Ace Combat Advance Hands-On

We strap ourselves into the upcoming portable rendition of Namco's popular flight combat series.

For years, Namco's Ace Combat series has been known for delivering incredibly cinematic flight combat in the vein of Top Gun, but without the extremely steep learning curves you'd experience in a purely realistic flight simulation. Now the series is being scaled down to pocket size with Ace Combat Advance, which is due out early next year for the Game Boy Advance. You might expect Ace Combat Advance to hark back to the glory days of Top Gun-inspired arcade shooters like Afterburner, but as a matter of fact, the game feels much more similar to 360-degree, top-down shooter classics like Time Pilot. We recently got our hands on a near-final version of the game and are here with firsthand impressions.

Ever play Time Pilot? Ace Combat Advance quickly reminded us of that game.

Ace Combat Advance will feature a dozen different missions, 10 selectable planes, and two difficulty settings. The mission objectives and terrain of course are varied, but regardless of the circumstances, you'll be observing the action from an overhead view that places your jet near the bottom of the screen. Pressing left or right on the D pad causes the plane to unrealistically "turn," which makes the terrain below you rotate while your plane maintains its relative alignment onscreen. In this fashion, you're free to explore the game's big mission areas in any direction, though a minimap is always there to point out your next objective, as well as any nearby hostiles. The biggest twist to the controls is that pressing up or down on the D pad causes your jet to fly lower or higher, respectively. Your jet appears in 3D, so it's neat to see it scale bigger or smaller, along with the terrain itself. This dodging action ends up being your primary means of avoiding incoming fire, and we quickly learned the hard way that you won't last long without frequently bobbing up and down.

You'll be armed with machine guns and a special weapon of some sort, such as air-to-surface missiles for use against ground targets. Despite the game's decidedly different perspective, it's similar to its console counterparts in that its challenge comes from managing your speed and lining up targets in your sights. You have recharging afterburners to help get you to your next objective (or out of a tight spot) as quickly as possible, but we observed that the normal flight speed actually seems surprisingly slow. We presume this is partly because we were mostly relegated to using slower, weaker planes, but it also happens to be an effect of flying at high altitudes. At any rate, the top-down perspective doesn't lend itself to the same sort of breakneck pacing that you get in Ace Combat's PlayStation 2 installments.

Recent Ace Combat chapters have made quite an impression, thanks to their rich storylines, but Ace Combat Advance seems much more focused on pure action. The game supposedly takes place in the year 2032, in a world being threatened by an economic superpower simply called General Resources. You'll get to fly sortie after sortie against this organization, its supply lines, and its air defense. As in the console Ace Combat titles, you can expect to have to mow down lots and lots of targets and go through dozens of missiles and hundreds of rounds of ammo in the typical mission. The story seems to take a backseat to the action, though, as it's possible to just dive right into this game without paying much attention to the plot.

Aren't they cute? The planes in Ace Combat Advance may be small, but they still pack a mean punch.

The game's upbeat soundtrack and nice-looking graphics help strengthen the arcade-style feel, and the presence of lots of targets to shoot at (and avoid) means Ace Combat Advance ought to pack a good challenge. Unlockable planes will be attainable from earning high scores on missions, and they resemble the real thing, though we noticed that the game doesn't use the real-life names for any of the jets you'll be flying.

Ace Combat Advance seems to be taking the spirit of the series and translating it into an action-packed arcade shooter that's well suited to quick playing sessions on the go. It doesn't seem to tie in with the core series to a great extent, but it still looks like it could end up being a fun little game when it ships in February 2005.

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