Review #1 by David Rees
Let me start this review by asking you a question. Multiple choice: After Soul Edge and Rage Racer, what would you expect next from Namco?
(A) A total failure of a game
Well, if you answered "D" you are on the right track. Namco consistently keeps getting better. And not just in the technology department, but also in overall game design. This game has everything: an awesome 3D engine, incredible control (particularly with the analog controller), smart A.I., superb level design, brilliant music and sound effects, and the best darn dogfights ever to grace a console system. If you are even slightly interested in this type of game (Shooter/Flight Sim) then I strongly recommend you buy this game asap! I was particularly pleased to discover that everything is in English. Everything. The only Japanese text in the game exists within a small bar at the bottom of the screen during mission briefing and status screens. Therefore, other than monetary constraints, there is no reason to wait for the August US release on this one. By the way, Ace Combat 2 is currently the number 1 selling game in Japan for two weeks running as of this review. I think that says something.
Just what is an awesome 3D engine? How about consistent 30 fps with absolutely no slowdown. Or maybe a drawing horizon that is actually "where the Earth meets the sky" for once. Of course, complete freedom of movement is a good thing. You can't forget about lots of detail. And it has to be "Fast". Well, somehow, Namco has achieved all of the above. With everything going on in this game, I still can't believe that the frame rate never skips a beat.
[Scenario: I maneuver between several buildings of a city, shoot out across a bay, and duck underneath a huge bridge that connects to the other side of the bay. Suddenly, I'm being chased by numerous enemy fighters and shot at by anti-aircraft missiles. To avoid being hit, I pull up and head for the clouds. As I reach about 2000 meters, the screen begins to fade and suddenly I break through a thick layer of clouds (the cloud layer is polygonal) with nothing but blue skies and sunshine above. My A-4 fighter stalls and begins to plummet back through the clouds. And now I'm headed straight for the dirt. Unless I can stabilize her and pull up in time, I'm dead.]
This scenario takes place in a matter of seconds, at 30 fps. And what makes this even more impressive is the number of polygons being shifted. The polygon environments are HUGE, larger than anything I have seen on the Playstation. One of the more impressive missions takes place at night, requiring you to bomb city highways while avoiding enemy air-to-air and surface-to-air attacks. The lit cities and streets seem to go on forever, and the detail is stunning. Although there is a drawing horizon that is concealed by a fogging effect, Namco has done something quite different that works very well. The fog is highly concentrated only at a distance that is quite far away, so it doesn't stick out as something unnatural as in most other games that use this effect to hide polygon draw-in. The textures are also very good. Unlike the original Ace Combat (Air Combat in the US), the textures used are more photographic in nature, providing for a much more realistic experience. One negative comment however: The resolution and color depth of the textures are lower than usual, sometimes appearing grainy and dithered (but only when close to the ground). But believe me, it all moves so fast that you don't have much time to notice. Strike that gripe off the list. Anyway, the point here is that this game has one of the finest 3D engines I have ever seen on the Playstation, and that is saying something.
If you ever played the original Ace Combat, you should already have an idea of what a 3D Shooter/Flight Simulation is all about. Mission after mission with varying objectives, multiple target types, and lots of dogfighting. But Namco has gone way beyond their original undertaking by providing more missions with more targets, objectives that are even more unique, superb A.I. that provides for a more intense dogfighting experience, some absolutely insane missions with multiple paths, and more options than you can imagine. More, more, more, more! Most importantly, however, is the perfect blend of action and simulation styled play mechanics. Neither style gets in the way of the other, and with so many development shops competing against each other in the area of technical accomplishments, this is the kind of balance that is often so hard to come by. Yes, we have waited quite a while for this sequel, but it was for a reason.
