Version tested: PSP
Here's the plot of Ace Combat X: a country called Aurelia is attacked by a country called Leasath, which has a massive army and advanced technology, including a super powerful flying fortress called Gleipnir, which is used to wipe out almost all of the Aurelian army, leaving a secret Aurelian airborne unit called Gryphus 1 to try to organise the unlikely feat of repelling the invading forces.
If you find those ridiculous names and that slender story, told in static cut-scenes by breathlessly bad voice actors, in any way appealing, maybe you'll like the polished but uninspiring aerial combat that forms the basis of the first PSP instalment of Namco's aerial combat sim series.
It's certainly a technically proficient title, doing pretty much what all the other Ace Combat games have done, except with the added challenge of having done it on a handheld platform. For those of you who have somehow missed the first umpteen (well, six or seven) games in the Ace Combat series, here's what they've done: they've supplied gamers with a steady succession of aerial dogfights that err towards the arcade end of the realisticness spectrum, and offered players a chance to buy new planes and exotic weapons between missions.
And they've tended to do so with a whole load of airforce-style spit and polish. In this respect, Ace Combat X is no exception: it looks the part, depicting vast expanses of water, detailed military bases and confined canyons with equal aplomb, and featuring a characteristically detailed HUD. It sounds the part, with the usual accomplished but annoying music, and atmospheric radio chatter that heightens your sense of engagement in battle. And it plays the part - more or less. Picking off opponents by chasing them down to secure a lock-on for your heat-seeking missiles is pretty fun, and there's about a million different types of aircraft and upgrades available for players to check out.
It's even got moments of innovation, such as a branching mission structure after the initial couple of sorties. By choosing which missions to undertake, players can shape the course of later missions by taking out units that might otherwise appear in subsequent missions, or by protecting allies who might then help out later on, for example. And a couple of team-based modes have been thrown into the multiplayer game.
But how many times have you found yourself engaged in a four-player PSP multiplayer session? Probably not enough to want to fork out for a game that is, in many other ways, fairly underwhelming. Partly that's due to the limitations of Sony's hardware: the game is more difficult to control than previous Ace Combat games, primarily because the lack of a second analog stick means that it's difficult to yaw and pitch or roll at the same time.
But largely it's actually because the missions don't seem to be as much fun as in earlier Ace Combat titles. There are simply too many missions that require the destruction of targets on the ground, resulting in far fewer dogfights and a lot more repetitive bombing runs. And there are too many missions in which you're forced to sit and wait for something to happen (like your targets to appear) for several minutes, only to fail in the space of a few seconds forcing you to sit out those several minutes all over again. Which isn't really practical in a handheld, portable game. It might be a minor niggle, but you're unlikely to want to play this on the train, because your head will be epilepsing about in a hapless bid to compensate for the inadequate controls, and the missions can take so long that you'll miss your stop.
In fact, there are quite a few minor niggles, which rather offsets all that technical polish. The game is short, and any replay value provided by the branching missions is unlikely to appeal beyond a hardcore subset of fans. And it's rarely necessary to upgrade your craft or to check out new ones in order to make progress through the missions - meaning that all those might-as-well-be-a-million different planes are pretty redundant.
So sure, it's one of the best combat flight sims on the PSP. But that's only because there aren't really any others. As a game in its own right, and if you compare it to combat flight sims on other platforms, it simply doesn't really ever get off the ground.
5 / 10