn't the only 3D fighter in the arcades, Sega's Virtua Fighter was another very impressive effort, but Namco's title did more in terms of graphics. Now we come to Ace Combat. Debuting on the Playstation as Air Combat, the Ace Combat series was possibly the first fully three-dimensional air combat title on any console. Like Ridge Racer and Tekken, Ace Combat has evolved tremendously. But only now has it reached its very first milestone - on the Playstation 2.
Since the day it was revealed, Ace Combat 4 had always been awed over because of its wonderful visuals. The PS2's capabilities had been greatly justified by the dozens and dozens of screens Namco had been feeding us over the past year. After finally witnessing the game in action first-hand the visual prowess of AC4 shows. Each and every aircraft is meticulously detailed for the most realistic result, all the way down to the final decal on the nose of the plane. It is very safe to say that the aircraft detail is the 'Gran Turismo' of the genre. Titus' recently released Top-Gun title has absolutely nothing on Ace Combat 4's aircrafts. One look and you'll most certainly agree with me; these are some realistic looking pieces of combat machinery. That being said, let's move on. Unlike Top Gun: Combat Zones, Ace Combat 4's atmosphere is absolutely pop-up free. Namco has crafted a sophisticated game engine that surpasses just about every plane-sim on the market, be it PC or console. Not even Konami's Air Force: Delta Storm [Xbox title] compares to Ace Combat 4's graphical presentation. Enemy fighter jets feature almost as much detail as your own fighter. Get close enough and see for yourself.
Nearly everything that encompasses you is superbly detailed, with the exception of some lousy surface texturing. The dooming plague of washy surface textures still remains in AC4. Get close enough to a mountain range, forest, and or just asphalt from a city, and you'll instantly notice that you're air craft just doesn't blend it with whatever circles you. From thousands of feet in the air everything looks fine and dandy, but up-close it's an abstract painting. Special effects such as explosions really do need a little 'Star Wars' effect put into them. But then again, you, as the gamer, can dramatically spiral downward shoot a missile or two at a military ship, and quickly hairpin back up, as the ship is destroyed, creating this Pearl Harbor-esque feeling. While that does build up some adrenaline, it would've been nicer to see some more destructive special effects. Basically, a little more eye-candy would do this game even more justice in creating a war like scenery. Overall, this is a superbly detailed game. My gripes with the visuals are absolutely minor and chances are it won't even bother most of you.
Reviewing Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere a year and a half ago I made a statement that ,unlike it's Japanese brethren, the US version of AC3 wasn't as story driven as it should've been. Some critics complained about that as a major fault, some overlooked it and noted that the gameplay itself makes Electrosphere an electrifying experience, sorry for the pun. (Then again it's been said that the story in AC3 was so bad, Namco just decided to screw it for the US release). Nevertheless, a story always adds more to the atmosphere, and in Ace Combat 4's case it really does! Namco has obviously heard the many qualms from Ace Combat enthusiasts, so this time around the development team didn't overlook a story. Instead of something vague and mundane, Ace Combat 4's story is deep and engrossing. It tells the story of a young boy, through still images of comic book animations. *Slight spoilers* The game starts off with a gentle intro of a dozen stars shooting from the sky. A voice of a middle-aged man is heard: he describes war activity in third world countries, and how the sight of it in his own is a rarity, until now. Fighter-jets have swarmed the skies of the boy's neighborhood, and one day on his way to school he notices a duel between two aircrafts. The enemy is able to get a hit on the opposing craft, the craft is surrounded by balls of flames as it dives downward, eventually crashing and destroying the boy's property - where his family was. All alone, the adventurous male has a deep flow of vengeance and hatred gushing through his blood stream. The target: Yellow Squadron.
