Ahhh, Ace Combat…how I love you. As I reminisce, I first remember you when you called yourself Air Combat 10 years ago for the Americans and the Europeans. Your parents would later change your name to what you are known as today. You are the premier air-combat series no matter which console you look through. Some have tried to mimic your amazing ways, but miserably failed. Remember when Konami released their AirForce Delta games? Remember when Sammy brought us Lethal Skies? And while Lethal Skies did a decent job of capturing your gameplay, AirForce Delta should've been aborted from the start. Still, you remain untouched. And now you've landed on Sony's PSP and nothing's changed…
The moment you start playing Ace Combat X you find yourself pretty amazed at how nice the details are. For the most part it looks like a scaled down version of Ace Combat 4. Yes, although AC4 may be a 5 year old PS2 game, it's still a good looking title and the fact that the PSP is faithfully running a game that looks anywhere near as good as it, is a testament to the unit's ability. And this is allegedly still running underclocked at only 222MHZ, as opposed to the PSP's full potential 333MHZ – so there's a potential room for improvement. The air-crafts exude good design and careful detailing, and this will especially become noticeable when you're watching replays of your mission. Up until the last two Ace Combat games, the series has always suffered from really poor terrain detail. Likewise, don't expect that to be any different on the PSP; while the system may have some brunt to it, it still is a handheld unit with limitations. Thankfully those limitations don't prevent the action from being consistent and smooth, with a terrific frame rate that keeps the experience enjoyable.
The basic principles of Ace Combat have remained with the series since day one. While mechanics and fluidity has changed to a slightly more simulation-like feel…Ace Combat (at least since AC2) has continued to be an experience we're all comfortable with and that's easily accessible to us. At the same time, Namco is always managing to deliver something fresh to keep us entertained. Understandably so, the stakes for a PSP Ace Combat weren't that high, largely because there is no competition for the series on the platform. So while Ace Combat X doesn't offer anything groundbreaking in terms of features, the fact that it's a handheld version of Ace Combat that looks very comparable to the console versions is good enough for me. Much like past Ace Combat titles, ACX will pit you through missions that require various types of combat: air-to-air combat, air-to-ship, air-to-ground and so forth. You'll find yourself either shooting up a swarm of bogeys, shooting downward destroying a military base or destroying an entire fleet of ships. But bear in mind that certain mission types will provide a challenge that you must adhere to, otherwise you will compromise the objective and fail the mission. Having said that, as you progress you'll earn money and will be allowed to purchase, sell and upgrade new planes.
There are quite a number of real life combat planes in the game, as well as original designs, all of which have their own personal characteristics that will serve their specific purpose throughout different missions in the game. If you're about to enter an air-to-ground mission, you'll want a plane that is capable of flying at low speeds and low altitude, in addition to being able to deal out some serious ground damage. If you feel like you can do such tasks without a specific plane type, then simply equip your plane with a weapon that is capable of dealing good ground damage. The more you play ACX the more you'll begin to realize the little intricacies behind the game. Often times you'll have a fork in your mission map, and you'll be able to choose between more than one mission. So you have the ability to control the types of battles you want to engage into, just in case you're not a fan of a certain mission type. Very nice. Unfortunately for the game's multiplayer element, ACX only supports a maximum 4-player battle in Ad-hoc. So unless you've got three friends with a PSP each and four copies…you likely will never experience the game's multiplayer component. Shame, this could've made one hell of an online experience. Likewise, a lack of a robust multiplayer component totally hurts the replay aspect of the game. Once you finish the game's campaign you'll probably find little reason to go back and play the game again.
Story wise, ACX is about the Gryphus Squadron who are fighting to stop the invasion of the Aurelian country by their neighbors the Leasath. The republics had lived in peace, until Leasath decided suddenly to invade, claiming they are constantly exploited by the Aurelians. The invasion ran fast, as the Leasath swept through…but this is where your squadron comes in and begins to put an end to it all. No one really knows much about this unknown legion of planes, so think of them as masked superheroes, if you will, answering a call for help.
Controlling Ace Combat requires a bit of carefulness…no, not because you can crash; but because you can accidentally turn off the PSP as you're playing the game. Because the brake and throttle are the L and R buttons, there is a chance that the outside of your palm may slide the power switch and turn off the PSP. Obviously this is a fault in the PSP's design, and Namco avoided this by allowing the gamer to reconfigure the controller setup to a personal selection. As much as I would have loved to keep the default controls of the L and R button as being the brake and throttle, I reconfigured the selection and made L and R control less important functions. Additionally, there are two different types of control types: novice or normal. Normal makes use of both the analog nub and digital pad for maneuvering the direction of the plane. This creates a far more precise and accurate experience during the game; where as the novice controls make the plane feel unstable and far too floaty. Stick to the normal controls and play the game the way it was meant to be played – it just feels a lot more satisfying, as well.
The audio is probably the one lackluster feature. While there is a good deal of voice acting, the guy who briefs your mission just doesn't fit the role. He sounds almost discouraging and wimpy. I'd prefer a more stern sounding voice to keep the morale of the game up. Chatter, voice acting, and various bits of dialogue throughout the game's cut-scenes and missions sound decent. The quality is nothing mind-blowing coming through the PSP's tiny little speakers, but it does the job well enough. Lastly, the soundtrack is pretty forgettable; even at full volume you won't even hear or remember that there was music playing during one of your missions. I sure didn't until I re-booted my PSP to make sure there even was music in the first place.
The final word is that I'm quite pleased with this package, overall. It's Ace Combat, after all and it's in the palm of my hands. It's a well done port that runs superbly well on Sony's little unit. Visually it resembles Ace Combat 4, with gameplay elements we've come to love and expect from this terrific franchise. There is, however, room for improvements. For one, the multiplayer aspect needs to be overhauled; ad-hoc just won't cut it in a game this intense and neither will four players. Ace Combat is the ideal candidate for a fantastic online component with a maximum of 16 players. We've gotten Socom and a plethora of other games, but we've yet to fill the void of an air-combat title online for the PSP. Make it happen, Namco. Secondly, I feel like the visuals still have a little room left to grow and that the PSP isn't being pushed. Lastly, the audio is ho-hum and totally average. Developers really need to find a way to utilize custom soundtracks being directly read off the memory-stick, because games like Ace Combat X really need them. With all of that said and done, if you're an Ace Combat fan and want the experience on the go, this is not just you're only bet, but also your best.