It used to be the case that if you wanted to play a flight sim you either had to be an authentic jet pilot with 3,000 flying hours behind you or you were willing to wade through a 200-page manual before you felt confident enough to leave the runway. Fortunately more recent games like Ace Combat and the first HAWX returned the fun to G-force aerial combat, and Ubisoft has kept the momentum going with this new sequel.
In case you hadn’t already played through the previous game, it’s essential you (literally) come up to speed during the initial tutorial which not only teaches you how to manoeuvre your jet, target your weapons and avoid being blown out the sky by your opponents but also how to take off and land. This is a new addition that is tricky to master without a joystick and the game’s useful Enhanced Reality System, but vital to the start and end of several missions. You’ll also have to get used to mid-air refuelling, which can prove maddeningly frustrating as you’re against the clock; fortunately the game has frequent checkpoints.
The single player campaign follows a linear story with anti-Russian nationalists attempting to steal nuclear weapons, and in the course of the narrative you’ll fly up to 32 varieties of Russian, British and American planes and hear some dreadful voice acting. The planes are satisfyingly detailed and generally handle well but the enemy AI pilots are mostly unimaginative and fly in straight lines, making them relatively easy to lock on to. Landscape views are impressive, though, especially when flying through narrow mountain passes, over dense forests and above the snows of Moscow.
There are twenty missions in total and as well as the multiple dogfights there’s a selection of stealth missions, firing from a gunship to protect typical Tom Clancy Ghosts fulfilling a ground assignment, plus tracking targets and recording ground conversations using unmanned aerial vehicles. Gameplay is enhanced by having up to four co-op players to help with your assignments and you can engage in 8-player dogfights. Experience points are rewarded for a variety of achievements and these can be used to unlock new planes and be granted new abilities, weapons and skills.
If that isn’t enough activity for you, you can at any time slip into Survival mode and roar straight into a full-on dogfight, take on extra Arcade mission targets or simply explore the maps uncontested in Free Flight. Apart from the actors’ voices, the sound quality of engines, explosions and radio commands create an exciting atmosphere that is enhanced by stirring music during the more frantic missions. There are times when pursuing and taking down your enemy jets seems to take an age, but on the whole Ubisoft has managed to keep the adrenaline levels high.