Way back when, before the Playstation had penetrated 25% of American households and racked up holiday sales of nearly $1billion, PC mags used to put it down because of its lack of diversity. 'Command and Conquer? Stick with a PC!,' they'd say. Not any more. The Playstation has penetrated virtually every PC game genre, from wargames with Allied and Panzer General, to adventures with Broken Sword and LBA, to strategy/management with Transport Tycoon and Constructor. Even Civilization 2, the mightiest of the PC defender's games, has been converted. But there was one nut the Playstation was never quite able to crack. The flight simulator, beloved by Jane's All the World's Aircraft readers the world over. Ace Combat 2, while not a proper flight simulator, is certainly the best attempt thus far on the Playstation.
The graphics in this game are absolutely stunning. From the working control surfaces on the planes to the magnificent landscapes, this game is a graphical class act. Afterburners flare, planes spin out of control trailing smoke, and destroyed targets burn. There is also an amazing cloud layer effect, where you break out of the dark foggy low altitude and into brilliant sunshine, with white fluffy clouds racing beneath you. Exhilarating. And few games feature such spectacular set pieces as a formation of bombers dodging streams of tracer bullets while bombing a harbor, whilst you rush to their aid by flying UNDER a huge suspension bridge. The reason it's a 9 and not a 10 is simply because there is a bit of pop-up when flying high, and also for the incredibly garish 'BAGGED ONE!' 'BULL'S EYE!' messages that appear when a missile strikes home.
Despite being a Japanese game, all of the game is in English. The dialogue is satisfactory, subtitled in Japanese. The jets all have powerful whines, explosions go bang, and there is terrified radio chatter constantly bombarding you. Unfortunately, in the heat of battle the mumbled radio chatter gets lost in the action-movie type music, missile launches and explosions. This is stupid, as often warnings of bandits on your tail or a wingman in need of assistance go unheeded. Nothing remarkable.
The missions take place across a large island. You are briefed on your objectives, and then start in the air near the target. Using the map and radar screen you must accomplish all of your objectives, which are nearly always 'blow up everything'. It's not exactly the most cerebral challenge you'll face, and this is possibly the biggest flaw. Unlike most flight sims, you don't have to arm your plane. Instead you have an impossibly huge stock of missiles that are capable of targeting and destroying anything. While this eliminates the need for complex targeting and weapon selection systems, it also reduces the game to a lock-on-and-blast fest. Like Afterburner. This are complicated by the presence of a wingman, to whom you issue orders prior to taking off. Thus you can order them to cover you if you prefer to fly an A-6 Intruder in for a ground attack, or order them to secure the base by destroying its defences while you use your F/A-18 to eliminate fighter cover.
Strategy wise, you have a limited amount of money. Shooting down enemy aces and destroying targets earns you money, while repairs and wingman salaries (!) cost you. As you complete missions, you also get access to purchase better planes. Starting off with the obsolescent A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom, you'll gradually move up to Su-35s, F22s and F117A Stealth Fighters. Each has a particular talent, be it interception, ground attack, or dogfighting.
Each mission takes place around the island, so some take place over cities, others over farmland. But certainly the most exciting involving having to fly, Death Star trench-style, down canyons at high speed to avoid being minced by the masses of SAM batteries on the cliffs above. And a few missions even require you to land afterwards, but this is very easy and probably more of a reward for the experienced player than a challenge.
There are two control settings: Novice and Expert. Novice limits how much your plane can bank and pitch, but Expert gives you complete control. It is then possible to pull off incredible aerial stunts, pulling Immelman turns and hammerheads to dive back down and loose another volley of missiles at your target. Unfortunately, the control is also very touchy too. An analogue controller is a must, especially for Expert mode. Still, it's not as complex as a PC flight sim, with the controls greatly simplified.
Quite how long this game will last you depends on both the difficulty, and your own skill. I've been playing flight simulators all my life so I play on Hard Difficulty, Expert Controls. And I am just flying (sorry) through the missions. At a few points you are offered a choice of missions, so presumably you could play through the game again, but I doubt it. The campaign is not dynamic, and you must succeed in each mission before you can continue on to the next one.
I was truly amazed by how much fun this game actually is. The planes all look amazing, the action is exciting, and it is an admirable attempt to bring high-flying antics to the Playstation. Those with a PC and copies of F22 ADF or Falcon 4.0 will scoff at it, but Playstation fans in need of a more realistic flying fix will be delighted. That said, it's the very simplicity of the gameplay that scuppers the game, as it is at times far too easy. It is a unique experience, and some developer in need of a challenge should try taking this game to the next level.