iPhone Game Review: Ace Combat Xi - Skies of Incursion
Reviewed by Mike 'Todwurst' Wagner
If you're a PC gamer then flight sims have been easily accessible to you for the last few decades. Console gamers haven't had it nearly so lucky, with quality flight combat games arriving few and far between. But Namco has been there taking up the slack for years, with it's popular Ace Combat series. Attractive, frenetic, and with high production values, Ace Combat games are a nice interlude for armchair aeronauts. So I jumped at the chance to try out the newest iteration for the iPhone/iPod.
What I saw gave me mixed feelings.
The first thing you see coming into the game is a high-energy cinematic of air-to-air combat. You can tap to skip past it on subsequent loads, which is nice considering that some console developers still force you to sit through cinematics you've already seen. The menus are tastefully understated, and some may find them sparse, but they convey all the necessary information and are clear to read. The text on the mission introductions may be too small for some eyes, but they are window dressing and won't impact your mission parameters.
The HUD is clean and detailed, with the buttons spaced far enough apart that even my large hands work well with them. Terrain detail makes for an attractive mission area, but the planes and ground targets themselves need a little more work to make them "pop". Military vehicles are designed to blend in, but since your targets are all marked for you automatically it wouldn't hurt to put more contrast and color in the units and take them out of that bland grey theme that is so prevalent throughout.
I came into the game blind, with no expectations or foreknowledge of what to expect on this particular platform. I navigated through the menus to see what I would find. Campaign check. Free play of completed missions. Check. Downloadable content (via purchase). Check. Novice and Advance Flight controls. Check. Multiplayer... Where's multiplayer?
Okay, so I can forgive the exclusion of multiplayer for a rich and detailed campaign. I quickly run through the first four missions, giving me a brief warm-up on normal difficulty. The enemies aren't too bright, but it's just the training wheels missions, right? Then I complete mission 5 and the game is over. Wait a minute. What just happened? Five missions, averaging 5 minutes a piece and then the game is over? For 8 bucks?!
Sure, eight dollars is not a large amount of cash to drop on a game, but on the App Store you can get 8 other games with hundreds of hours of gameplay for 99 cents each, and the consumers know this. Many of those 99 cent games are underpriced for the value they deliver, but when you're asking 8 dollars for around 30 minutes of first play-through, it's going to come back and bite you.
The missions themselves are brief and engaging, with the player being rated on performance at the end of each mission. There are targets you must kill, as well as secondary escorts to destroy, but missions only require the destruction of the assigned targets.
The novice control system is highly responsive and will let a new player slam into the deck without consequence if they slip up while skimming the treetops or waves. I typically prefer playing with advance constrols, but found that the advanced controls in this case were a bit muddy when it came to pitch and yaw. I usually like to take advantage of braking maneuvers and other techniques in flight combat, which is where advanced controls come in handy, but since enemy planes tend to just fly around aimlessly and shoot the occasional missile vaguely in the direction of your plane I ended up switching back to the novice controls. They're all the response you'll need until the AI gets an upgrade.
Upon completing the 5 single player missions you unlock a new plane, one that is decidedly better than the three you choose from at the start. Additional planes can be downloaded at 99 cents a piece from the app store, but until the main game has a few updates until it's belt there's not really any need for the player to purchase a new ride.
Increasing the difficulty to hard doesn't appear to make enemies any more dangerous, just more numerous. With a time limit on missions that's one way of increasing the challenge, but I'd rather the missions difficulty rely on the enemies being aggressive and skillful, rather than my deadliest enemy being a countdown timer.
Overall, I like the gameplay, I just don't love it. It feels rushed, unfinished. Like the work of the fresh-faced developers who put out their game early just to see what the community thinks. The game stutters periodically on my 2nd Gen Touch, and while it hasn't hurt my score, it does hurt the immersion. A company like Namco should know better than to let performance issues like that into a popular brand like Ace Combat. But even if they've dropped they ball, they'll probably have it back in hand quickly.
Someone should pat the sound designer for Ace Combat Xi on the back and say 'Job well done.' The sound goes a long way toward breaking up the monotony of gameplay that you'll find with any flight sim. When you're not in a furball, you're looking for one, and driving in a straight line from one battle to the next is about as fun as waiting for a Zeppelin in WoW. Ace Combat Xi livens it up with a constant stream of radio chatter as enemies spot you, lament the casualties you inflict, and call for support. It can get a bit repetitive but there's enough variety to get you through the missions, and it adds to the 'legend' of the character as they recognize his plane.
The techno soundtrack beats strongly in the menus and takes a step into the background during gameplay, letting you focus on the mission.
At $7.99 Ace Combat Xi wouldn't be priced unreasonably as downloadable content on a PC or console, but when you factor that price into the scale of other app store titles it's a bit much. The reigning champion of iPhone flight combat, F.A.S.T, has greater focus on multiplayer but also includes 30 training missions and now sports a campaign mode. If you have to have Ace Combat Xi now, then it's probably worth it to you. Namco has updates in the works that should increase the perceived value of the game. It's just that right now, I'm not feeling it.
If they can tweak the performance and AI, and get the mission count up over 15 instead of the included 5, Ace Combat Xi will have my whole-hearted endorsement.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Graphics: - 3.5 - The HUD and ground detail are nicely done. The planes look flat in comparison.
Sound: - 4 - Radio chatter and a bouncy soundtrack. More please.
Controls: - 4 - Novice controls are very responsive, while advanced controls feel muddy.
Gameplay: - 3 - What's there is pretty good, it just doesn't feel finished.
Playing Hints and Tips:
- Each mission has designated targets. Focus on killing those units quickly and ignore escorts which pose little threat.
- Ripple Fire!!! As soon as your missiles are away, switch to the next target. When shooting at weak targets you can fire a missile, select the next target and fire another, killing both in quick succession.
Release Date: December 3, 2009
Buy App: iTunes App Store
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