The Ace Combat series from software giants Namco has built itself a solid reputation in being one of the best arcade style air combat experiences on home consoles and the fifth installment on PS2 continues this lineage rather impressively.
Long time fans of the series should be right at home with the controls from the start, but fortunately for the rest of us the game comes with an impressively detailed tutorial system which takes you through all the major aspects of the gameplay in a series of 'look, listen and learn' lessons which cover everything from climbing and diving, to loop-the-loops and blowing up tanks with bombs, for the last part of the tutorial you are invited to take an exam in flying, dogfighting, bombing etc in which you receive a grade for each part, and an overall score.
The controls have a very arcade feel to them and this is to the games advantage and in keeping with the rest of the Ace Combat series to date, barrel rolls, loop the loops and banking can all be performed with relative ease. Players expecting a fully decked out flight sim may be disappointed but this would not be good for the experience if it was there.
Once you are comfortable that have the basics of flying nailed down you can start the games main campaign mode. The storyline at work here is that there was a war fifteen years ago between the allied forces in whos armed forces you fly and the nation of Yuktobania which ended when the 'Yukes' - in what some military buffs may call a counter-productive strategy - nuked their own soil.
After fifteen years of peace a surprise attack is launched on the allied forces and a new war begins, the story is conveyed in the nicely done between mission cutscenes which are smoothly rendered, animated and acted and also through the in mission dialog of which there is plenty. The in game chatter isn't bad either and it really does add to the atmosphere of the game, you'll get your wingmen speaking to you over the radio, often posing you questions which you can reply yes or no to with left or right on the D-pad, early on in the game for example one of you wingmen comments that he's glad that they are unmanned planes you are firing on and not real people - you have the option to disagree with him if you so wish. You'll also get radio transmissions from other participants of the various battles such as the personnel of a location you are trying to defend. The speech is well done and at times gives a frantic edge to the battle with panicked calls for help or assistance from allied forces involved.
Graphically the game is up to scratch with your planes soaring over nice looking locations and through clouds and rain, portraying a real sense of speed and all of which looks as smooth as the framerate which never seems to drop off no matter what is going on onscreen, the missiles fired leave winding smoke trails as they go and the explosions produced are graphically good too although not to varied, in criticism of the visuals though the landscapes do start to look a bit ropey up close but this doesn't detract from the game in any major way.
Your real view of the eye-candy on display is during the post-mission replays that you get, here you can review your actions from a number of camera angles and the detail on the plane models is more obvious here, they all look highly realistic and well textured and there is even visible air turbulence coming off of the back of your wings. You will probably find yourself skipping the replays after a few missions however unless you happened to pull of some amazing bombing run which begs to be seen again.
Your weaponry is easy enough to use with markers on your HUD seeking out the enemy targets for you and changing color when within missile range, your unguided bombs also feature a HUD element which will show you where the bombs will land if you launch them at the moment, a similar HUD element helps you to aim your aircrafts on-board guns and will also tell you if you are hitting your target with them.
As you progress through campaign mode you will earn money which can be spent on new planes for you to use, although all the planes handle in a similar manner, they have different stats in speed, air-to-air combat, air-to-ground amongst other things and each plane will carry different amounts of missiles and come with different special weapons which is what really sets the planes apart from each other, you will need to pick and choose your planes carefully to ensure that you are carrying the best weapon sets for the mission at hand. Aside from the campaign mode you have an arcade mode which offers a series of straight time-based objectives for you to progress through aside from the main campaign.
The music is atmospheric and suits the game well, dramatic semi-orchestral scores over pitched air battles, there is also a track by Puddle of Mudd thrown in over the intro movie and in some cutscenes for good measure. The sound effects compliment the game well too with all the beeps and bleeps of missile lock-ons associated with this style of game.
This is definitely a game that will keep you playing, the action is fast paced and engaging and you will find yourself wanting to play through to see how the storyline unfolds and eventually concludes, this really is a 'one-more-go' kind of game where you will find it difficult to put the controller down once you are absorbed in the action, plot and characters, the only real criticism is that the action can seem a bit repetitive after a while but it is great fun nonetheless.
All in all Ace Comabat Squadron Leader is a very absorbing, well polished game worthy of its predecessors that anyone should enjoy once they have gotten to grips with the basics of the game.