If you have already earned your wings in previous game in the series, you will be pleased to know that Ace Combat 6, a mix of arcade action and flight simulator, gets a massive visual upgrade for the Xbox 360, yet the combat and graphical style remain largely the same.
The story touches briefly upon the lives of two opposing sides- Emeria (US) and Eslovakia (Soviet) and although not exactly subtle on the moral message (War is bad- everyone gets hurt) nor the political basis upon which it is built, it helps to give your throttle finger a rest whilst also allowing you to absorb the amount of thought that went into this game. Whilst the effort put into the plot is evident, much of the story has very little to do with the action in game which may break up the pumped up combat too much. Lip-syncing also leaves something to be desired although this is excusable not only because of the game's Japanese origins but also because it is very easy to get used to. These story skits occur between every mission which to some may be a little over powering however it does give the game some much needed depth. It is also interesting to see how 'your' actions reflect on the world beneath you, although what you do in the mission doesn't actually alter the videos at all. The storyline focusses mainly on a refugee mother who is searching for her daughter whom she assumed dead as soon as the war started- lovely, isn't it? Maybe not, if all you really want to do is kick some Eslovakian arse.
The action itself is very much pick up and play. The game features two control modes and optional tutorials for those of you who don't feel quite up to the challenge of 'realism'. The normal mode of control requires you to do a little bit of multi-tasking using both the control stick and the LB/RB buttons to control your plane. Using this methods you can pull off some pretty sweet moves, ducking and diving between enemy aircraft and making full use of the game's immense airspace. This is all provided you have some skill of course. For novices like me, the game offers a cut down "novice" mode, which basically means 'use left stick to steer'. There is none of this seemingly unnecessary yawing and altering pitch, which, fair enough- don't ever get in a plane with me if I'm pilot- don't actually make much odds to the game's experience.
Ace Combat 6 offers two modes of play: single player or multi player. The single player mode is primarily focussed on the storyline aspect, as outlined above and offers a variety of difficulty levels. These really do vary, and I'm ashamed to say I got quite impressively stuck on easy mode in an area in which I could probably have done much better had I spent the time in tutorial mastering the more complex control scheme. This really adds to playability and friendliness but if it just doesn't do it for you then online mode awaits your log in. What it offers is various modes and objectives however these modes almost always end up with a series of dogfights. This isn't so much a problem when the game does it so well. Besides joining a game, an issue which may have since been ironed out, the online mode runs immensely smoothly. This is somewhat an impressive feat when considering what one game actually entails in terms of both graphics and scale.
In both online and offline modes, the plane you fly makes a huge amount of difference. Each plane in single player will cost you a certain number of credits which are picked up by completing objectives. The planes vary greatly in stats and ability. Some are more efficient at air-ground missions whilst others excel at mid-flight combat. There is a large variety too which makes the choice harder; particularly when the right plane could make or break the mission for you. In multi player it is down to the host to decide which planes you can choose from. This pretty much makes the air-ground planes, a staple to some single player gamers, redundant although there is still plenty of choice excluding them.
Single player mode is a series of objectives consisting of both air-air and air-ground combat. Although you are given a full squad and a wingman who rarely die, they unfortunately lack the precision and accuracy as you, and what commands you can give are extremely limited. This makes the objectives pretty much completable by you alone which can cause some nuances, particularly when put in opposition of ten too many, physics defying Eslovakian wonder machines.
So what do you actually do? Whatever you want. The main aim is to complete objectives and doing so requires plenty of High G turns, steep dives, mean tactics and awesome fire power. With credits you can purchase three special weapons for each plane. These weapons vary from the ability to lock on to multiple targets and obliterate them with missiles, to dumping a huge load of bombs on whatever happens to be below you. The planes can only take one of the special weapons into the mission however, so choose wisely based upon the incredibly elaborate mission objectives. Thankfully, due to the lack of accurate simulation the amount of ammunition rarely falls below the half empty mark. This doesn't really cut it in terms of challenge but makes the game a lot of fun. If you do happen to be trigger happy, you can always land your plane with a bit of practice and reload at any airport. If these special weapons just don't do it for you then whip out the allied attack. These become possible when a meter fills up as a result of completed objectives and can deal unbelievable amounts of destruction; wiping out pretty much anything within your field of view.
Graphically the game is spectacular. It takes the term "pretty" to a whole new level, with shiny planes and such realistic landscapes that you can't help but wonder how they were made. This is all from above though. Up close, the landscapes are a little bit tawdry and make you want to swoop back into the atmos. This is what the game is about after all, and when you consider the incomprehensible draw distance it all suddenly seems worth those few jagged pixels when within 100 metres of the floor. You honestly can see thousands of miles with no texture pop ins or dodgy mist. The cinematic cut scenes are nothing less than fantastic either. Whilst the actual graphics of them may not be ultra-realistic, camera angles are creatively done and give the sense of Hollywood blockbuster rather than moderately selling game.
Overall, fans of the series should have absolutely no problem with Ace Combat 6 and the game does a spectacular job of easing in the newbies. The visuals are fantastic and gameplay blends the realistic and the stylistic in such a perfect balance as to make the game brilliantly original. While the online mode doesn't add to much to the experience, what it presents is enough to make it a promotional bonus, and is definitely capable of racking up a few of those online hours. Unfortunately though, if you fancy yourself more of an army man than RAF, this may not be your cup of tea.