By now, the Ace Combat name has practically become synonymous with reliable, high-quality dogfighting action. Joint Assault, the second outing on the PSP for the series, certainly doesn't disappoint in this regard. Unfortunately, the story and the campaign don't reach the impressive heights to which other Ace Combat games have flown. But thanks to the solid level of air combat the series consistently delivers and some particularly enjoyable cooperative play, Joint Assault is still a very good game that armchair fighter pilots are sure to enjoy.
Joint Assault leaves the fictional world of previous Ace Combat games behind and sends you into the skies over London, Tokyo, the Midway Islands, and numerous other real-world locations. Dramatic cutscenes tell the tale of a world besieged by a global terrorist organization called the Valahia, which has a penchant for employing massive flying fortresses in its attacks. You play as a pilot with a private military company that finds itself cooperating with armed forces around the world to stop the threat posed by the Valahia. A rivalry with a turncoat squadron of pilots you used to fly with makes some of the action feel personal, but the finer points of the plot are muddled and the game does a poor job of establishing the villainous conspiracy at the heart of the story, which makes this tale less involving than those told by some of the earlier games in the series.
Joint Assault, like all Ace Combat games, places you in the cockpits of fighter jets and lets you focus on the good stuff: locking on to enemies and blasting them out of the sky with heat-seeking missiles while dodging the missiles they send your way. You're also given the occasional opportunity to do more mundane stuff like take off or refuel in midair and land, but you can just skip these brief sections and cut straight to the action if you prefer. Whether you opt for the default normal controls or the more precise expert controls, the planes handle like a dream, making the simple act of soaring through the sky enjoyable in and of itself and the act of hunting down your enemies a thrill. Evading incoming missiles and taking out enemy fighters is generally a bit on the easy side on the normal difficulty, though, and after doing essentially the same thing over again in subsequent missions, the pacing of the campaign starts to flag. Missions typically have you destroying a set number of airborne and ground targets, and the one stand-out part of the Valahia arsenal--the flying fortress--gets recycled so many times before the end that you'll grow tired of destroying the darn things. There is the occasional memorable moment, like a battle against a gigantic railgun and an intense climactic mission in the skies over San Francisco, but the campaign here isn't consistently exciting.
It does have one great saving grace, though. As the title suggests, the campaign can be played solo or with up to three other pilots via ad hoc or infrastructure. Tackling the Valahia cooperatively as one part of a squadron brings the otherwise occasionally lackluster campaign to life. Even without the luxury of voice chat to help coordinate your squadron's efforts, cooperative play is an excellent addition to the campaign, and there are generally enough targets to go around that everyone has an important role to play. In fact, after completing some missions as part of an effective squadron, it starts to feel as if that's the way the game was designed to be played, and the skies in solo play feel a little empty in comparison.
Whether you go up against the Valahia alone or alongside others, progressing through the campaign does have its rewards. As in other Ace Combat games, you earn money after each successful mission, which can then be spent on new planes. You can also spend money on weapons and parts that improve the power, armor, handling, or combat capabilities of your aircraft. Choosing the right plane for a mission is very important because some are far more effective at dealing with ground forces or air forces, while others are more versatile. (Thankfully, you get a polite warning before launch if the plane you've chosen isn't suited for the current mission.) Your first plane, the F-4E Phantom II, is a fine place to start, but you eventually gain access to planes that make that first one feel downright sluggish. There are more than 40 planes in all, and the variety of aircraft on offer, as well as the way the game gradually doles them out as you progress, helps keep the flying enjoyable throughout and provides a compelling motivation to advance from one mission to the next.
Flying solo, the campaign will take most players somewhere in the vicinity of eight hours, though cooperative play can cut that number down significantly because you can wipe out the enemy much faster as four than as one. There are also a number of competitive modes that allow for up to eight players via either ad hoc or infrastructure. Human opponents certainly pose more of a challenge than the typical enemy pilot the game throws at you, so those looking to really test their skills will enjoy the opportunity to raid an enemy base, escort friendly aircraft through dangerous skies, or just have a straight-up dogfight with other players.
Joint Assault's visuals do a great job of pulling you into the action. The planes are richly detailed and soar through the air with remarkable grace and a convincing sense of speed. The vapor trails of your missiles tearing across the sky, as well as the explosions when they hit their targets, look excellent and make the act of locking on and firing at your enemies that much more satisfying. As you might expect, the environments reveal themselves to be ugly textures repeating over and over again when you get close and take a good look, but this hardly matters when you're focused on shaking that bandit off your six. When the action looks this good, the opportunity to save replays of your missions and view your virtuoso flying from numerous dramatic angles is a welcome one. The sound design is similarly excellent. Constant voice chatter from allies or enemies keeps things lively, an eclectic and often stirring soundtrack imbues the action with emotion, and the sweet sound of missile lock will be music to your ears.
Despite a somewhat uninspired campaign and a story that isn't terribly compelling, Joint Assault still provides more of the high-quality flying action we've come to associate with Ace Combat. Those willing to join forces with other pilots will find taking to these skies particularly enjoyable. But even solo flyers will find that even when the campaign seems to be sputtering, the combat remains mostly enjoyable, thanks to the strong fundamentals the Ace Combat name implies. Joint Assault may not be the most impressive plane in the hangar, but she's got it where it matters most.