While it might be lacking the imposing and immersive arcade machine most commonly associated with the After Burner name, After Burner: Black Falcon delivers a spiritually faithful arcade action experience on the PlayStation Portable. This is not an ambitious game. The gameplay is stripped-down and single-minded; the single-player mode is short; and the competitive multiplayer is disposable. But what it lacks in high-minded aspiration, it makes up for with a zeal for explosive, high-speed action.
The game's story concerns 13 prototype jets that have been stolen by a rogue mercenary group from a secret research facility in Nevada. As a member of the Joint Task Force Scramble Team, it's up to you to stop the mercs and recover or destroy the prototype jets. You'll get to choose from three humorously archetypal pilots; their differences are limited to which opening cinematic sequence you'll see, the types of bonus objectives you'll have on each mission, and the nature of the occasional bonus mission. The missions are short, usually clocking in at about seven minutes, but the action is nonstop and often challenging, even on the normal difficulty level. Though each mission has a specific objective, such as taking down a psychotic enemy pilot or defending a hospital ship filled with fluffy baby bunnies, the action remains consistent throughout the course of the game.
Like the original After Burner, as well as such Sega classics as Space Harrier and Panzer Dragoon, After Burner: Black Falcon is an on-rails shooter. This means that you have no control over your jet's flight path, though you do retain a certain level of mobility within the confines of the screen. There are occasional onscreen obstacles you'll want to dodge, but you'll be focusing on blowing up your plentiful enemies while dodging incoming fire. You'll gain access to 15 different real-world military jets from such aerospace biggies as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin during the course of the game's 24 missions, though beyond the makes and models of the jets, After Burner is fast and loose with the realism. For example, in the first mission, you'll find yourself flying through the molten core of a volcano. There's usually at least one of these ridiculous but cinematic moments in each mission, which helps propel the game right over the top.
Each jet comes with unique and upgradable top speed, maneuverability, and payload ratings that affect how the jets handle, but all of them have the same weapons. These weapons include missiles for ground targets, rockets for air targets, and unlimited machine guns for any close-range targets or for when you simply run out of missiles or rockets, which can happen more often than you'd like. In addition to being able to purchase functional upgrades for your jets, there are some outrageous paint jobs and accessories for sale, which can be combined with ridiculous results.
Missiles and rockets both use lock-on targeting, and the targets are color-coded. The color-coding proves to be a key feature because even early on, the game tends to move really fast, throwing a mix of enemies at you from all directions. Being able to quickly identify whether you need to deploy missiles or rockets is a lifesaver, especially because your defensive capabilities are rather limited. You can hit the air brakes or the afterburner to put yourself in a more favorable position or perform a barrel roll to assure that you'll avoid incoming fire, though the drawback of the barrel roll is that you can't fire any of your weapons while in midmaneuver. Enemy aircraft will often attack in tight formations, and if you can destroy the whole formation, a parachuted crate will launch out of the exploding debris. These crates are vital to your survival because they can fully replenish your jet's health bar, restock your ammunition, earn you extra points or cash, or temporarily slow down time. Missions are also peppered with airstrips and aircraft carriers where you'll automatically land and replenish all of your health and ammo. Additionally, you've got a number of lives with which to complete each mission. It might seem as if the odds are on your side, but even playing After Burner on the normal difficulty level can be a challenge. There's a near-constant barrage of incoming fire, and it doesn't take too many direct hits to turn your fuselage into shreds.
After Burner: Black Falcon is a blast while it lasts, but it would have been nice if it had lasted a bit longer. There are local co-op and competitive multiplayer modes to help keep you hooked for a little while. The co-op works pretty well, letting you jump into any of the single-player missions you've already unlocked. The action also becomes much more chaotic when you have more than one jet involved. The competitive "mad cow" mode isn't nearly as compelling and basically just has players trading punches as they go back and forth between being the hunter and the hunted. Sure, it's amusing that the jet of the player being chased has an udder on the bottom of it, but that's about all there is to the mode's appeal.
The game's singular focus on moving fast and blowing stuff up comes across in the presentation. The jets you'll be flying look nicely detailed, the sense of speed is tangible, and there's a good variety of environments. However, the environments are usually narrow, and the types of enemies you'll encounter are limited. Too many enemies and too many explosions, if there really is such a thing, can cause the graphics to hitch a little. The short draw distance, while not detrimental to the gameplay, is also noticeable throughout. The sounds of roaring jet engines, blasting rockets, and exploding military hardware are punchy and backed up by a driving soundtrack that finds an agreeable balance between military marches and squealing rock guitars.
After Burner: Black Falcon stays true to its namesake by delivering a simple exercise in straightforward, arcade-style fun. The action is immediate and unrelenting, yet despite a general lack of complexity, it can be a real challenge. There are some valid faults against it, such as the length and mission variety of the single-player campaign, but if you're looking for some quick, off-the-cuff shooter action, After Burner: Black Falcon is right up your alley.