Review: Ace Combat: Joint Assault

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Namco Bandai’s legendary flight combat franchise returns to the portable skies for another PSP sortie with today’s retail launch of Ace Combat: Joint Assault (the PSN download version takes flight next week), and it is yet another standout title in what has quietly turned into a banner year for Sony’s handheld console.

Ace Combat: Joint Assault has all the single-player trappings of previous Ace Combat games – a full story campaign, nice graphics, intense flight combat gameplay, cinematic (and savable) video replays, and unlockables out the wahzoo – but multiplayer, both cooperative and competitive, is clearly the game’s defining feature this time out. And thankfully the game delivers on both fronts.

As a multiplayer game, Joint Assault is a rarity on the PSP in that it supports Ad Hoc and Infrastructure play for all modes. Locally or online, you can take on the complete campaign with up to three friendly wingmen by your side, or you can turn the tables and engage in aerial combat against other ace pilots in VS Mode, which supports a max of eight players in six different match types.

Both are tremendous fun, but co-op is the real star. At any time during the campaign, you can choose to play a mission by yourself or in co-op, and the mission structure is designed to cater to both styles. During co-op play, there are two types of missions you will face. The majority of the missions simply throw all four players into the same theater to complete the same set of objectives in unison. However, there are also special joint assault missions that split the four players into two teams of two, with each team playing on a different map from the other and completing unique objectives which, in turn, impact certain events in the other team’s mission. These joint missions aren’t as frequent as I would’ve preferred, but it is a neat setup nonetheless, and hopefully a concept Namco Bandai expands upon in future releases.

For online play, Namco Bandai has solid net code in place to keep performance silky smooth. In the co-op and competitive matches I’ve played so far, I haven’t been booted from a game or experienced a hitch of lag playing on the “Global” and “Japan” servers (servers are also available for North America and Europe). I also appreciated how when I got a good team together I could continue mission after mission from the same lobby rather than having to search for new teammates every time.

There are a few caveats to the multiplayer though. First, the lead-in to co-op missions, between loading times (data install helps some, but isn’t a cure), the preliminary setup each player has to go through, and the occasional pre-mission takeoff/refueling “mini-games,” is a fairly tedious process to endure. And this problem can be compounded depending on who you are stuck with. You can skip through briefings and mini-games all you want, but if other players choose not to, you have to wait for everyone else to finish before proceeding. One bad egg can spoil the fun for everyone.

Another annoyance I’ve come across is not always being able to join into games. I’ve been playing an early copy of the game since last week — when it also was released in Japan — and already it seems like there are a lot of players online from overseas. When creating my own rooms for other players to join, I’ve had no problems getting missions started. However, for some odd reason I’ve had a tough time joining existing games. I find a room I want to join and click OK, but get a timeout error shortly thereafter booting me back to the search screen. This happens to me regularly, and I can’t figure it out. Hopefully it’s something that will work itself out as the servers are broken in for each region.

Co-op is the centerpiece of the Joint Assault experience, but the game is plenty enjoyable for solo pilots too. The campaign can be completed in less than three hours and the story is a complete throwaway – something about an insurance company bigwig conspiring with terrorists to drive up his company’s stock price. However, the game is bursting with replay value, and, even though Ace Combat games usually have decent storylines, I really don’t play flight combat games for in-depth narrative, so I was happy to ignore the plot and just have fun with the gameplay. And have fun I did!

Taking to the skies by yourself, the campaign offers a few branching mission paths, so you do need to replay multiple times to unlock every single mission in the game. Also, you are always free to replay any previously completed mission to increase your mission rankings, earn medals for your pilot profile, unlock new aircraft, weapons and parts, and amass enough cash to purchase all those extra goodies you’ve unlocked. The game features over 40 real-life aircraft to collect, each one modeled in incredible detail — from wings and flaps that move realistically as you fly to impressive afterburner effects that kick in at full throttle – and between missions you can tune and customize planes with upgraded weapons, engines, wings, armor, avionics and decorative emblems.

Per usual for an Ace Combat game, Joint Assault strikes an even balance between flight sim realism and fast-paced arcade approachability. Two control options are provided for pilots of varying flight experience: Normal type streamlines flight controls to ease beginners along, while Expert type removes the training wheels, errr…wings I mean, so veteran aces can manually roll, pitch and yaw for greater precision. And there are three camera views to choose from as well, including HUD, cockpit and third-person.

Whichever scheme/camera combination you decide on, Joint Assault’s flight controls are effortlessly smooth (a few of the early, weaker planes do feel a bit stiff, but that’s to be expected), and the aerial dogfights, complimented by booming sound effects and a surprisingly emphatic soundtrack, are fast and intense. Save for a boss aircraft that’s recycled what seems like five times (at least) throughout the game, the mission objectives are also diverse and interesting, whether you are eliminating all targets in the area, bombing ground installations, protecting/escorting ally targets, taking out a giant laser cannon while avoiding its periodic, screen-spanning blasts, or safely piloting a weaponless airliner through a valley swarming with enemies.

There really is so much to love about this game, and very little to criticize. Getting a co-op game going can be a chore at times, and I do think Namco Bandai could’ve taken the joint assault concept even further. But on the whole, Ace Combat: Joint Assault pushes portable flight combat into a new stratosphere of excellence.

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Pros:
+ Strong mix of solo, co-op and competitive play
+ Steady online performance (once you get into a match)
+ Smooth flight controls and engaging gameplay
+ Tons of replay value and unlockables
+ Detailed plane models
+ Booming sound effects and music

Cons:
– Lead-in process for co-op is fairly tedious
– Joining other players’ multiplayer games is hit or miss
– Throwaway campaign storyline
– More “joint assault” missions please!

Game Info:
Platform: PSP
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Release Date: UMD – 8/31/2010, PSN – 9/7/2010
Genre: Flight Combat
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-8 (2-4 co-op, 2-8 competitive; supports Ad Hoc and Infrastructure play)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!