M.A.C.H. Modified Air Combat Heroes Final Hands-On
We race futuristic fighter planes in a world where wars no longer cost lives and homing missiles come in packs of three.
In the year 2049 the movie Top Gun will no longer inspire teenagers to join the Air Force, because, at least according to the prologue for Sierra's M.A.C.H., by then the world's governments will be using only unmanned aircraft to wage war against each other. Forcibly retired fighter pilots, reluctant to trade in their flying jackets for fast food-chain uniforms, will purportedly resort to acquiring decommissioned planes on the black market and joining a profitable underground racing circuit to get their kicks. And that's where you come in.
M.A.C.H. Modified Air Combat Heroes is an arcade-style flying game in which you'll take the controls of various customizable aircraft and compete in dangerous events that include races, dogfights, and other challenges. Options on the main menu include a career mode, in which you can unlock new events and aircraft and earn money for upgrades by winning tournaments; arcade mode, in which you can play with any of the courses and aircraft that you've unlocked one event at a time; challenge mode, which comprises five different event types; and multiplayer, which lets up to eight players take each other on using only a single copy of the game.
Spending a little time with the arcade mode the first time you play is a great way to familiarize yourself with the uncomplicated controls, though since you won't have unlocked any additional aircraft or courses yet, you'll want to get into the career mode as quickly as possible. Starting out as a rookie, your goal in the career mode is to win tournaments and move up through the ranks of pro, ace, and elite competitions into the hero class. Each tournament comprises a number of race and dogfight events, and the prize money that's up for grabs increases quite dramatically as you move up through the classes.
In many ways, the races in M.A.C.H. are reminiscent of those in Wipeout Pure. The breakneck speeds at which you fly out are certainly comparable, the course layouts pose many of the same challenges, and the weapons can turn the tide of a race in an instant. The most obvious difference between the two games' races is that where Wipeout Pure had you piloting craft that hovered above a track, M.A.C.H. gives you the freedom to move up and down as well and left and right. This has given the course designers license to incorporate some quite perilous shortcuts and obstacles into the game, as well as plenty of risk-versus-reward scenarios where weapon pickups are involved. The risks are nullified to some extent by the fact that minor collisions have little effect, but there are still plenty of opportunities for you to crash and burn in a spectacular fashion.
There are only five different pickups in M.A.C.H., but they play a significant role in all race and dogfight events. Homing missiles are undoubtedly the weapon that we've found most useful thus far, because they rarely miss their target after you spend a couple of seconds locking on to it. In races you'll get only a single missile each time you collect the pickup, but in dogfights you'll get three that can all be launched in rapid succession at different targets. As you progress to the harder tournament classes you'll find that your opponents are able to avoid homing missiles either by performing well-timed barrel rolls or by steering the missiles into environmental objects--these same techniques are available to you, and it's extremely satisfying to see an "incoming" message on your screen replaced with a "safe" one. Other pickups include cluster rockets, which are the aerial equivalent of a shotgun; air mines, which you drop behind you for unsuspecting opponents to fly into; a stealth power-up, which temporarily makes you invisible to opponents; and a M.A.C.H. recharge that fills up the meter used to power speed boosts and barrel rolls.
In dogfight events, your aircraft will be armed with machine guns in addition to anything else that you've picked up. The effectiveness of said guns will be determined, at least in part, by your aircraft's power rating, which along with speed and agility can be improved by upgrading certain parts in between contests. You'll have 11 planes to choose from by the time you reach the end of M.A.C.H.'s career mode, and each is fully customizable with a number of visual options and new parts. The different color schemes and decals that you can apply to each aircraft are a nice touch, but the smartest way to spend your money is on upgrading your favorite plane's wings, canards, tails, fins, engines, and guns. There are three versions of each part available, and as you spend more money you'll find that your craft's appearance improves along with its performance.
Customized planes from the career mode can be used in ad hoc multiplayer games if the host player chooses to allow them, although playing only with default planes is obviously a lot fairer if not everyone has had a chance to unlock and upgrade some of the better ones. M.A.C.H. supports up to eight players in races and dogfights, and if everyone has a copy of the game you'll be free to use all five of the available maps and any aircraft you wish. If the host is the only player with a copy of the game, then only one dogfight map and two different types of aircraft will be available.
M.A.C.H. Modified Air Combat Heroes is already available in North America and is currently scheduled for release in Europe next month. Expect a full review soon.
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