It's always hard to know what to say about a new Ace Combat game. I mean, if you're a fan of the series, you'll know what to expect. If you aren't a fan, then you should be. Simple, really. From the garish colour scheme of the aircraft in the original Air Combat, through the amazing step-up to Ace Combat 2, the unusual style of AC3 and the beautifully well told AC4 - the series has always been of a high standard. Squadron Leader is no different.
The faux-future presented to the player is of a world recovering from war. After a few nukes and ten or so years of peace, nothing much has happened. Needless to say, that wouldn't make for the most exciting of games. Inevitably, an attack is launched, and the player - callsign Blaze - is put into the thick of things, in a squad under the command of Captain Bartlett. Now questions may be raised already: "but it's called Squadron Leader?!" Just be quiet. Without ruining any of the story, Blaze ends up in command of a squadron. See? It all fits.
The story has always been a focal point of the series - with the shockingly well-told events of AC4 still fresh in memory, the new title had a lot to live up to. Whilst the cut-scenes are no longer the beautiful hand-drawn stills of the last title, they more than make up for it by being some of the highest quality rendered scenes this generation. Events circulate around the new war, and as the game progresses the inevitable twists, turns, betrayals, double-crossings and conspiracies are revealed, both in the cut-scenes and during play, through both friendly and hostile radio chatter. Hearing the 'good guys' cheer as they destroy an enemy camp, then to be greeted by the cries for help from those on the ground who the player is bombing, is... a little odd, to say the least. Coupled with the fact that one of your wingmen is a pacifist, it makes for a strangely anti-war story, yet told through a war (been reading Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22, have we Namco?).
The strong storyline only helps the game, as the rather formulaic missions would otherwise grate if they weren't tied together so logically and interestingly. The expected set-pieces are in abundance - and after having to climb above 5,000 feet for the first time, you're more likely than not going to be on edge for the foreseeable future, along with not trusting satellites. Play it and you'll see what I mean.
Gameplay, as clichèd a word as I could choose, is as simple as it has ever been. Aircraft handle nothing like they do in real life, as the ability to break off in a direction at ludicrously high speeds is not something most real people would remain conscious through, if even survive. This is in no way a bad thing - Ace Combat is an arcade series, stemming from an arcade game. It is simple to pick up, fun to play and satisfying in nearly every respect. It looks beautiful, with some fantastic plane models and lovely scenery - if only from high up, as things get a bit muddy when you're close to ground. The musical score is rousing and epic, perfectly suiting the mood. Sounds, looks and controls - everything is what it should be, and it should be... well... Ace. The selection of aircraft is as good as expected - the usual starting bangers soon replaced with kings of the sky, along with some beautifully designed numbers. And yes, the F-14 Tomcat is still in the game, for all you Maverick wannabes.
The addition of the wingman system - referred to in the game's title, surprisingly - is a nice touch, and having flight partners who actually manage to do something, rather than simply being eye/ear candy is definitely a Good Thing. A choice of four orders is available, each being selected via the relevant direction on the D-pad. Cover, meaning your three wingmen stay in formation and fly with you; attack, which makes your three pals focus on whatever target the player is focusing on; disperse, which makes them all fly about the whole map as they see fit, killing bad guys left and right; and finally, the command that tells them to use their special weapons, which lovely as they are, are only available in limited quantities. Simple and effective, the wingman system is just like the rest of the game, and adds a new dimension to the AC world.
The 25-plus missions in the main game will take around 12-15 hours to finish in total, if not more. Each level is well-paced and the difficulty never really frustrates, though it is most certainly a challenge later on - the constant red screen and loud beeping may send a few players into the loony bin after a while - , stick with things and it is possible. Missions are balanced and skilful flying will get you everywhere - a missile on your tail? It won't be able to hug closely to that mountain range like you can; if you're good enough to do it, you can beat the frustration. One mission is even carried out entirely weapon-less, and needs some very nifty flying to get through. Of course, there's also the obligatory 'Ace Combat Canyon Level(TM),' though this time things have been shaken up a little - it makes for one of the many highlights of the whole experience.
As well as the main missions, the game includes a mini arcade mode, which puts the player in control of an F-22 and goes through a branching level structure, with an easy route, two difficulties in between, and a hard route. Each level has a certain quota of enemies to shoot down against the clock, and it is a welcome distraction if things ever get that bit too hard in the main game.
It's hard to think of any major faults with the game. The voice acting isn't the greatest thing ever heard, but it most certainly isn't bad, not by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that I formed bonds with the characters goes to show that it can't be that bad (having said that, I loved Barry on Resident Evil, so this argument may not reign totally true...). One thing that people may take issue with is the fact that, above all else, it's merely another Ace Combat game. There is no real step up from number 4, bar a couple of new additions and mildly better graphics. Things are the same as they have been since 1996 - most planes take two missiles to down, you're best off using your guns to down the bigger, slower planes and breaking hard left or right will evade missiles; it hasn't changed in all this time. Some people - some insane people, that is - may view this as a bad point. It isn't. Ace Combat 5 is brilliant, a highlight of the series and hopefully not the last. Two thumbs up for Namco.