Namco’s Ace Combat series is one of those unsung stalwarts that rarely gets a mention in the greater gaming culture, yet for its fanbase it provides a near-ideal package that’s always improving with each iteration. With Ace Combat 6, the principal improvement was graphical, but it was so striking that it still sits in my current games pile for semi-regular play. My reasoning for this is pretty nostalgic, somewhat geeky, and hinges entirely on the Free Flight mode.
In the ‘80s, the increasing prevalence of CGI on television would always give me feverish daydreams about futuristic games that could exploit the rapidly advancing sophistication of computer-generated worlds. An advertising logo’s gloss could evoke chromed robots; a gameshow intro might conjure up running through a gleaming, Tron-like maze. It was the recurring theme and visible advancement of the flight simulator, though, that really felt tangibly possible. In Ace Combat 6’s Free Flight mode I found a realisation of that childhood dream, at a level of realtime graphical detail I’d never thought possible when watching contestants struggle to land a flat-shaded helicopter amongst triangular trees on the Krypton Factor. Old hands often talk about the astonishing progress games have made from the 8bit days, but nothing had a real-world counterpart that was as visible, and visibly improving, as the flight simulator. Where the high-end professional standard once set the bar for realtime graphics, the games always raced to catch up – and we’ve almost failed to notice quite how far games managed to go.
Ace Combat may be the Need For Speed of flight sims, but its graphical qualities and jet fighter fetishism present a game of incredibly accessible joy. We often forget that to simply fly freely into the skies is a delightful experience in and of itself, so when Ace Combat opens up each completed mission’s map for pure flight, we’re being given the chance to live our dreams, not just by flying but also by messing around in a realisation of something that once sat far beyond the reach of ordinary people. With Free Flight, there’s no need to drive to an airport and steal a plane, or to taxi to the runway and take off. On the right maps, you select your plane and you’re already up in clouds, with a vast map to explore at the fastest possible speeds.
The starting point for Ace Combat 6’s very first level, the defence of Gracemeria, is right above a bridge spanning a wide river. Immediately, you can dive on full afterburner and, if you’re quick and ballsy enough, nip under the bridge and blast along the river mere metres from the surface of the water. There are no Just Cause 2-style points awarded for pulling this off: you’re simply doing it for pleasure. On that first map, you can barnstorm the city and fly through streets sideways, then pull up and barrel-roll through the cloud canopy to level out high in the azure blue sky, complete with haze and entirely convincing volumetric clouds. A full five years on from Ace Combat 6’s release, this thrill remains tangibly authentic, even if the arcadey handling model allows you to push the game’s aircraft far beyond what real-world engineering would allow.
In a way, that cartoon handling doesn’t matter. Free from the worries of monitoring instruments or being overly concerned with stalling and other rudiments of flight, you are the plane, not its pilot, and with the game’s maps offering a wide range of environments to fly around in, there’s plenty of room to run free. There’s a host of daredevil canyon runs and mountain peak flybys to explore in an F-16, and just as many tests of low-level piloting nerve across deserts and cities in an A-10 Warthog, where you may well find yourself firing its mighty GAU-8 cannon just for the hell of it.
Why am I still playing Ace Combat 6 and not Ace Combat: Assault Horizon? Horizon doesn’t have a Free Flight mode. It was a minor upset for the fanbase (which had other, more pressing concerns), but it’s a significant omission. It clips the game’s wings, insisting on fight rather than flight. The clear skies are always streaked with the vapour trails of AI death duels, and the glorious cotton-wool cloudscape pockmarked with black puffs of warfare and combat. The freedom and purity of Ace Combat 6’s Free Flight mode feels like another world, where all that matters is the thrill, and unless something comes along to supercede that generosity of allowing the player to simply engage with the fundamentals of flying, Ace Combat 6 is going to be sat next to my 360 for a long time to come.