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Ace Combat: Squadron Leader

Cue Top Gun music…

“Eagle 1! Bogey at three o’clock high!” A black speck appears through the sea of blue, zipping through the sky. You pull the stick back as far as it will go, bracing for the oncoming Gs. Blood battles against your clothing as it tries to squeeze into your legs and away from your brain. “Eagle 1! Fire at will.” You gradually guide the dot into the HUD, bleeps emanating from every instrument and direction. “Target lock. Fox one! Fox two!” The missiles arc gracefully away through the air, their white trails elegantly slicing through the sky. “Target hit!” The explosion rips through the aircraft, tearing its belly from underneath it, plucking it from the air before you.

The fifth game in the Ace Combat series is set in an alternative reality in 2010. The war between the world’s two superpowers, the Republic of Yuktobania and Osea, has just turned from cold to hot and here the game begins. Suiting up into the role of rookie pilot and journalist Blaze, we fly with Osea to protect our homeland from the incoming hostilities. As the first few missions pass, the minor skirmishes escalate into a full scale conflict and Blaze finds himself the leader of a four plane squadron.

The game’s story is played out using pre-rendered cutscenes, stunningly crafted to give a real cinematic sheen to proceedings. Slightly blurred to good effect, they are accompanied by neat scripting and decent voice acting. The cut scenes do more than set the background for the missions; they link them together and give Squadron Leader an almost epic quality which is on par with many adventure games. For an adrenaline fuelled shoot ’em up, this is certainly a welcome surprise and one that sets a tone for the rest of the game to follow.

Squadron Leader is essentially split down into two modes: Campaign and Arcade. The latter is a stripped down pure dogfighting experience, but where the game really shines is in its primary story based campaign. For those new to the series, there’s a comprehensive tutorial to get you started, which is a welcome addition considering how many games lack such a feature. The controls themselves use all of the gamepad’s buttons and their pressure sensitivity, being both responsive and streamlined to make best use of the functions available. Flight games are typically complicated and difficult to control, but Squadron Leader makes flying a breeze.

Ace Combat‘s gameplay returns largely untouched, which is nothing but a good thing. Dogfights are exactly how they should be: intense, visceral and disorientating affairs. Everything is exaggerated enough to make it enjoyable, whilst not deviating too far from reality and becoming unrealistic. Ammunition, for instance, is much more plentiful than it would be in real life, as otherwise it would make the game feel like a tedious simulator. Aircraft are responsive and the controls are spot on, making dogfights just as they have always been; immensely satisfying. It’s the details like being able to have the camera follow a missile after it launches and see it hit the enemy aircraft that set Ace Combat apart from other flight games.

The newest addition to the tried and tested formula is that of the Ace Combat‘s subtitle. As a squadron leader for much of the game, you are given access to a few simple commands via the D-pad to order your wingmen about with. You can ask them to attack your target, cover you, disperse or give them permission to use their special weapons. They don’t need constant baby-sitting though and fight intelligently throughout. If you’re tactically minded, your wingmen can be a vital asset, but if you’re not then you really don’t have to really engage with them at all.

You’re also responsible for your squad of four’s aircraft selection throughout the campaign mode. As you progress, you’ll be given money which can be spent on planes, while older aircraft can be sold on to generate funds. Before each mission, you’re prompted to choose one for each pilot, a decision that can alter how you fight the battle. It’s this tactical element to the game which gives it an edge. It’s kept fairly straightforward, but at the same time adds a welcome helping of depth to the gameplay.

Graphically, it’s not just in the cutscenes that Ace Combat impresses. Each aircraft is highly detailed, with lighting and effects to match. The quality of the graphics isn’t so apparent during the main gameplay, but when the replays kick in after each sortie, it’s clear just how good the visuals really are. Widescreen support is also offered which is extremely useful given the added field of view that it allows, while subtitles are included. The audio complements the action with authentic sound effect recorded from the genuine article, while the voice acting is well done and ties into both the cutscenes and in game action well.

There are 30 missions to keep you busy in Campaign mode, along with Arcarde, unlockables and multiple difficulty levels added in to boost the game’s lifespan. Although the lifespan is perfectly adequate, what’s missing is any sort of multiplayer mode. Ace Combat online would be awesome to say the least. Make no mistake though, Squadron Leader will keep you occupied for quite a while and even though it doesn’t feature multiplayer, its story mode should satisfy your Top Gun cravings for a good deal of time.

Ace Combat: Squadron Leader is exactly how a console flight combat game should be. Dogfights are intense and hugely satisfying, the handling is spot on, the graphics are detailed and it all runs very smoothly. The story is surprisingly well crafted, conveyed effectively through beautiful cutscenes and in-game audio. Squadron Leader is coherent and consistent, linking each mission up and making it more than just a list of levels. Moreover, it shows an understanding on the part of the developer of how to take the subject matter and make a great game out of it. Ace Combat captures the essence of what makes aerial combat so appealing perfectly. It may lack multiplayer, but pound for pound, this is the best flight combat game available.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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