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Ace Combat 3 on the Playstation was quite possibly one of the worst examples of what can happen to a game in-between the Japanese and European releases. The original full game release in Japan had compelling and interesting game play coupled with a brilliant story using anime-styled characters and in-game chatter. However, by the time the game reached our shores, this story was edited to a bare minimum. In fact less than minimum because the entire story was cut down to a handful of cut scenes with no characters or voice over. Gamestyle recalls a particular scene where a large futuristic fighter exited from a giant underwater base. Why? No idea, unless you imported the game and were fluent in Japanese.

Ace Combat: Distant Thunder was the fourth game in the franchise and first of three titles on the Playstation 2, and with it blew in the wind of change. The game arrived intact, complete with storyline, and laid the foundations for one of the best series of arcade flight simulators on any system. The recent release of Ace Combat Zero made Gamestyle feel nostalgic (partly because Zero wasn’t living up to its pedigree) and return to quite arguably the best game in the series.

The game centres as always on a fictional war with the player taking the role of Mobius One, a top fighter pilot who gains legendary status as the game progresses. However, what is unique about the game is that it doesn’t tell the story from this pilot’s (the player’s) perspective. The cut scenes are beautifully drawn anime styled affairs, which tell the story of the war from the perspective of a child whose town is occupied by the game’s enemy nation. As the game progresses the boy befriends these pilots and shows the conflict in a way not encountered in many games. It’s a touching story, thanks in part to the excellent melodic soundtrack, and one of the most memorable methods of narration in a video game to date.

Graphically the game is also impressive. All 21 available planes look very realistic, right down to the jet wash left in their wake, as you turn the thrust up to maximum dive into a canyon. Level detail is also impressive and no two levels look alike. The graphics engine also works solidly no matter how much action is taking place on screen. There isn’t even a hint of slowdown when there are thirty plus enemies on screen and a storm brewing. However, the game was released in 2002 and is looking dated because of it. Still it’s an impressive graphical showcase for its time.

Of course, if the game didn’t play well it wouldn’t matter how good the story was or how efficient the graphics engine was. Fortunately the game does indeed play very well. Initial missions start the player off in a rudimentary fighter jet, complete with basic goals. But as the game progresses, faster more powerful aircraft become unlocked, and the variety of missions on offer increases. From simple seek and destroy and escort mission to attacking a massive anti-aircraft facility named Stonehenge, the action never lets up. True, these sorts of missions are becoming common place in the genre, but Ace Combat: Distant Thunder’s offerings keep you interested in a way few modern flight simulators manage to do (Gamestyle is looking at you, Over-G Fighters). It’s a testament to the developer’s talent that Gamestyle finds this one of the most entertaining games of the genre, five years after its release.

The game’s soundtrack is also worth a mention, as each of the 18 campaign missions features its own unique music. The music is always perfectly suited to the action on screen and gives each level another way to show its uniqueness.

The only real niggles Gamestyle can lay at Ace Combat: Distant Thunder’s feet are partially to do with its age. However graphically impressive it was in 2002, it is starting to show its age, mainly in the terrain area. It always looks passable when you’re dog fighting SU47’s at 10,000 feet, paying more attention to your enemies’ position. However when flying low, the textures on the terrain are quite heavily pixel-ridden, which does take some of the shine off the game. The only other complaint is the multiplayer function. It’s nice to have the option, but Gamestyle found that it just didn’t seem that different from playing the single player campaign when playing against a human, something that you need in a multiplayer game.

Aside from that, however, Ace Combat: Distant Thunder is an excellent and thoroughly worthwhile flight simulator for the PS2. A combination of good graphics, excellent game play, a compelling story and a worthwhile soundtrack make this an essential purchase for fans of the genre.