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21. Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies
Namco | Namco | 2001
One of the first "oh my god look at that" games that made you want a PS2 even if you didn't know the difference between a sonic boom and a Sonic burger
What made it so great?
This one was all about graphics. They don't quite hold up today and the sequels improved upon the visuals even more, but when the first screens of Namco's slavishly designed jets came down the pike, everyone took notice. You could see individual flaps and rudders and photorealistic terrain thousands of feet below, something the original PlayStation could never do. It really felt like you were witnessing the power of the PS2 for the first time. Up until Ace 04, few games looked truly impressive. And from this point on, the system took the lead and never let it go, thanks to a wave of excellent games that looked and played like the next big thing.
But even if you didn't care about graphics, the gameplay of Ace 04 was a total blast. The series always manages to balance between super-fun arcade action and somewhat realistic limitations, and this one was no different. Basically, you could fly around, blow some stuff up, swerve around mountains, dive into trenches, sneak up on enemy embankments and make it home again without having to know a thing about how jets really function. But, even with the severe liberties taken, the game never strays into totally unrealistic areas - just mildly fudged boundaries. The new power of the PS2 also let the game's story be told with slick, narrated cutscenes and some great tunes that perfectly complemented the game's tone.
Above: A shot from Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War
Get ready to play
As we said before, the Ace series walks a fine line between authentic and arcade. The latter comes into play a bit more when you're going up against Stonehenge, a collection of oversized railguns that are used to blast meteors out of orbit. Once they turn it on people, you're forced to fly in and take the machine out. Seems like all the Ace games end with a tight-fitting trench run at the end, but this was the first that finally looked gorgeous.
Been there, done that?
The fourth game made the list due to its overall impact, but we'd recommend playing either Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War or Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War for a more polished flying experience.
Be sure to check out the rest of our Games that Shaped a Generation coverage here.