Ace Combat 6 : Fires of Liberation Review
Take To The Skies In This Soaring Review For Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation
Developer: Project Aces
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Genre: Arcade-simulation flight action
Rating: 9/ 10
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, released in late 2007, is the sixth numbered installment of the popular Ace Combat franchise. Developed by Project Aces, and published by Namco Bandai Games exclusively for Xbox 360, Fires of Liberation sought to extend a franchise which has constantly demonstrated the best of the arcade-simulation flight action genre.
Fires of Liberation, like a majority of the Ace Combat series, is set in an alternate version of Earth (dubbed Strangereal), with distinctly different geography and countries. The game follows the war between the Republic of Emmeria and the Federal Republic of Estovakia; a subtle representation of the real-world U.S and Russia which allows the game to build upon Cold War anxieties for parts of its plot. Players take the cockpit of an Emmerian pilot and squadron leader; callsign Talisman, just as Estovakian forces launch an all-out surprise invasion of the Emmerian capital, Gracemeria. Alongside Talisman’s wingman; callsign Shamrock, players spearhead the Emmerian counter-attack in an attempt to liberate their country from Estovakian forces, and experience first hand warfare that is a testament to its franchise’s title.
On form as always, Project Aces have ensured that Fires of Liberation has at its heart a gripping, emotionally charged story that drives gameplay and enhances the player’s experience. From the very beginning of the game, the relationship between Talisman and Shamrock is established through the formation of Garuda Team, and is initially one of comradeship. However, as both pilots fight desperately side-by-side in each treacherous warzone, the bond between the Garuda pilots transforms into one akin to brotherhood; Shamrock’s inner personality is exposed via radio chatter in all its emotional extremes, from ecstatic joy to crippling despair. In addition, it is the relationship between all the air squadrons which generates and sustains the emotional vibrance and comradeship essential to this genre. As Garuda Team secures victory after victory in the face of near-defeat, their status elevates to a legendary level; even their enemies slowly acknowledge them, and this undoubtedly guarantees that each player feels like the Ace they are trying to be.
Furthermore, the background to both nations have a significant depth to them, providing the necessary groundwork to make the story focussed and emotionally compelling. Emmeria is a peaceful nation, who typically represent all the content pleasures of western civilization. Central to their culture is their Golden King; a golden statue who serves as an artificial relic/ figurehead for the Emmerian people, and a symbol of their hope throughout the game. In fact, it is Fires of Liberation’s innovative use of symbols which subtly drives significant emotional aspects of the story; the Golden King, Estovakian technology, and even the aircraft themselves all serve not only as expressions of each nation’s ideology and culture, but lenses into their deeper desires and aspirations.
Building upon these solid narrative foundations are the pilots themselves, and each squadron forms a unique character and personality present in the story. As they laugh, joke, and yell at each other in-game, the squadrons, like Garuda Team, develop more personalized relationships in place of their professional ones. As a result, the game produces that welcome “band of brothers” dynamic where gameplay is driven by the player’s own emotional immersion as well as the creative story.
However, where gameplay is strictly from the perspective of Talisman, the background narrative chooses to follow a variety of perspectives from both sides of the war. To take a few examples, players witness the compelling story of Emmerian mother Mellisa Herman, desperately searching for her daughter in her war-torn country, whilst also perceiving the experiences of Estovakians Lt. Colonel Voychek and Ludmilla Tolstoya. Through this narrative blending, the game seeks to constantly hold up the aggression of one nation against the saddening losses of the other, creating an internal emotional conflict which ensures Fires of Liberation’s plot is as believable as it is gripping.
