Free is too expensive.
But in case you need more convincing, let me tell you what's what. Ace Combat is not - and never has been - a flight sim. It's a long-running franchise hailing from Japan, eminently focused on high-speed arcade action. It has always had very, very little at all to do with reality, save the inclusion of detailed plane models based mostly on real-life military fighters and bombers.
As a flight-sim enthusiast, some would consider it a crime for me to admit that I really do enjoy arcade flight games. They're a great fallback for those times when you want to splash some bogies, but you don't have the time or the inclination to go full-real (or even semi-real, honestly).
I've played Ace Combat games for years, since I was a kid, and it was probably Ace Combat among other games that helped foster my later interest in more authentic fare. I started with Ace Combat 2: Electrosphere on the original Playstation, and let me tell you: the title of that game says it all. Ace Combat has a track record of featuring crazy, wonky, way-out-there fantasy elements, up to and including the absurdly massive flying superweapons that are a genuine staple of the franchise.
Ace Combat was never about being serious. It was about flying around a surprisingly well-modeled, realistic-looking plane incongruously stuffed with 200-plus anti-everything missiles, and blowing things up with reckless abandon. This and Armored Core was where it was at back in the day, and it was a glorious time to grow up in.
Now, AC4 tried to shake things up a bit by introducing a "relatable" "story" with "characters" and such. And it's fairly poor. Thankfully, it doesn't detract from gameplay too much, as the background chatter is easy to tune out, but if examined at length...oh boy. The writing was chunky and oftentimes silly, and the low-grade-anime-quality voice actors delivering the lines made for a very embarrassing experience.
"Yeah, we won! Now let's sing our dramatically overwrought national anthem as the camera pans dramatically around our planes! YEAH!"
But AC5 didn't improve its horrible dialog and hand-wringingly bad voice acting. In fact, it made it *worse,* as "story" became an increasing focus. And then AC6? Oh my and dear me. Just go YouTube the intro, or look up "dance with the angels - " actually, no. Don't do that. You'll die of embarrassment. Actually, you should, because the sheer temple-drilling horribleness of that dialogue atrocity is actually important to this review.
For years, the core gameplay never really changed between sequels. It was all about going from one target to the next, getting a lock-on, and then double-tapping the missile button to launch precisely two missiles, and flying off to the next enemy. It's fun, for a while, but without any real evolution going on in the background, franchise fatigue was inevitable.
So what did they change? Is this game "Call of Duty with wings," as so many reviews claim? Ha, well, the answer is that they changed everything, while actually changing nothing. Let me explain in brief.
The "innovations" consist of one central new "feature:" Dog-Fight Mode. That's right. "Mode." As in, one of the core aspects of air combat is now a "mode." There's also a differently-named variant for ground attacks, but it's the exact same concept: press a combination of two buttons, and you lock into a more or less on-rails scripted sequence where you keep your target or targets centered while your missiles lock on.
I don't even really mind the system in theory. Really, they HAD to do something to change things up, because even as a long-time AC fan, I was getting bored of the one-button double-tap missile fest the game had stubbornly been for years. What they were trying to achieve with DFM was to add some depth to air battles, make them more dependent on timing and reading movements. It actually plays much better in practice than it sounds going by my description of it. But here's the problem: occasionally, the game uses DFM as an excuse to pretty much put you through an on-rails theme-park ride that's scripted to the end. Don't balk too much - after all, Grand Theft Auto has been doing the exact same thing for years with every single one of its "dramatic car chases," and it's a million seller. But let's be honest - it still sucks.
DFM is actually okay on its own. It's got flaws, but the core idea is sound. It takes all the concepts of energy and g-forces and simplifies the crap out of them so as not to burden the core arcade experience with excessive realism, giving the occasional dog-fight a fraction of the intensity and strategy of the real thing. The enemy suddenly peels left, so you have to slow and follow to keep from losing him. He dives and burns, so you have to throttle up to keep pace. A lot of scripting is required, sure, and all of these maneuvers do constitute a sort of timing mini-game in all honesty, but still, the nature of the game's AI would ordinarily prevent exciting dog-fights from actually taking place to begin with. So in that regard, it's nice to have a sort-of-dog-fight experience every once in a while.
The problem is when DFM triggers a heavily-scripted setpiece, as mentioned above. It tends to happen at least twice per mission, and you have little to no actual control over the events. Your subject plane becomes temporarily immune to all damage until a sufficiently exciting number of explosions occur within your relative field of view, and the setpiece is over.
It's fun the first time, sure, but if you eat a missile (or two, or three) and die, and one of those setpieces occurs after your last checkpoint, be prepared for your next DFM attempt to trigger the exact same pseudo-cutscene again. It will do so the next time you die, too. And the next time.
Thankfully, most enemies can be defeated the old-school double-tap way, but you're still avoiding an entire facet of the gameplay. It sucks because these scripted moments, when they do occur, detract from the good the devs achieved, and all but ruin the feature completely. Regular DFM battles are just fine.
The ground attacks, though, are boiled crap. They force you on a linear path, often against ALL COMMON SENSE, and it becomes a game of struggling with the lock toggle to send your missiles to the right target. It's just plain horrible, and unlike DFM, it's straight-up forced on you. Do it, or mail your fission, 'cause it's game over.
The devs know all about the importance of cushioning a bad landing. In case their grand gameplay experiment failed, they needed a scapegoat to blame for the negative reviews. And so: thematic shift! They hired a half-decent American writer to pen an actually coherent script, applied some color-grading to the post, and for the first time placed the game's events in the real world. So of course the new "direction of the plot" was the game's real failing. Oh, yeah, definitely. Don't worry, fans. We'll never do that again, we promise.
Sadly, this nonsense seemed to have worked. Most people hate the game because it's "too American," while claiming that the prior games' plots were so good, that they moved them to tears. "Dance with the angels." Search it. I'll save space in the review. Anyway, it's not the fault of the ill thought-out gameplay mechanics - it's because they Americanized it. Yeah, that's it. Certainly it, no question.
Anyway, in summary - I just can't recommend it. It's broken, it's frustrating. At one point, a dozen planes spawn right behind you when the game expects you take out a boatload of ground targets in less than two minutes. Another has you struggling to shoot down an ICBM whose exhaust causes unavoidable damage. Sucks if you get THAT checkpoint while already critically damaged...like *I* did. Time to restart a 30 minute mission!
...or not. Save yourself the trouble, and save yourself the scratch. This game needs to go dance with the angels.