Flight combat almost feels like a genre left behind by time. Arcade roots in Afterburner and Top Gun cashed in on the undeniable appeal of taking command of military jets and then using them to blow stuff up. Sure, the genre evolved a bit when it when it went into the third dimension, but mechanics from twenty years ago still form the basic principles of flight combat design today. Real life authenticity, robust physics engines, customization options, narrative, and the graphical superiority of better hardware are nice amenities, but they can’t conceal the fact that you’re still mostly performing the same fly-around-and-lock-on routine as you were ten years ago. Ace Combat, proprietor of some of the most successful members of the genre, takes another stab at air combat with its second PSP offering, Joint Assault.
Within minutes of taking off the campaign feels virtually unchanged from the offerings on the original PlayStation. Saddled with the lowly default F-4 Phantom, you’re tasked with intercepting a target and blowing it out of the sky. The stakes have been raised a bit, your opponents are now regularly sporting otherworldly flying fortresses, but it’s usually not enough to change your usual goal: avoid getting shot at as you take out targets over land, sea, and air. Missions are graded upon set criteria, you’re rewarded for keeping your plane damage free or taking out additional opposition, and then you’re given funds with which to buy new aircraft, weapons, or upgrades. It’s the same method of progression we’ve seen for a while, but its foundation remains solid enough to render its design competent.
To its credit, Joint Assault occasionally injects a bit of variation into its challenges. Escort missions, refueling exercises, a trip through Beggar’s Canyon, cleverly guarded targets, and what could best be described as aerial boss battles all take their role alongside standard combat. To add a bit of replayablity, certain missions take branching paths, meaning multiple play-throughs are required to experience Joint Assault in totality. Mid-mission checkpoints could be more forgiving, but they’re not much of a problem once you understand how to plan your attack.
Joint Assault might have been completely devoid of novel content had it not been for its titular saving grace. Ace Combat’s first foray into online cooperative play is largely a success. Paths that branch in the single player campaign are rolled into co-operative missions with each player, or team of two players, having a specific objective on a different map. Virtually anything is more fun when you’re playing with another human, but having your own squad to rival the faceless opposition provides a sense of camaraderie unique to flight combat. It’s not quite Ice Man and Maverick, but its way better than going it alone. Ad-hoc is preferred so you can yell at your buddy in real life, but global servers are in place for true infrastructure.
It also gets points for a relatively painless interface. Though by no means a complete simulation, a significant amount of information blankets sections of the screen without feeling intrusive. The map requires a bit of babysitting, but Joint Assault usually does its best to focus on the action and not the variables behind it. Control on the Beginner setting was a hand cramping nightmare incapable of precision, but Expert, with adherence to yaw, pitch, roll and trim, felt much better. The latter, though a bit disorienting at first, is the only way to get the most out of the wide array of fighters.
What Joint Assault fails to do is sell its fiction. I never felt an accurate sense of speed, regardless of what the numbers on the screen said. The planes looked great, but, baring a few statistical variations, they all handled without a proper sense of weight or position. Collision detection was literally hit and miss, with my F-16 literally bouncing off my opposition a few times. Ace Combat’s always had a bit of an arcade feel, rendering some of this forgivable, but it does sort of kill the excitement and freedom of flying state-of-the-art military craft.
Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues
Much to my surprise, the presentation side of Joint Assault received a considerable amount of Project Ace’s attention. Tons of voice work and an eclectic (though mostly, possibly entirely, recycled) soundtrack do their best to keep you focused when the gameplay starts to drag. A rogue group of mercenaries and conspiracies amongst PMC’s aren’t the most original plot fodder, but it provides just enough cause without offending the player’s intelligence. The end game doesn’t quite stand up to logic, but, then again, neither does an airplane from the 70’s armed with more than fifty missiles combating what might as well be a giant spacecraft. It’s fun and totally harmless, but suspension of disbelief is a must.
The visuals are all over the place. The real world jets, with functioning flaps, igniting afterburners, and tons of detail, look wonderful, but everything else looks phoned in. The narrative actually takes place in the real world this time, but you’d hardly know if it weren’t for a few landmarks. Egypt along with portions of California and Japan all sort of reproduce some key buildings, but they’re basically reduced to a handful of raised polygonal structures on top of what appears to be a Google Maps skin. Given, you’re not supposed to stop and enjoy the scenery, but if it weren’t for the altimeter I would have smacked into the severely out of focus ground a few times. Regardless, the game can be occasionally beautiful, with moments like soaring around London at night being particularly memorable.