The Ace Combat series is known for delivering great-looking, pick-up-and-play flight combat, featuring lots of authentic real-world jet fighters and surprisingly rich storylines. Thanks to an original story and several key new features, you can now experience this on the PSP in Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception, a game that's unmistakably similar to its predecessors yet more than just a hand-me-down from the PlayStation 2. Perhaps best of all, Ace Combat X plays surprisingly well on the PSP. Although its visuals aren't quite as slick as in the PS2 installments, it's a remarkably intense action game that you can take with you on the go.
Although Ace Combat X features a wide variety of recognizable jets, including the sleek F-22 Raptor, the imposing Su-27, the A-10 Warthog, Top Gun's famous F-14, and dozens more, the game takes place in an alternate reality with some science fiction overtones (such as the gigantic, cloaking flying fortress you'll encounter early on). This time, the story is of a war between the dominant country of Leasath and the oppressed resistance fighters of Aurelia. You play as a pilot who is fighting to push Leasath back one territory at a time. Your wing mates refer to you by your call sign, Gryphus-1, but your enemies will come to know you by a different name: Nemesis. It's interesting that the game asks you to consider the other side's perspective as you keep gunning down its forces from one mission to the next. In between some missions, more of the story unfolds from the perspective of a journalist who is investigating the origins of the deadly conflict, and the plot sequences are all fully voiced. Although the storyline touches on the same themes that Ace Combat fans have come to expect by now, it still helps to make the game's missions feel more meaningful.
Even if it lacked a worthy story, Ace Combat X would still be able to fall back on plenty of great flight combat. If you've played Ace Combat lately, then you know you'll be in for a game that incorporates only the basics of jet-fighter control, leaving you to concentrate on the fun part: outmaneuvering your foes and blasting them to kingdom come with lots of heat-seeking missiles. You can view the action from three different viewpoints, including a default heads-up-display perspective, a behind-the-plane perspective, and a cockpit perspective that showcases the unique interiors of all the game's planes. By default, the PSP's shoulder buttons make you speed up or slow down; the face buttons fire your guns, launch missiles, cycle targets, and switch to your special weapons; and the analog stick lets you roll and pitch your plane. And that's just about all there is to the controls, which you can adjust to best fit your preferences. Your radar and heads-up display clearly point to any targets in the vicinity, and near-constant radio chatter will keep you apprised of your mission's objectives. Oftentimes then you're just splashing as many bogeys as possible while avoiding surface-to-air missiles and other dangers. Because you'll usually be outnumbered by about six to one--or more--this isn't always easy.
Your opponents are dangerous in number, but individual enemy fighters aren't much of a threat--at least not on the normal difficulty setting. You can lock onto the typical foe and fire a couple of missiles down his fuselage to blow him up, and most foes don't try too hard to evade. Though you'll single-handedly down dozens of enemies in a given mission, you'll usually have a few wing mates with you to help draw enemy fire. You can't give orders to your wing mates as in previous Ace Combat games, but that's no big loss--it's just one less thing to worry about. The game still delivers a respectable challenge by forcing you to contend with environmental hazards and to tackle many ground targets in addition to air power. Simply not crashing while strafing enemy tanks and barracks can be difficult enough when you're navigating through some of the game's more mountainous mission areas. If anything, Ace Combat X skews a little too heavily in favor of air-to-ground missions because you'll rarely get into a pure, uninterrupted dogfight. But one of the game's highlights is the variety in missions. From one to the next, the missions feel different but also cohesive enough to strike a good balance.
The game mostly consists of a series of interconnected campaign missions, each roughly 10 or 15 minutes in length. That doesn't sound long, but the missions test your endurance and your skills because you have to restart a mission from the beginning if you fail, and the missiles start flying practically from the start. Ace Combat games have traditionally been pretty linear, but one of the new features in Ace Combat X is the ability to make some basic strategic choices about which missions to tackle and in which order. This is a good addition that helps give the game some added replay value because the order in which you tackle certain sequences of missions will affect what happens in the missions themselves. For example, one sequence of missions takes place near a powerful enemy radar jammer. You can head straight for the jammer if you want, but enemy forces gathering in nearby areas may make destroying it even more difficult if you don't deal with them first. This system also means that you'll typically have a different mission to choose from if you find yourself having a hard time trying to get past your current mission.
With every mission you accomplish, you'll earn credits with which you can purchase an ever-growing list of new jets. There are noticeably different handling characteristics for each jet, and it's important to bring the right plane into a mission, as some are better suited for air superiority than for taking on ground targets. Another new feature in Ace Combat X is that you can now purchase upgrade parts to fine-tune certain jets. You can purchase and install different wing parts, weapons systems, armor, cockpit computers, and more, and these parts all tend to have certain drawbacks to offset their advantages. For example, you can install overpowered engines that greatly improve your jet's top speed but also make you more vulnerable to damage. You can add extra armor, but it'll impact your maneuverability, and so on. Whether you choose to spend your hard-earned credits on new jets or on improving some of the jets you already own is up to you. Either way, Ace Combat X does a great job of constantly rewarding you with new options that you can purchase in between missions.
The campaign spans 15 missions and will probably take from six to eight hours or so to finish the first time through, though you won't see all of it the first time. It's worth revisiting some of the branching missions in a different order, and you can also aim for a higher rank within each mission to earn more planes and parts for yourself. As you play, you can also earn a variety of medals for your accomplishments, though these are just for show. From the main menu, you may opt to replay any of the missions you've already accomplished, and you may also select the multiplayer option for some ad hoc dogfighting, with up to three other nearby friends. There are a variety of modes available, ranging from pure versus combat to escort missions and base assaults, but you might not be able to get the most out of them. Unfortunately, you don't get the option to play with and against computer-controlled opponents in multiplayer, nor can you play online via an infrastructure mode. As it is, you'll need at least one friend with a separate copy of the game, and ideally you'll want three. Nevertheless, Ace Combat X offers a good value even if you aren't planning on playing it competitively.
An excellent presentation helps make Ace Combat X very impressive. If you've played the recent PS2 installments of the series, you'll probably notice that a few sacrifices were made to the visuals: The airplanes don't look quite as detailed, and when you destroy an enemy fighter, it simply explodes rather than crashing down to earth. Yet these types of cuts are very easy to forgive when you consider how great the game looks overall. Beautifully realistic scenery, weather, and lighting effects help sell the whole experience of flying at very high speeds, especially because the game's frame rate is perfectly smooth at almost all times; slowdown does occur on the rare occasion when you come in very close to some ground targets, but that's it. Ace Combat X also boasts plenty of nice, loud sound effects, lots of believable radio chatter, and a great musical score that is filled with a variety that fits the theme of every mission.
The Ace Combat series has earned a reputation for delivering fast-paced and exciting flight combat, and this absolutely holds true of Ace Combat X for the PSP. While this installment is unmistakably similar to its PS2 counterparts in many ways, it features some meaningful additions to the formula and its own intricate storyline, as well as a surprisingly large number of different aircraft to be flown. Ace Combat fans shouldn't miss this one for all of these reasons, but really, Ace Combat X is a great game for just about anyone with an appreciation for jets.