Having had five instalments plus various side-games to polish the Ace Combat formula, Namco has transformed the old combat flight sim into a game that balances complexity and accessibility with understated brilliance. The flight dynamics aren’t remotely realistic, yet each plane you can fly has its own distinctive feel, and the combination of the left analogue stick, the triggers (brake and thrust) and the bumpers (rudder controls) gives you enough scope to pull off some fast and furious manoeuvres.
Selecting weapons, cycling through targets and changing the view on your radar display is a lot easier than it was in the days when you needed a keyboard overlay just to remember what keys to press and when. On-screen indicators are fantastically intuitive, and it’s never hard to find your next objective or track the enemy fighter who just flew past you at several hundred miles per hour. But the really nice thing about Ace Combat 6 is that it has built a certain amount of tactical depth into each mission without adding too many features that would over-complicate the game.
The key thing here – and a new addition to the series – is the concept of a living battlefield. This isn’t a new thing for serious combat flight games, but in Ace Combat 6 it means that, while you’re flying around, friendly and enemy units are fighting their own fights and following their own objectives in the skies around you and on the battlefield below. After the initial settling in missions, each campaign mission offers you three or more operations going on at any one time, each with multiple objectives (clear a path for this tank squadron, attack the anti-air defences so our support craft can pass) that need to be completed.
The trick becomes prioritisation. If certain friendly units fail or are destroyed, the mission ends, so you need to ensure that you spread yourself around enough to keep everyone going without spreading yourself so thin that you don’t do any one job properly. In the meantime, events may be triggered that have serious repercussions on the ongoing battle, so you need to stay flexible enough to react.