Aces of the Galaxy is an on-rails space shooter that casts you as a human pilot who has stolen the Omega Prototype space fighter from the vile Skurgians. Now, you must make your way back to Earth's fleet, shooting through wave after wave of either very brave or very stupid enemies in flimsy crafts that are no match for your own, blasting them all to smithereens. It's a tried-and-true formula that, when done well, can be a whole lot of fun. And it's done very well here.
Nearly every element of Aces of the Galaxy comes together to create an exciting game. First and foremost, there's the solid, nonstop action of blasting countless enemies. Your ship handles with all the responsiveness that you'd expect in a state-of-the-art space fighter, and comes equipped with three effective weapons. The chaingun is your typical straight-shooting weapon, and you'll be giving your thumb a pretty serious workout by firing it constantly. Cluster missiles let you lock on to several enemies at once, Rez-style, and take them out, but they take a few seconds to reload between each use. Finally, your torpedoes are your most powerful weapons, and are particularly useful against some of the larger craft that you encounter, but they move slowly and also take some time to reload. You also have a scanner that you can use to reveal invisible enemies, who give away their presence with sound cues. Power-ups for your weapons are scattered throughout each level, though you can power up only one at a time, so you may want to give some thought to which weapon is most useful in your current situation.
Enemies keep things interesting by using constantly shifting formations and varying attack methods, and by coming at you in massive numbers. You can evade enemy fire by pulling one of the triggers to perform a quick barrel roll, though things are often so frantic that it can be a bit difficult to spot incoming attacks. Additionally, you have a temporal-shift ability that lets you slow things down for a bit, giving you valuable time to get off a few more shots or dodge that asteroid.
The outstanding presentation is also a big part of what makes Aces so good. This is one of the sharpest, best-looking games available on Xbox Live Arcade. The ships aren't especially detailed, but they have a sleek, attractive simplicity that's reminiscent of some of the best classic space-combat games. The environments themselves are beautiful and feature lush star fields and the sorts of things one would expect in an interstellar war: ship graveyards, battles between large fleets, and the like. Slowdown is occasionally an issue when things get extremely hectic, but it isn't severe or frequent enough to impact the experience, and for the most part the game moves along at a very smooth and steady rate.
The game's sound is every bit as good as its visuals. All of the sound effects are solid, and some--like the terrifying screech that accompanies an onslaught of suicide drones--are especially effective. But the music is the real highlight of the game's sound. The score has a sweeping, dramatic quality that suits the game's cinematic sci-fi visuals very well, and it frequently changes on the fly to match the action, kicking into high gear when you get hurtled to super speeds by a warp gate, or when you're only a few hits away from becoming space dust.
There's just one crucial element of so many older space shooters that Aces of the Galaxy is missing: memorable boss fights. The game's boss encounters never feel especially threatening. The enemy will fly past you a few times, politely giving you the chance to blast him to bits. If you fail to destroy him, he'll show up again in the next level. If you get him, he'll be replaced by someone else. If these encounters are supposed to serve as boss fights, they're very ineffective, and there aren't any big battles at the end of any of the game's levels. Each level just comes to an abrupt end, which can feel a bit anticlimactic.
You'll need to survive nine levels to beat Aces of the Galaxy, but the game actually has a total of 25 levels; if you find the warp power-up on a given level, you'll be able to choose which of three levels you'd like to go to next. The challenge ramps up nicely in the later missions, and the game's three difficulty levels offer a good range that should let any player find a satisfying and enjoyable experience. Of course, the point of games like Aces of the Galaxy isn't just to survive. It's to earn as many points as possible while surviving, and the game's combo-based scoring system, which results in much higher point values for large numbers of enemies destroyed in rapid succession, offers incentive to wipe out the Skurgians with skill and finesse. Online leaderboards let you see how you stack up against everyone else playing the game. And as fun as the game is to play on your own, playing cooperatively with a friend, either locally or on Xbox Live, makes it even better.
Aces of the Galaxy is a game aimed squarely at those who enjoy the age-old tradition of whaling on the fire button and seeing countless waves of enemies explode. The fast-paced gameplay captures the spirit of classic space shooters, and the gorgeous visuals and terrific soundtrack help make the whole experience feel fresh and new again. For 800 points ($10), Aces of the Galaxy offers a thrilling experience that should satisfy longtime fans of the genre and newcomers alike.