And what makes this work especially well now is the vastly improved graphics made possible by the move to the Xbox 360. Frankly, I haven’t seen a flight sim look this good on any platform, with detailed, beautifully modelled planes and a landscape that combines aerial and satellite photography, overlaid architecture, rugged topography and gorgeous atmospheric haze and lighting effects. It all looks effortlessly cinematic – as you’ll see when you enjoy the racing-game style replays you get after you’re shot down or when you complete a mission.
If you loved Top Gun – and not in the ironic, gay subtext way that everybody seems to do these days – you’ll spend hours just flicking from one camera angle to another to watch your plane skim the trees or things blow up before you. True, the ground looks a little like Google Earth when you get too close to the surface – though the lighting and water effects mean it looks an awful lot better – but 99 per cent of the time Ace Combat 6 does for the combat flight games what G.R.A.W. did for the military shooter.
Any complaints? Well, it can get a bit repetitive, particularly when the game focuses heavily on supporting ground-based operations for a while. I’d also like to see more in the way of mid-mission checkpoints. The old ‘crash and burn’ routine is always heartbreaking, but it’s especially so when you know you’ll have to repeat the last twenty minutes of the mission for the third time running. Finally, it’s not the most newbie-friendly online experience. The various deathmatch and team-based battle modes work brilliantly, and the dogfights seem fluid and lag-free, but your chances of surviving in skies dominated by Japanese and US hotshots long enough to get to grips with the game are pretty minimal – or maybe that’s just me.
Overall, though, Ace Combat 6 is a bit of a winner. After months of playing racing games, 3D shooters, platformers and RTS games – even when so many of them have been so great – it’s sometimes good to get your mitts on something different and be reminded of how enthralling a great flying ace game can be. There’s a good chance you might not connect with it in the same way, but if you miss the likes of Falcon 3 or Strike Commander or have just steered clear of the series before now, Ace Combat 6 could be a revelation.
A hugely enjoyable piece of high-flying hokum; overblown, unrealistic but surprisingly entertaining. Take to the skies!