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Ace Combat: Joint Assault
Score: 85%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Developer: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 8 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Flight/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
According to Mike Judge, one of the co-creators of South Park had this to say about Judge's classic animated series Beavis and Butt-head: "[It] is like the blues. It's the same thing over and over, but it's good."

The same can be argued about Namco's long-running Ace Combat franchise. This is a series that is almost always at the top of its game, even though it rarely bothers to change things up at all. The upcoming Ace Combat: Assault Horizon looks like it's going to be a full-fledged reboot, but Ace Combat: Joint Assault is content to go with the flow. Rest assured: if you love Ace Combat, you know exactly what you'll be getting with Joint Assault. If you have no experience with the series, this might not be the best one to start with. However, it's still a quality combat flight game from nearly every perspective.

If you played the franchise's last portable outing (Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception), you have a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of graphical prowess. By that, I mean the game is a powerhouse. The planes look great, environments are varied and interesting, the digitized head-up display is as engaging as it ever was, and the explosions are vibrant and fiery. There really isn't anything to complain about here.

There are a few minor foibles with regards to the aural department. The voicework isn't great. Commanding officers aren't known for turgid, gag-inducing, Crisis Core - esque dialogue, so their straight-down-to-business tones are quite welcome. The rest of the cast ranges from slightly sub-par to abysmal. The traitors of Rigel Squadron are the worst offenders; Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation presented its antagonists as somewhat sympathetic. Joint Assault's bad guys run the gamut of badly-voiced characters: from the sulky, silent type to the chest-puffing poser to the killjoy who goes out of his way to make it clear that he's not a good person. This often reduces the storyline to camp, which I'm confident the developers were not going for. Luckily, the fantastic orchestral soundtrack more than makes up for the low quality performances.


Gameplay:
From a structural and narrative standpoint, the Ace Combat games are staggeringly formulaic, and that includes Ace Combat: Joint Assault. A surprise attack from an organized and powerful enemy force serves as a wake up call to ::insert fictional country::'s Air Force. The good guys scramble and do their best to repel the antagonists, but something always goes wrong. In most cases, it's the unveiling of some ridiculously advanced WMD prototype. Planes go boom, countries are invaded, losses are briefly mourned, the ragtag squad of aces returns to strike terror into the hearts of their foes, and they put the bad guys down for good. Every Ace Combat game has followed this formula almost to a T, and to an extent, that's what Joint Assault's campaign does. What's different here is that the countries aren't fictional at all. Unfortunately, the Valahia terrorist organization is a relatively faceless evil that is headed by the quintessential Eastern European angry man. We can't ignore Newton's third law: Antares Squadron are the faceless good guys. Throw in some completely extraneous social commentary and you've got Joint Assault's story.

The Single Player Campaign is reasonably lengthy and features the kind of mission design that fans have come to expect. Some missions are forgettable, but others are wonderful; my favorite mission has Antares Squadron avoiding radar sweeps by weaving through narrow mountain passes and attempting to maintain a low altitude.

All told, the Campaign is pretty standard stuff. However, it's not this game's biggest draw. For a game subtitled Joint Assault, the main focus should be clear. Multiplayer is what this game was built for, and that's where the majority of the game's successes are found. It starts with full support for both Ad Hoc and Infrastructure modes. You can take up to three friends into the Campaign's Co-Op Mode, which is great fun. Furthermore, you can get into eight-player dogfights, which are always fun. If you're playing with people who aren't nearby, the lack of voice chat may make the experience seem lonelier than it is. However, it's clear that Namco ignored the hardware constraints and focused on producing a quality online experience.


Difficulty:
Ace Combat: Joint Strike has a fickle difficulty level that spikes and ebbs erratically over the course of its roughly seven hour Campaign. One late level pits Antares Squadron against a giant rail gun that obliterates everything that lies along a localized cone of attack. At least, it should. This gun apparently has no effect on friendlies. However, you have very little time to get out of the way before the gun goes off. Two hits, and you're toast. This part isn't difficult on its own, but the part afterward is simply maddening. When you actually approach the rail gun, SAMs and AA guns inconveniently located at the gun's base open up on your squad. If you try for close attack runs, the rail gun will move in an attempt to swat you out of the sky. If it succeeds, it's back to the beginning of the mission. Better checkpoint placement could have remedied several of Joint Assault's difficulty quirks.

Game Mechanics:
Ace Combat: Joint Assault starts you off with a rather condescending control scheme. It's an oversimplified setup that replaces pitching and rolling with climbing/diving and turning. Pitching and rolling aren't advanced maneuvers; inversions are absolutely essential in the art of dogfighting, and it's kind of insulting to use a scheme that ignores this. Regardless of your skill level, you should switch to Expert the second you are able to.

The controls and mechanics of the Ace Combat games represent the standards that other flight combat games should (and for the most part, don't) live up to. The developers behind Joint Assault know that nothing is broken; therefore, they aren't in any rush to fix anything. The planes handle wonderfully. The aircraft suited for air-to-air engagements are nimble, yet there's an appropriate level of heaviness that is felt every time the plane pitches, rolls, and yaws. On the other side, air-to-ground planes aren't known for their aerodynamics, and you'll feel that disparity in Joint Assault.

Ace Combat: Joint Assault isn't the best game in the franchise, but it's no slouch. If Skies of Deception left you wanting a fully-featured multiplayer component, Joint Assault will satisfy that craving. This game proves that it is possible for a developer to resist the forces of creative evolution for over a decade and still deliver a quality product.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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