It's almost impossible in these post-Modern Warfare times to imagine any game that's simply about arcade thrills, without every possible bell and whistle tacked on. Namco's years-old Ace Combat was all about uncomplicated dogfights, largely leaving your pilot's back-story grounded as you imagined, in your own head, being Top Gun's Maverick.
That the series has been given a little Modern Warfare makeover could have felt like a cash-in. Luckily though it adds hugely to the game, particularly as Ace Combat's strengths - a plane-spotter's attention detail wedded to a certain looseness and arcade playability - have been left intact.
At its core, this is still a combat flight sim. And here you're in the air and in the danger zone from the off. Controls are intuitive enough that if your flight skills are more penguin than Iceman, you can still jump straight in. You bank, you speed up, you brake to manoeuvre into attack position or evade those locked-on enemies. Once you are behind and close enough to an enemy your reticule will tell you it's time to enter DFM, or dogfight mode.
Here, the aircraft pretty much goes on autopilot to enable you to concentrate on targeting your enemy. It works surprisingly well, though at times it feels hairy - exhilaratingly so - as you enter DFM at low levels.
In one dogfight I entered DFM while targeting a plane that turned out to be crashing - meaning the autopilot followed it straight into the ground. But most of the time, your altitude is sufficient to let things go, Skywalker-like, and bring down your opponents in a blaze of slow-mo glory.
There is a Jane's-worth of licensed military aircraft to fly - from the ever-popular F-16 to F-22 Raptors, Migs, Eurofighter and even stealth bombers. Below you, photo-realistic oilfields and real-world cities bear witness to the near-future war in which you are engaged.
A decade ago, all this would have been enough. But what really gives the game its depth is the addition of helicopters.
War is helicopter
As in Call of Duty you get to play as several characters across different squadrons, including crews of Black Hawks, 'Spooky' bombers and Apache gunships. This provides some fantastic variety to the gameplay as you man Black Hawk door-guns, dealing death to rooftop snipers, or cause mass carnage from the Spooky via imaging technology in support of ground troops.
Undoubtedly, though, some of the game's best moments involve the Apache.
The gunship is trickier to control than the jets, not least because you're closer to the ground and vertical control comes into play. It's not helped by some awkward camera angles, but you can change the perspective from third to first person and an in-cockpit view, and once you have mastery of the whirlybird, it's all the more rewarding.
The Modern Warfare comparisons are never more apt than as you hover over a dusty, Mogadishu-style East African town in support of stranded ground-troops - the tense atmosphere and visceral combat really is thrilling.
And again like Call of Duty, the battle-chatter, with its endless acronyms and military jargon add to the experience and give the game a realistic, or at least movie-like, feel.
Your actions in the Apache and bomber sections of the game are directed by radio and your timely responses in finding and eliminating your designated targets are key to not just your survival but that of the ground teams, and you genuinely feel a weight of responsibility for the success of each mission.
In fact, if anything, the helicopter levels are so involving they make the bread-and-butter jet sections seem monotonous by comparison. The dogfights do seem to go on forever; as you chase down and eliminate one wave of bad guys, another shows up. And again, and again, which does dull the pace of the game a little.
The narrative, penned by best-selling war-thriller author Jim de Felice, is pretty familiar and its characters two-dimensional. This combined with pretty inferior facial detail makes for uninspiring cutscenes.
But the campaign it weaves together is meaty enough, and the multiplayer is stocked with enough customization and game modes, including the epic, team-based Capital Conquest, to keep you in the air for some time.
Adding some of Modern Warfare's gritty realism gives the Ace Combat series a shot in the arm, while its arcade accessibility and enjoyability remains intact.
- Good variety in the gameplay
- Impressive battle realism
- Arcade playability
- Cutscenes are clichéd and unpretty
- Dogfights go on too long
- Not much replay value in single player