It's extremely difficult to find a realistic combat flight simulator title with a plot that's worth to mention, and if it happens is usually because the game is inspired by a movie. Unfortunately, also most of the movies focused on air battles are just the stories of two or three heroes with greasy hair affected by adolescent disorders. But that's another story, and since I know that there are a lot of boys and girls that still love what uncle Tom did in that movie in the Eighties, I come back to my little review. And no, don't send me menacing e-mails.
The fact is that things are different in Ace Combat 4. While I wouldn't dare to say that the story here is a masterpiece, the developers have worked with skill and style to create something new. In Ace Combat 4, the only thing you'll know about your character is his code-name, nothing more. Anyhow, your actions will affect the life of a young boy who lives in a town called San Salvacion, on the continent of Eugea, the war zone in Ace Combat 4. Of course, all the names of the geographical locations are fictional, but the characters are extremely believable. All this story is told by the boy through a series of nice hand drawn animation stills. Completing the game you will unlock a special mode to see again all of these scenes. That's not usual for a flight combat simulation game.
What I've always loved about Namco's games is that they are first of all arcade titles at their core, yet they revel a depth to the experienced player that is extremely difficult to find in other titles. The Tekken series, with its unsurpassed control system, is a clear example to understand what I'm saying.
The same happens in Ace Combat 4. While here you need to give a look at the manual, the control system is extremely intuitive. You can also choose between an easy (simplified) and a normal control scheme. The left analog stick is used to manoeuvre the airplane while the right analog stick controls the camera. The shoulder buttons are used for banking and accelerating, circle and X are fire buttons, triangle is used to change target and square opens your radar maps. That's all you need to start playing the game. But as it happens in most of Namco's games, you need to practice a lot in order to become a virtuoso, and this makes of Ace Combat 4 a title with a certain depth, created to appeal both the casual and the hardcore player.
There are 5 different difficulty settings, from Very Easy to Very Hard. I started playing Ace Combat 4 in Normal mode, probably the one to choose if you have already played a game of the series and you want to get used to the new game. For a novice I would probably suggest to start with the Easy mode, in which the game is still highly enjoyable. There are 18 missions and Namco did a nice job to make each of them unique. The missions become more and more difficult as you proceed in the game. In the easy ones you have relatively simple tasks, like finding and destroying defined targets, in the more advanced you may have to support a beach invasion or fight in air against more than 30 planes.
There are around 20 planes you can control during the game. They range from the "classic" F-4 to modern planes like the F-22 Raptor and you can modify them adding more than just a secondary fire. 8 of these planes can be acquired using the points you get at the end of each successful mission. The others can be unlocked only if you are a skilled player, and you receive a high grade in certain missions. Of course each of these planes behaves in a different way: many of them are good for ground attacks, others are perfect for extreme manoeuvres, others like the F-14 are equipped with special weapons. It's a wide range of planes, and this richness is always evident playing the game.
In fact, the air battles in Ace Combat 4 look extremely realistic. Of course I've never been into a F-14, just like most of you, but playing the game you can notice that each enemy plane has a precise role and is part of a complex strategy.
In Ace Combat 4 there is also a wonderful Versus mode, in which you can play against your friend in unforgettable air battles. The split screen works marvellously here. The fact that Ace Combat 4 is a simulator with a strong arcade attitude, makes it easy for one of your friends to learn the controls in a few minutes. This is also probably the only limit of Ace Combat 4's gameplay. A player used to more realistic simulators could consider Ace Combat 4 a too simplified game. But as I said before, this is a rule for Namco: to create games that are first of all games.