Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies
It started innocently enough as a technology that saved the planet, originally designed to destroy an onslaught of asteroids from space. When the developers of this new device discovered its potential for destroying anything airborne, be it asteroid or jet fighter, they decided that it might have a greater purpose and started a fierce offensive. Now an immense war has begun and it's all the USAF can do to hold what positions they have left. Although the momentum is currently behind the enemy and their new technology, that appears to be changing as the USAF begins to amass multiple victories.
Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies is a flight simulator that shows off the power of the PlayStation 2. Although some graphical elements are not what they should be, others look amazing. In addition, there are eighteen different jets with assorted armaments available, and they all handle well. If you're into flight simulators, this isn't one to pass up.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
There are certain aspects of flight simulator games that directly affect their longevity and playability. These aspects, such as how the jets handle and how accurately physical laws are applied, are major issues. When jets are generally difficult to fly, that one aspect impairs the entire game, making it almost worthless. If you're defying the laws of physics by stopping in midair or shooting down jets at unreal distances, the game also loses the sense of realism for which it was purchased.
You'll be happy to know that Ace Combat 04 does an excellent job in both these areas. Each jet's handling is responsive and effortless to maneuver. The left analog stick performs the general movement of the jet, controlling the pitch and roll. The L2 and R2 control the yaw, while the throttle up and down is handled using the L1 and R2 buttons. To fire at your enemy, use the X button to control the Vulcan machine gun or the triangle to launch your missiles. Adding to the experience, some of the controls are pressure sensitive like the radar and throttle. By applying different pressures, you can view up to three different maps and control the amount of acceleration and deceleration. All these control settings can also be adjusted, but you won't need to -- within ten minutes, you'll be comfortable and flying with ease.
One of the more impressive parts of the game is how the laws of physics are applied. It's a sight to watch missiles launch and curve toward their targets, in addition to watching the jets turn and roll through the air. However, it's the replay after each mission that really lets you stand back and see how accurate it is. Similar to Gran Turismo 3, the mission is shown again from various adjustable camera angles. Some angles follow fired missiles, while others show the jet from inside and out.
Aside from handling and physics, you'll find numerous other features that help keep the game fresh. For instance, the game offers eighteen different jets, each with its own attributes and unique armaments, and there are eighteen total missions. The AI is also notable as the enemy jet pilots can put up fierce battles, sometimes requiring multiple missiles to finally take them out. Getting a lock on target isn't always enough, as they will lose seeking missiles and sneak around behind you if you're not careful.
The actual missions themselves leave something to be desired, as they do increase in difficulty but are fairly simple to complete. Every once in a while you may find yourself stuck on one, but generally they fall out without too much effort. The other issue is that on many of the missions, you're attacking ground targets. There are almost always other jets attacking you, but if you ignore them and focus on the ground, the jets are rarely more than a nuisance. This is unfortunate, but it doesn't take as much from the game as it could due to the other aspects of gameplay. Even when the missions are slightly mundane, it's still exciting to fly around and attack whatever is within range.
While you're actually flying during a mission, the interface definitely helps pull the experience together. It even lets you choose from three different views. The first person screen gives a pilot's view with a pitch scale showing the horizon, altitude bar, current speed and targeting system. The HUD screen gives the same interface, but removes the cockpit, and the third-person view shows the whole jet without the pitch scale. Each of these views is usable and it's worthwhile to change between them various times during a mission, as they let you play the game from different points of view.
To hold things together, the game uses cut scenes to tell an interesting story about a boy whose family was killed when a friendly jet was shot down, landing on his home. Although it's not clear at first if you're the boy or if they're just building drama by using his story, it is a unique way to help immerse you in the game. Most flight simulators don't even attempt to tell any story other than what's in the missions themselves, making it mostly a military campaign. Ace Combat 04, however, shows a different side of war, which is that of an orphaned boy in a town that has been taken over by the enemy.
There is a two-player split-screen option available. Although the frame rate holds up, trying to fly using the split screen is extremely challenging. Without the full screen, it becomes difficult to keep a target in your sights long enough to shoot him down. After a while, you'll just give up and put in a different game.
The graphics have some stellar qualities. The jets themselves are fantastic and extremely detailed. Depending on the location of the sun, the light reflects off a jet beautifully and condensation trails even flow off the wings when you make sharp turns. The ground and large bodies of water as seen from the air also look striking, but as you get closer you'll find it's all blurred and distorted. It's a shame the developers didn't put more effort into details on the ground, since most of the missions have ground targets requiring low altitudes. The explosions were also disappointing and static. The same explosion plume is used consistently, with no damage shown by the jets or ships at sea. Instead of destroying a jet by shooting off its wing or sinking a ship by hitting its hull, the jet simply explodes when it's been hit enough. The ship just puts out smoke; it doesn't even sink.
Not much can be said about the audio. Overall, it's average; some areas are adequate, and some could be better. When you're flying, it's hard to hear much over the engines like guns firing or missiles launching, but you can hear cockpit chatter although it's difficult to understand. This area could have been better, but it's not overly distracting.
Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies is without a doubt one of the best PS2 flight simulators on the market. Although some parts of the game could have been more exciting, like the missions themselves and certain aspects of the graphics, the overall game experience makes up for these shortcomings. If you enjoy air combat, you won't be disappointed with this one.