I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the Ace Combat series. Having dabbled in five games starting with Shattered Skies, I’m just barely reaching Ace status. If you count the iPhone game, the full series encompasses thirteen games - eleven that bear the name "Ace Combat", and two that don’t (classic titles Air Combat and Air Combat 22). So, yeah...I’m a rookie by most accounts.
Last week I was fortunate enough to be presented with a copy of Ace Combat: Joint Assault, the second PlayStation Portable-only title to feature Project Aces’ award-winning formula of bomb this, missile that. Needless to say: the game has a lot going for it, both in pedigree and in actual player enjoyment. Just how much fun Joint Assault is and whose collection it should grace...well, let’s take a look at that in some detail.
The presentation of the main menus - while not important to some players - is nonetheless fluid and easy. In my opinion it suffers from too many loading messages, but they’re brief enough to be little more than a slight annoyance. The blazing orange background never changes, which keeps the menu contrast levels at a good norm. Classic arcade-style sounds punctuate your navigation - long-running fans should be pleased with that.
Joint Assault’s controls are really nothing to write home about. By default the bumpers control your boost and flaps (speed), the face buttons control your weapons, the analog nub steers, and the directional pad is for yaw control. Mind you, this is the default “expert” control scheme - there is also an “easy” style and a “custom”, the latter of which is fully customizable. Everything works just fine, although it quickly becomes apparent that the analog nub is not well suited for fine control. Thankfully, Joint Assault doesn’t require much fine control.
The graphics rival those of the PlayStation 2 Ace Combats - which is not bad at all.
For the first time in the series, missions take place in the real world.
After playing a few of the single-player missions, I hopped online to find a co-op squad. This is where this game really shines. Once I found some waiting players and chose my fighter jet and its loadout, I was allowed to choose which objective I would pursue. Since the game decides how the four-person squad splits up (usually two-and-two), choosing an objective is a first-come, first-serve situation. Once everyone is satisfied with their plane and vector, the host can start the mission, which loads up fairly quickly - usually within 15 seconds from the disc (or 10 from the optional memory card install).
My first mission consisted of simple dogfighting; the whole squad - although split - was on screen the whole time. However, later missions are split into two separate areas of a large map, and in some cases in another mission altogether. What makes the separated missions worth playing is that certain actions in one will affect how the other plays out. In all honesty, the effects are kind of underwhelming (think StarFox 64’s multiple paths), but even those small differences make the missions seem more organic and provide a lot of replayability. My only real complaint is that if any player uses their one co-op respawn and gets killed again, the entire mission is scrapped for everyone; there is no “sitting out” while the rest of the team plays on.
If you’re hankering for a fight you can take your unlocked jets to the versus mode, where plenty of players are waiting to shoot you down with exploits, dirty tactics, and just plain hours more of experience than you. It’s not nearly as fun as it sounds...but it’s there and it works, if that’s what you fancy.
Saveable mission replays return, but don't provide full camera control. Flipping through the camera angles is fun for a little while...but ultimately becomes a glorified screen saver during between-mission snack runs.
The four-player co-op has some really great moments, like this one.
Once you make some campaign progress, you’ll have enough points to buy some new aircraft, aircraft upgrades, or weapon upgrades. The weapon upgrades are craft-specific, but the rest (such as stability upgrades for your wings, extra armor, etc.) is compatible with multiple jets. You can sell any aircraft or upgrade for the same price that you bought it for, so trying different combinations won’t set you back - you always keep the points that you earn. Also, you can earn these points both in single player or co-op persistently.
Ace Combat: Joint Assault doesn’t change the formula at all, really, with the one big exception of its unique take on co-op. It’s a very, very fun game, and it’s now a permanent part of my PSP library...but if you’re not an Ace Combat fan there’s not a whole lot for you here. From me it gets a solid score for overall enjoyment and airtight gameplay - it probably wouldn’t fare quite as well among the rest of the co-op crowd, who might expect more than just a neat co-op campaign from such an accomplished series.