I've been redoing some of my own stuff as well and it is taking a darned long time. I bake shadows as well but recently, having been reaquainted with a certain awesome normal map generator, I can generate an additional occlusion based off of the normal map details. It pops out the details even more.
which normal map generator are you using. i completed what i consider one of my first successful normal maps fairly easy when i was working on the htl seker. i mainly use ati's normal mapper. i came up with a technique for rapidly generating a high detail model. i use a turbosmooth modifier in max, i also tweak smooth groups to get better boundry isolation, so the ship doesnt end up looking like a blob. i then use displacement with a height map which i created in photoshop based off the texture (my source texture files are layered to make them easy to remix, for shine and env maps, the same technique worked well for height maps). i tweak the map with an airbrush tool to get the correct model topography in max. once im satisfied, i crank up the iterations in turbosmooth, creating roughtly a 3 million poly model and export it in the model format that the normal mapper wants.
i exported the stock model as the low poly. generating the normal map was only looking good for about 30% of the model, so my first attempt was crap. i then isolated the problem areas, by removing them and generating normal maps seprately for each. most of the problems occured where there was overlapped uv mappings. for example the engine nacels were essentially the same model, translated (no change in orientation) and attached to the ship. so by isolating a single nacel and generating the normal map, i was able to get good mapping on both. once i had all the problem areas cleaned up i composited all the normal maps, keeping the good areas and discarding the problem areas. had a normal map that was 90% awesome. the remaining 10% of the trouble areas were fixed with the clone brush in photoshop. and this is the result (no img tags cause i dont want to hijack the thread).http://i213.photobucket.com/albums/cc103/Emperor_of_Nihil/screen0016.jpghttp://i213.photobucket.com/albums/cc103/Emperor_of_Nihil/screen0017-1.jpghttp://i213.photobucket.com/albums/cc103/Emperor_of_Nihil/seker-normal-1.jpg
theres room for improvement but i think it was a pretty good first attempt.