The Playstation Portable has already had its fair share of amazing flight games over its still somewhat-short stint on store shelves. As one of the obvious standards in the genre, Ace Combat has taken over on the PSP much like it did on Sony's console predecessor, bringing the feeling of intense and realistic arcade/flight gaming in a full and immersive package. In fact, whether you're a fan of the more sim-like flying games or into Afterburner and the like - yet another one on PSP already - the system pretty much has you covered. So when we first took a look at Heatseeker for Wii, PS2, and PSP, we were curious to see how the game was going to find its niche. Would Heatseeker's faster arcade style and over-the-top explosions set itself apart from other air combat games, or will it simply fall to the wayside? The answer isn't too pretty.
If you've played any arcade flight titles in the past (whether it be After Burner or the more realistic Ace Combat), you should already know the basic premise around Heatseeker. It's a balls-to-the-wall, in your face blast-fest, and it rides at 500 miles per hour. The team behind the game had one goal in mind, and that was to make a furiously fast arcade flight game that was heavy on the combat, and even heavier on the explosions. Story? It's there, but it takes a backseat. Supporting cast? Not really, unless you include your weapon-switch function on the F-15. Heatseeker is - above all else - an arcade blast-fest.
From the beginning of the game you'll saddle up as Mike "Downtown" Hudson, a hot-shot rookie pilot who's being put to the test during a very minor inter-nation scuffle. As you progress, Downtown is thrown directly into the middle of one of the largest wars in history, and you'll be responsible for playing out tons of different aspects. You'll take to the air for basic dogfighting, go on recon missions where the no-fly zone is no questions asked, lead bombing runs on both land and water, patrol semi-hostile regions by identifying unknown aircraft with on-board scanners, and of course get in huge land-to-air, water-to-air, and air-to-air wars. All along the way you'll acquire new planes (all real aircraft, including the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 Hornet, as well as Mig fighters and the loveable Nighthawk V1 Stealth Bomber), and be able to adjust the payload based on the type of mission. Not a bad mix of fighters and weapons, and when it's all infinite ammo, who can complain?
When you get into the cockpit for the first time though, you'll notice a mix of good and bad design decisions. Heatseeker plays out like pretty much every other analog-controlled flight game in the history of gaming. You can steer the plane with the left analog, adjust AI commands for your wingman, switch from missiles to bombs, and fire either lock-on shots or spray pellet-ammo by the thousands. It feels pretty decent, but for some reason the game actually loses some of its maneuverability when switching to PSP, as the planes bank, roll, and dive slower all-around. Why this choice was made is beyond us, but it actually slows down the entire experience, and gives Heatseeker less of the expected Afterburner feel, and more of a Ace Combat-like experience; odd for a game that boasts intense speed and arcade action.
Where Heatseeker loses a step yet again is in the general balance of the game, something that didn't change at all when going from console to portable iterations. When you're in the air you'll have decent control over the plane, but not a ton to do with it. Many of the dogfights are as simple as dropping to subsonic speeds (100-200 MPH) by pulling back on the right analog stick, pulling out your largest missile (most of which can fire from 1,000 ticks away), and blasting away as soon as you get within firing range. As soon as your shot is away, simply lock on to the next target (just inches away, usually, since formation flying is common in enemy targets), and rip off another shot. In one pass on a still target we were able to blow away eight aircraft carriers, and get to work on an SAM turret. Yes, the game is arcade-centric, and yes, this is the style of play, but rather than being fast and furious many of the battles can be cut quickly by dropping your speed, taking aim, and blowing a huge mass of fighters away before they know what's coming.
That being said, Heatseeker still has some entertaining moments. The difference in planes is huge, as you'll get the appropriate feeling when matching up between fighters. A Yak-141 is going to fly quicker than your standard F-class fighter, and it shows. In the oh-so-common footrace though, F-class fighters can usually switch on the afterburners and catch up to an enemy Yak within seconds (not to mention something like the Nighthawk V1). Once you start unlocking the more modernized aircraft, all the classic moves can be made, as dogfighting becomes a bigger part of the game. There's no better feeling than gaining height with a bogey tailing you, and then boosting speed and performing the classic "Split S" (basically a reverse u-turn, where the pilot inverts himself and then flies towards the ground and back at his tailing enemy), and moves like that definitely add to the fun.
Still, there's always that lingering feeling that a simple lock-on and button press will obliterate nearly any enemy in range, and battles never seem to get as epic as we'd like as a result. In fact, with the slower control on PSP the actually embraces the long distance style of play, as you're far more apt to be successful in a mission if you can get an early lock and avoid high-maneuverability battles. It's a different feel, and to be entirely honest we enjoyed the speed of the console versions far more than the PSP offering.
As for the A/V side of Heatseeker; it's really a trade-off between improvements and annoying content cuts. The game's assets were created primarily for PSP, so while the other versions looked low-res and underpowered, the graphical style fits much better on PSP. That being said, it still sits on the weaker side visually when compared to other flight games on PSP, and it won't be blowing anyone away visually on any of the systems it's on. And while many of the effects animations - and models for the planes - look decent, many of the other structures and vehicles are knocked down considerably. The presentation did get a decent bump, however, as everything looks more inviting, crisper, and a bit more professional and up-to-date than the console versions. Visually, Heatseeker is better on PSP than Wii or PS2 (relative to the unit's power), but lacks enough to make it stand out against other flight games already on the system.
In an odd audio move, all of the game's VO was taken out, leaving cut-scenes and pre-mission banter as text only. There are a few decent tunes sprinkled throughout, and while the sound effects are passable there's no added feel to the game without having constant radio chatter to keep you company. The audio was originally very tongue-in-cheek, but it still added authenticity to the game. The result; a lacking audio experience that gives the game a somewhat unfinished, unprofessional feel to it.
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