The funnest flight/space sim I've played since Rogue Squadron on the N64—similar structure too.
You'll get the basic patrol mission stuff to start, then you're slowly introduced to combat. The missions are relatively straightforward to begin with. Like Rogue Squadron, eventually the missions start evolving halfway through—simple missions become heated dog fights as enemy reinforcements arrive.
The learning curve is a bit steeper than something like Rogue Squadron though; there are a lot of dynamics involved that the game trains you in at a good pace. This is how it's supposed to work.
I definitely recommend a gamepad. I'm a keyboard user, but this is the sort of thing gamepads are built for. By the last missions, you'll be twitching and flicking buttons without hesitation or thought.
One more thing that makes this fantastic: the soundtrack. The blend of synthetica, ambients and old school woodwinds gives you something along the lines of space-age maritime music. I can't quite nail it down, but they definitely nailed the mood. Cruising towards the black fleet to the harrowing tune of a clarinet (oboe?) doesn't seem awesome on paper, but it is.