Variety is the spice of life:
Some of the objectives are very straight forward, such as taking out several large C-5s that are chugging slowly over a hilly landscape. Easy targets, easy money. Most missions however, must be approached strategically. For example, one level requires that you destroy several missile silos located in an isolated mountainous area in the middle of a desert. In order to destroy the silos, you must fire a missile into an exhaust duct located at the base of the silo. To top that off, to actually hit the target you must be approaching the silo at a very low altitude and in a head on direction (not from an angle). And even so, I found it next to impossible to attack the silos without first claiming complete air superiority and destroying all anit-aircraft weaponry (even with a wingman covering my tail). Some missions can take quite a while to finish (especially if you are determined to destroy everything like me) and therefore require that you keep an eye on your fuel level. Generally, levels that are more intense give you the option to bring along a wingman for assistance, and this time around, you must give the wingman specific orders which vary from level to level (cover your tail, fight the enemy aircraft, destroy ground targets, etc.). Also, the missions take place at various times (day, evening, night) and even weather conditions can be a factor.
One particular level takes places during a heavy thunder storm (complete with rain and lightning!) which causes your radar to be ineffectual, and forces you to use more of your instincts than you would normally. Whether you are bombing a city, destroying a fleet of ships, or even wasting a space shuttle sitting idle on its launch pad (it would be cool if you had to destroy it before it launched, countdown included - oh well, can't have it all), this game never gets boring. With multiple paths and different endings, it is also extremely re-playable (I'm already anticipating my second time through). In short, how truly brilliant level design is so rarely accomplished in a video game these days. But would you expect anything less from Namco?
The perfect balance:
While all of the action unfolds around you, there are some technical aspects which must be monitored to ensure your survival. Distance from the ground is always a concern of course, but you also must watch that you don't fly too high, or you will surely stall. It is usually easy to recover from a stall being so high in the air, but it can be quite inconvenient if you are being attacked at the time. One level requires that you have several dogfights at a very high altitude, above the clouds. "Caution stall" seems to be the phrase of the day during this mission, and because you must destroy your enemies before they reach the edge of your area map, it is very important not to stall. By the way, you will definitely stall if you slow down too much (the stall speed varies with each jet), which can be a serious problem if you are close to the ground. Also, using your throttle in conjunction with rolling and yawing is necessary to win the more difficult dogfights, requiring you to master some pretty tricky maneuvers to keep up with the more skilled pilots. The controls are not too complicated however, and soon enough become second nature.
I found that the new analog controller from Sony is particularly well suited for the task (and it vibrates when you are hit!). Once you get used to all of these technicalities (and it doesn't take long), they become subtle compared to your mission objectives, and never get in the way. And that is exactly the kind of balance this kind of game needs: only slightly complicated, still allowing for the adrenaline rush that is common among high action arcade games.
Sometimes, it is the little things in a game that make it that much more impressive. Ace Combat 2 is no exception. First of all the music and sound effects are excellent. In general, the music is fast and heavy but there is the occasional softer cinematic styled tune that fits just perfectly. There are even moments when the music will change based on your current situation. Also, the music is produced very well, but unfortunately is not in "Redbook Audio" format like the original, and thus cannot be played through a CD interface. The sound effects are also right on par, with excellent jet engines whirring, cool explosions booming, and helpful voices blaring over your radio announcing various warnings. Especially cool is when another plane does a fly by, it sounds so real you may find yourself looking over your shoulder.
And what jet fighter based game would be complete without fully rendered models of each available aircraft? And how about mission introductions that explain each objective and target in detail? What about statistics? Yep, this game keeps track of a whole slew of stats for each mission, such as: targets destroyed, time elapsed, medals awarded, and aircraft usage to name a few. And finally, what Namco game would be complete without the awesome CG intro and ending sequences. After Soul Edge and Rage Racer, again what would you expect from Namco?
I believe a word should be written here in honor of Namco. Being one of the first 3rd party developers for the PSX, they have provided us with some of the best games ever created for any home console system. But most amazing is that they have never settled with their already amazing accomplishments. Their games just keep getting better, technically as well as fundamentally. Hopefully, they can continue with their consistent track record in the future.
Highlights: Just about everything.
Lowlights: Sometimes dithered graphics when close to the ground.