Ace Combat 4 pits you through 18 missions, all complete with prime objectives, and in some cases secondary objectives. Some stages can take up to two minutes to complete, while others 5 minutes. One thing's for sure, playing the standard normal difficulty level, you are bound to retry at least half of the missions more than 5 times. There are five difficulty settings, ranging from very easy to very hard. Don't get too cocky though, because 'very hard' can at times feel like an ambush on you, as the enemy will target you more often on their lock-on scanners. To accompany you on the 18 missions, there are 18 aircrafts. The game starts you off with one, as you progress and complete the first two stages, you'll be able to buy another aircraft. Eventually you'll purchase the very fierce MIR-2000, F14, F-16 Fighting Falcon, or even the air-to-ground extraordinaire A-10. Some of the best and deadliest fighters of AC4 include the F-22 Raptor and SU-37. You will be allowed to purchase 8 jets, as the remaining ones need to be unlocked. To equip the jets with, you have weapons of mass destruction. Homing missiles and drop bombs are the most common of your artillery, but of course every fighter comes equipped with the standard rapid fire machine-gun. You must build a strategy as well. If you are entering a mission where there is a lot of air-to-ground attacking involved, it is much better to select the unguided drop bombs and firing the machine-gun, rather than using the homing missiles. If you are caught in a fur ball mission (where there is a large number of bogies), then guided homing missiles would be the best choice. Of course, different aircrafts have different traits. Some are designed to be specific in the air-to-ground field, while others are designed to be the metal hawks of the sky in the air-to-air combat field. Respectively, the A-10 and the F-22 Raptor are the ideal examples. Let me assure you folks that Ace Combat 4 is a deep flight sim title. Those who are familiar with the series will be graciously welcomed home in this awesome air combat title. I couldn't get enough of it. After completing it once, I had the urge to complete it once more.
Ace Combat 4 is the definitive audio experience. The sound effects are absolutely phenomenal. Even the little details stand out! When a plane soars right over you, just a mere 100ft away from making contact, you hear the whoosh and it really heightens the adrenaline. The sound effects contribute to increasing the adrenaline rush. Everything around you just seems so organic, it's as if you're actually piloting one of these puppies and shooting down bogies on the way. As you progress through your missions, you will hear friendly and enemy feedback on your transmitters. The dialogue is rarely repetitive, and really does a great job at keeping that air combat atmosphere going. Though, what really defines the sound is its superb voice acting, that is to say 'actor'. The main character of the game, who is only known as Mobius-1 narrates the story, and he does a fantastic job. The voice talent is just fantastic at keeping the story on track. There's absolutely no hesitation, everything streams right off of the DVD. Ace Combat 4 has a generic, but strangely good soundtrack. I can't really put it in words, but I'll just say that it works with the game. All in all, great sound!
Controlling the game has remained the same for the most part. You choose from either a simple toned down control scheme, to a slightly more complex method of control. Either way works well, but I prefer the simulation controls. The Dual Shock 2 will be used to its full advantage with the game, as both analog sticks are functional - the left for maneuvering the air craft, the right for camera control. To the Ace Combat virgins out there, it will take time to get used to the controls, so if you've been busy playing other flight titles or other titles altogether, you may need some "alone" time with AC4 in its tutorial mode. To me, the controls were fantastic. Everything moved and responded with grace as the analog's sensitivity is excellent. Aside from the analog sticks, the buttons are also fully sensitive to touch. The default braking (L1) and acceleration (R1) buttons are incredibly sensitive. Putting all force on the R1 button activates the jet's after burner, a little less pressure just accelerates the jet casually and the same said for braking. Those new to the AC series will need to some time to get acquainted with the controls of AC4. Fans: no need to worry.
After the long wait, Ace Combat 4 did live up to its hype. I have few -if any- major gripes with the game. The visuals are absolutely spectacular and very awe-inspired. The gameplay lives up to its three predecessors in every single way. While it isn't the longest title, chances are you'll want to replay the game a few times over, once you're done with it. Perhaps where the game scores the biggest is the story mode, and the contribution to it through the use of some excellent voice acting. It was stressed earlier, and I'll stress it once more, the story and the voice acting is pretty captivating. Just you wait and see the ending, you won't want to miss this. Also, the two-player mode needs to be mentioned, as it is the first in the series. Ace Combat fans, you have finally reached air combat utopia.
11/1/2001 Arnold Katayev