Now let’s look at the gameplay which, even for those of you hardcore fans longing for that Top Gun dream of your childhood, certainly does not disappoint. The campaign offers up to seven levels of difficulty ranging from “Very Easy” to the free DLC “Ace of Aces”, and each is unlocked by completing the prior difficulty (starting from Hard). This concept immediately establishes Fires of Liberation’s replayability factor; you Mavericks out there will constantly want to push your limits either for the numerous rewards and achievements, or just to know you are that Ace of Aces. Yet, the missions themselves serve to drive this replayability factor even further. In each level there will be numerous mission operations (sometimes up to six or seven), which can be completed as allied units call for your assistance on the battlefield. However, only so many of these can be completed before levels progress to their climax, which will leave many operations incomplete as you progress through the game. As a result, there is literally an overwhelming amount of initially unexplored content throughout the game, so much that players are driven to revisit that content several times in their search for top scores and achievements. However, since players are also given the freedom to choose what operations to complete on each level, each playthrough also becomes a uniquely customizable experience; this dynamic, coupled with its replayability concept, makes Fires of Liberation an exceptional gaming model for not only the arcade or flight action genres, but for game developers in general.
Now lets get to the main aspect of this game - the combat. In each mission you will be tasked with taking on a mix of ground and air forces, the numbers of which are revealed to an extent in the briefing. Thanks also to a handy tactical layout of allied and enemy units, this briefing allows for players to prepare for the upcoming operations and choose appropriate aircraft and weaponry (be warned, however, it will not account for new enemies that enter the battle). Moving on, it is the Hanger menu that aircraft and their special weapons can be bought or sold using currency earned in conjunction with the scoring system - so if you want that F-22 Raptor you’ll have to earn it! As expected, each aircraft has unique weaponry and characteristics, and the options players choose will fundamentally shape what operations they can carry out effectively. However, though each aircraft will appeal to each player’s style of play, there are numerous awards for consistently using a particular type of aircraft or weapon, adding new levels of challenges for the hardcore gamers out there.
The in-game combat follows a very straightforward mechanic, using either a normal or inverted control chosen by the player, players engage all operation enemies simultaneously across the whole map, and must destroy targets which fall within any one operation in order to complete it. The battles raging on are not one-sided either; A.I units will destroy one another, and if any operation is neglected it will eventually fail. Players will often, therefore, find themselves rushing across the battle to prop up the battle-line or intercept an enemy bomber about to destroy the key unit. Though this may sound like a babysitting nightmare, it is actually crucial in providing each level’s sense of extreme scale - this feels like a war - as well as to generate that chaotic and intense atmosphere we’ve all witnessed in the movies. As you destroy waves of aircraft and vehicles, allied units radio their support (or alternately their fear as they are overrun) which ensures that players are constantly immersed in the wider battle. The immediate battles, though, are even more intense; displays flash “missile alert” almost constantly and as players perform high-g turns to get a mark on swarming enemies (avoiding that awful endless loop that afflicts many other flight action games), missiles whoosh inches from your aircraft. Essentially, Fires of Liberation never lets the player’s guard down for an instance; they are always immersed in a perilous fight for their own survival as allies teeter of the edge of defeat and cry out for assistance - this is why they call it Ace Combat.
Given the carnage of most of the battles in Fires of Liberation, it is a relief that they offer players the ability to land and resupply during each mission. This function, activated by crossing one designated side of the map, allows for players to regain ammo, health (only on lower difficulties though), and change their special weapon option if desired. Though often essential for overcoming enemies, it can be frustrating fleeing across the map while you hear your distant allies being pummeled into the dirt. Thankfully, some missions allow for you to capture an airport for a specific operation, again highlighting the tactics needed to excel in this game, but for those without it can disrupt the intensity of combat. Another useful feature is the allied support function. Where players may freely send their wingman to attack or cover them at any time, the allied support system allows for this to be done by all allied forces. The allied support gauge is filled by destroying enemies, and, when unleashed, can change the tide of battle instantly; there are certainly very few spectacles as awesome as watching tens of allied missiles arc through the sky obliterating anything in your path.
