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.
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