For years I have turned my nose up at the very thought of aerial dogfights on a portable game system. After playing Spitfire Heroes on the Nintendo DS, I vowed never to put my eyes through that kind of torture again. Thankfully Ace Combat: Joint Assault has entered my life, because Namco's newest shoot-em-up has proven that I don't need to strain my eyes to have a good time flying on a handheld.
Joint Assault hits that sweet spot -- it's not quite a flight simulator and it never veers into Afterburner territory. Instead the controls are intuitive and the player is rarely asked to think about how to fly the real-world licensed jets. The shoulder buttons control the speed, the analog stick is used for all movement and the face buttons take care of the weapons/targeting. And because the game will automatically right your jet, I never found myself in a situation where I was completely out of control. Some purists may scoff at the simplicity of the game mechanics, but there's not much more one can do with the PSP's limited layout.
The story is the kind of crazy over-the-top cheesiness you expect from the Ace Combat series. You play a brand new airman who gets caught up in an international struggle on his very first day. This is a twisted story of betrayal, insurance money and lots and lots and lots of dogfights. But who cares about the story when there are airplanes to shoot down? The missions are there to give you enough purpose to fight the Valahia around the world. We start by defending Tokyo, but before long the player will be flying over the United Kingdom, Middle East and Central Asia. It all leads to an all-out war on the United State's west coast.
With two dozen levels, Joint Assault manages to cover a lot of ground. Going in I worried that this was going to be nothing more than 20 levels of dogfights. Thankfully I was wrong, because Ace Combat offers a solid amount of unique challenges to overcome. The game starts out with air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, the basic gameplay you expect from this kind of game. But just when I was starting to get used to the structure of the levels, I was forced to completely change-up my strategy.
In one level the player is asked to fly through a complex labyrinth of mountains and valleys, staying under a certain elevation. While I could just as easily ignore my orders and fly over the mountains, there was a better chance of me being shot down. In another mission I'm trying to take out ground targets while a gigantic laser cannon takes out large chunks of the map. And who can forget the many large, multi-part airships that require patience and precision to take down. From one level to the next, there's always something exciting to accomplish in Joint Assault. Unfortunately not every level is as memorable as what I just described, but enough of them stood out to keep this game rattling through my head days after beating it.
Much like Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Monster Hunter and so many other games, this brand new Ace Combat game is intended to be played with a bunch of friends. After all, it has the word "Joint" right in the title; Namco really hopes that people will want to play this shooter in groups. It's a good idea; the levels are certainly large enough to support four people at once. Sadly, I had terrible luck finding friendly pilots who were also interested in helping me take down Valahia. Actually, I found no pilots. Even with the game's built-in online mode, I was forced to battle this game one-one-one.A lot of the game's structure will be instantly familiar to longtime Ace Combat fans. Players earn money for each successful mission which in turn is used to buy new jets, upgrade parts and invest in new weaponry. The game offers a nice collection of real licensed jets to choose from; including a few welcome surprises (I was excited to pilot a Boeing 747 jumbo jet). Fans of collecting and customizing will find a lot of replay here, since earning enough money means replaying levels over and over again. But like Peace Walker, the grinding should be less repetitive if you're not flying solo.
The graphics take an understandable hit when coming to the small screen. I found that most of the landscapes are flat and boring, with only a few tall buildings sticking up. Sometimes it felt like I was simply flying over a multi-colored rug. On the other hand, there are a few levels that are exquisitely detailed. Speeding through tunnels and a mountain range is exhilarating, even on a handheld game system. Even if it's a mixed bag, the graphics get the job done and sometimes that's about all you can ask for.
My concern going in was how easy it would be to see the enemies in the distance. So much of this kind of game relies on the player being able to see far away details. I was relieved to find that Namco has found a number of elegant solutions to these problems. As you approach an enemy (even one way off in the distance), the game highlights the foe and alerts you on the radar. Speaking of radar, you can zoom in and out of the radar screen at any time, so it's fairly easy to keep track of where everybody is.
On top of the lengthy campaign, the game supports full-on air wars with up to eight players. Best of all, online multiplayer is supported right out of the box, no need for Ad Hoc Party or any other routing tools. I was only able to get this to work a couple of times (due to lack of people on the service), but I had a reasonably good time shooting down human targets. The instruction manual hints at a lot of fun modes, hopefully enough people buy the game to make these additions worthwhile. As is the case with so many niche titles, if you have a friend who is into the Ace Combat franchise, then you're going to get a lot of more out of the content in Joint Assault. There's enough stuff to keep a solo player busy for several hours, but this is clearly designed with social gaming in mind.
As luck would have it, Ace Combat: Joint Assault is being released at a surprisingly competitive time. Not only has Ubisoft shipped H.A.W.X. 2, but Paramount Digital Entertainment unloaded a new version of Top Gun. Air combat is definitely hot right now. Of the three, Joint Assault has the most exciting content and modes. It emphasizes ease of play and brings a level of polish you normally don't see in this style of game. It's not perfect, but Namco has managed to shoot down the competition with Ace Combat: Joint Assault.