Graphically, Fires of Liberation is a stunning piece of work. The geography is not only jaw-droppingly extensive, but the detail put into clouds, weather, and lighting is absolutely breathtaking. One minor weakness is here is that, up close, trees and particularly urban cities can seem a bit weak and blocky, particularly on the levels dedicated to liberating those cities. However, given the intensity of action, players will rarely get a chance to notice any of these graphical insecurities, and thus Project Aces are justified (and should be praised) for prioritizing the spectacular view from the skies. Graphically, aircraft and weaponry are also on top form in this game; convincing missiles tracks rend the previously tranquil sky, intermingled by the falling, smoking carcasses of allies and enemies. As players dogfight with the Estovakian pilots, a target display will reveal an intricate close-up of the enemies that players are locked onto. Clearly Project Aces have worked hard to ensure that players feel they are fighting real enemies, not distant specs on the screen - a fact emphasized with the incorporation of post-level action replays where players can view the combat from a variety of movie-worthy angles. Significantly, both pre-rendered and in-game cut scenes are just as impressive, and their consistency with the in-game graphics only serves to complement their spectacle rather than marginalize it as is too common in many games.
For those of you who are familiar to the Ace Combat series, you will be aware that it is renowned for its dramatic soundtrack and particular use of orchestral and electronic instruments. Fires of Liberation possesses the most orchestral soundtrack of the series thus far, similar to its predecessor Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, and the game’s two overtures, “Fires of Liberation” and “Liberation of Gracemeria”, both pacey, and striking pieces, are examples of how the Ace Combat franchise has perfected the use of music to subtly convey complex emotions in their purest form - wordlessly. Furthermore, the work of the Trinity Boys Choir and Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra is exceptional in providing gravitas to some of the key encounters of the game, juxtaposing the visual carnage of war with sweet harmonies in order to highlight the tipping point between destruction and peace respectively.
Unfortunately, as Erik Brudvig of IGN does point out, the game’s dialogue is a bit obsessed with its notion of “dancing with the Angels”, which is a bit surprising considering the importance of ground units in the game. Also, given that the in-game dialogue is covers the whole spectrum of emotion and intensity, the dialogue of pre-rendered scenes appears somewhat stagnant, with the rare scenes of comradeship of the pilots often being overlooked in favour of Mellisa and Lt. Voychek’s habitual tone of dramatic remourse. Though this helps to emphasize the main aspects of the story, it would be nice for a change in narrative tone once in a while. Unfortunately, the pre-rendered scenes are noticeably poorly dubbed too, and as a game clearly lost in translation, this handicaps the player’s immersion in these scenes to an extent. Despite this, however, we players must remember that Fires of Liberation is a game trying to compassionately convey two sides of a war dominated by pilots, and as a result it should be expected (and seen as practical) that pilots and intense sorrow will dominate the dialogue as well.
Once player’s have experienced the single-player and got to grips with its mechanics, its time to take on Fire of Liberation’s multiplayer. Simply put, this is not the cherry on the cake, its a whole other cake, with a collection of game types to please even the most specific of fans. With free-for-all and team battles of up to 16 players, Fires of Liberation establishes the true Ace contest for gamers, but with both ranked and unranked options, players of any level can expect to have a fun time. Multiplayer also offers stand-alone co-op missions, which allow you and up to three other players to band together for exclusive missions; there is nothing quite like diving through anti-aircraft fire knowing your friends are right beside you. This feeling is carried into in the siege battle, which offers two teams of 8 players the chance to attack and defend strategic targets on the map. As players streak dogfight each other, flak fire strafes the skies above targets to create perhaps one of the most awesome and realistic flight-action experiences in gaming today. Sadly, being a game released in 2007, and with numerous sequels already established, multiplayer has become a rather barren experience (the phrase “waiting for players” has never quite been such a heartbreaking statement). However, at its time, Fires of Liberation was a vibrant community, and to this day still serves as the perfect platform for friends to group online and have a great time.
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation is undoubtedly one of my favourite games, if not my actual favourite. The story is captivating in it its plot and character construction, and unquestionably succeeds in its attempts to portray a war where no side is truly wrong. Gameplay is exciting, graphically spectacular, and its mission construction has led to more replays than I can honestly count - there are simply very few games that have this staggering level of value for money (particularly with its current price tag of around £15). Furthermore, though its multiplayer has quietened down, there are still a handful of players online, and even my review will not do enough to convey how awesome an experience playing it with your friends truly is. Quite frankly, if you want a game that will blow away all your expectations of the flight-action/ arcade genre then get this game, and I promise you, you’ll be dancing with the angels for a very long time.
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