Genre: Sci-Fi Shooter
Publisher: Sierra Online
Developer: Artech Studios
Release Date: June 4, 2008
Recently, Xbox Live Arcade titles have been stretching the genre-definition of "arcade" to a distance that is more than a little uncomfortable. With the likes of Penny Arcade: Episode 1 and Puzzle Quest requiring more of a commitment than some full-price titles, it's good to see some developers going back to the dream: quick pick-up-and play thrills and spills. With this goal, Aces of the Galaxy aims to conquer the universe with an 800-point price tag.
You can't get much more arcadey that a shoot-'em-up, but unlike so many XBLA titles in that genre, Aces of the Galaxy isn't played from the top-down perspective. You pilot the ship in 3-D, with limited control over the direction you take while enemies attack you head-on — a bit like N64 classic Starfox, only a lot faster. Armed with an arsenal of upgradeable weapons, the idea is to last through the 10 levels of the campaign (there are more levels out there, but you have to pick a 10-map path through) without getting shot down, or crashing on the asteroids and other obstacles that fly past you at breakneck speeds. At its best, it's exhilarating stuff, as you frantically try to stay alive until the next ship repair power-up, but there's also a couple of shots of frustration to this explosive cocktail, when the controls aren't quite responsive enough to steer you clear of an asteroid. And then another. And then another.
Aces of the Galaxy borrows a couple of elements from other titles in an effort to stand out, and these are implemented to good effect. You charge up a sort of bullet-time slowdown mechanic to deal with particularly frantic sections, and the ability to target several enemies at once with rockets feels straight out of Rez, which is sloth-like when compared to this. Some enemies are also invisible, so you have to use a ray to detect them by holding down and aiming. It sounds like a lot to take in, and balancing all of these buttons when things get hectic can get tricky, but there's always the temptation to come back for one last go to improve your high score, which is quite easy to do, since the game uses the tried-and-true score-combo system to allow bigger and more impressive-looking numbers in the top right-hand corner of the screen. On top of this, you're also awarded a seemingly arbitrary one- to five-star rating at the end of each level to indicate how well you've done. There's definitely an incentive for players to return and play all 25 levels as long as they can see themselves coming back for more after one play-through, and not just for achievement hunters.
In a game that does so much by the old-school book, it has a surprisingly novel way of dealing with boss battles, which has drawn some criticism online but actually appealed to me. Bosses will occasionally fly by and take potshots at you; if you take them down, you'll get a score bonus, but it's not essential, and eventually they'll leave you alone and presumably go back to their ivory towers and bark clichéd orders to their troops. They will continue to show up sporadically until you kill them, at which point they'll be replaced by another similar enemy who broadcasts his annoyance that you've killed his pal in between levels in pantomime form. This lack of "epic boss fight" has managed to successfully irritate fans of the genre, but it makes perfect sense to this reviewer, as a difficult boss fight can rip the pleasure out of the most enjoyable game (I'm looking at you, Mario RPG titles). With limited lives available, annoying gamers who are actually enjoying themselves is deftly sidestepped by the developers. Smart move.
The difficulty actually has a fairly sharp curve, and while easy mode and the first few levels of normal shouldn't give the average gamer much trouble, it quickly ramps up, so there's plenty of replay value here for those who don't mind a little repetition (and if you do, then the whole genre is probably as suited to you as a bicycle is to a hippo). This is the main bone of contention with Aces of the Galaxy, though — it's just too damned samey. There are a fairly large number of levels, but they are only constructed from three settings (fiery, icy and asteroidy), which makes highlighting memorable moments almost impossible. As is the spirit of these games, there's no save function either, which is fine for those who love the genre, and while the game is playable in one sitting (the required 10 levels clock in at between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours, depending on the number of deaths), those of us who like things in small doses can find that the sameness begins to drag after a while.
Of course, Aces of the Galaxy gains massive kudos for integrating a two-player cooperative mode — something that has saved even the most mediocre game from obscurity. Cunningly, this is available both over Xbox Live and with someone in the same room, though I couldn't find a single other player on Live with whom to test the online side, suggesting that like so many recent releases with Internet play, it's very much a flash in the pan (anyone who's struggled to find someone to play Sensible World of Soccer or Gauntlet with will feel my pain). It's a shame because the offline play is a hoot, improving an already-solid game with the banter and strategy that two controllers can provide. The downside to this is that it can feel a little crowded, especially on a smaller TV, where it's hard enough to see the deluge of enemies in the first place. It's still an enjoyable experience, but expect a lot of "Oh, I thought I was you," and other frustrations if you're not of a similar skill level, especially since players share a health and combo multiplier. It's typical of any cooperative arcade game, really.
Graphically, Aces of the Galaxy really is a fine demonstration of the kind of thing XBLA developers can do with the right resources. It's bright, colorful and fast, with a real feeling of speed as you nip past planets and asteroids. The three level backdrops are all visually diverse, with the fiery zone basking your television in a red glow, and the icy zones practically forcing you to put on an extra jumper with their chilly ambience. There's not much to be expected from the sound of shoot-'em-ups, and to those low expectations, Aces of the Galaxy delivers as expected. A typical mix of explosions, zooming and power-up clicks are your aural backdrop, as well as a semi-memorable "epic" soundtrack. In all honesty, you're usually far too wrapped up in split-second reactions to pay any attention to your ears, but at the same time, the soundtrack does very little to force you to take notice, for better or worse.
I'm caught in two minds when it comes to rating Aces of the Galaxy. On the one hand, you have a short game that's not as deep as Ikaruga (more akin to Starfox in some ways) that still sets you back a fairly hefty 800 points on which your longevity may be limited, while on the other, it's a roller coaster experience while it lasts, with endearingly hammy aliens ("Foolish Human, You Will Be Crushed!" — amusingly, they encourage you to shoot the names in the credits with similar dialogue), impressive graphics and that "one more go" appeal that ensures you might miss any TV shows you'd planned on watching. I enjoyed it, and you might too, but your mileage may vary, depending on your tolerance for repetitiveness and a steep difficulty curve.
More articles about Aces of the Galaxy