The Ace Combat series has been around for quite a while now and, if Joint Assault is any indication, the franchise is beginning to show its age. Once the premiere combat flight sim series, the games are starting to feel repetitive and boring. While Joint Assault is a perfectly functional method of tiding over gamers until the eventual release of Assault Horizon, there's little here that will likely drum up excitement for the franchise once more.
Combat in Joint Assault is basically the same as it's ever been, with players strapping into the cockpit of one of 30 different licensed planes, choosing their armaments and then flying to take out an assortment of bogies on land, sea and air. The franchise formula remains unchanged as pilots maneuver behind enemy planes, launch a couple of homing missiles and then fly off. Rinse and repeat until the "mission accomplished" message flashes on-screen. It's rote and predictable, and it's only fun if you're really into the Ace Combat mechanics.
Even the missions that are meant to break up the monotony are nothing more than retreads from previous games. There's the obligatory superweapon mission, where you have to advance on the giant rail gun while avoiding its blasts, a stage where you have to stay below a certain altitude while weaving through a canyon, and even a flying fortress that must be taken down by picking off its defenses one by one. Actually, the massive airborne enemy base is even more of a cliché than ever due to the fact that such a mission doesn't pop up once or even twice during Joint Assault, but rather upward of a half-dozen times. The monstrosity doesn't even serve as the game's final boss; that honor is reserved for one of the most frustrating dogfights ever as players square off against a rival pilot who can literally dodge every single missile you launch his way. Enjoy the massive hand cramp that accompanies the battle — at least that much is memorable.
The one area where Joint Assault manages to stand apart from the crowd is in its inclusion of multiplayer via local ad-hoc and over Wi-Fi. Every mission in the campaign can be tackled by multiple aces, and while that normally means little more than having friends with you to finish standard objectives, there are times when things are handled a bit more creatively. From time to time, players will hit one of the game's titular joint assault missions in which the players are split into teams and given separate yet parallel objectives. These stages shine, as the actions of one team can have a direct impact on what the other team is doing, and both squadrons must be successful in order to call the mission a success. While there are only a handful of these joint assault missions sprinkled throughout the game, they are tons of fun and hopefully the mechanic will find its way into regular rotation for the duration of the Ace Combat series.
One thing that Joint Assault accidentally proves is that it may be wise to discontinue including the series on the PSP, at least until the handheld gets an iteration that features a second analog stick. The single analog nub on the current device is simply too little to allow for much precision, and even with advanced controls turned on, it's difficult to pull off any slick maneuvers or impressive aerial tricks. Most players will thus be restricted to making wide turns or lazy loops when circling back around to targets because it's next to impossible to do anything more advanced. Those dreaming of flying like Maverick will be sorely disappointed.
Another major issue is the fact that while the game features 30 different planes, they do very little to differentiate themselves from one another. While they're all rated in terms of speed, mobility, attack capabilities and more, most feel functionally identical when you're up in the air. Players who manage to unlock and purchase the best of the best fighters may notice they're slightly faster or can turn more sharply, but nearly all the other middle-of-the-pack planes feel functionally identical. In turn, deciding which plane to take up for most missions comes down to which one carries the right special weapon for the circumstance rather than which is actually the most capable. It makes it hard to get excited about unlocking a new plane when the improvements it carries are so minimal that they're practically unnoticeable.
The Ace Combat series has also had its ups and downs over the years in the story department, and this entry is undoubtedly one of the worst. While previous titles have dealt with rogue states and civil war, the story this time around is centered on — I kid you not — insurance fraud. Sure, there's a side story about a crazy militant group that wants to found its own country, but the bulk of the storytelling is reserved for one Madoff-like caricature who is attempting to defraud the public out of billions. While I can appreciate the effort in games to offer contemporary social commentary, this is beyond reaching; it's downright pandering. The plot reaches Die Another Day levels of ludicrousness, and you'd think it was all just a big joke if all the characters involved weren't taking things so seriously. If do pick up the game, don't bother following the plot; there's very little reason to do so unless you're curious to see how they try to make such a ridiculous subject pass for serious.
While it may seem like I've been particularly harsh on Joint Assault, it's a very familiar game with a cool concept in the joint assault missions. The rest of the game does nothing to spice up things or change the established franchise formula, and the amount of enjoyment you'll find is directly proportional to how much you love the series. This is a perfectly acceptable game, but it's also mostly boring and safe. We all know that the game of life boils down to "no risk, no reward," so this mediocre game gets a mediocre score.
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