|System: PSP||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Cowboy Rodeo||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Graffiti Entertainment||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Apr. 14, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-8||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Nathan Meunier
February 16, 2009 - Aside from a few just-released goodies and a major release or two just around the corner, there hasn't been a lot to get excited about on the PSP lately. Not only have quality new releases been in short supply, World War II-themed air combat simulation games are virtually non-existent on Sony's handheld. Given what we've seen in the past from entries in the genre, some might argue that's a good thing. Nonetheless, Cowboy Studios and Graffiti Entertainment are all systems go with their upcoming Air Conflicts: Aces of World War II.
Going hands-on with a preview build of the game elicited an immediate feeling of déjà vu. At first glance, it seemed the visuals and gameplay in Air Conflicts possessed an uncannily close resemblance to the miserable failure known as WWII Aces on the Wii. After closer inspection and meticulous comparison between the two, it's clear that Air Conflicts is a modified and updated version of WWII Aces. While the Wii title was a bargain bin disaster, don't be too quick to write off the revamped and renamed PSP version.
With World War II raging on, Air Conflicts lets you create a pilot and hop into the cockpit to fly for the British Royal Air Force, the German Luftwaffe, USSR, and U.S. Army Air Force. Each country has several different campaigns to play through that have you flying during daytime and nighttime operations set in different regions and seasons. Objectives typically range from escort and reconnaissance missions to dogfights and bombing runs. Like real war, winning or losing a single battle doesn't necessarily make a substantial impact on whether you'll fly the flags of victory. If you fail an objective or get shot down, you're given a report from HQ on how the loss affects the current military campaign. Another option available, when your plane is damaged almost to the point of destruction, is to turn tail and hastily make a tactical retreat. Most of the time, you can't replay major missions, so sticking it out to see if you can't survive on the last shred of health is a gamble.
The types of planes you'll fly, how they handle, and the kinds of weapons available vary throughout the game, depending on which country you're flying for. Certain planes are preferable for specific missions, and making the wrong choice can lead to a swift demise. Fortunately, HQ issues a recommendation on which planes are best suited to a specific mission. Maneuvering your plane is done primarily with the thumb stick, which feels tight and responsive (the x-y axis sensitivity can be adjusted). You can throttle up or down with the L and R triggers. Bombs, machine guns, and rockets are relegated to button presses. Tapping and holding the D-Pad will quickly adjust the camera angle to let you see what's happening to the left, right, and rear of your plane. Also, hitting the down button enters a bombing run camera from underneath the ship that's excellent for making sure your ordinance drops on the intended target. Unfortunately, the slick loop-de-loops and barrel roll maneuvers in WWII Aces were completely stripped out in the preview build. Otherwise, the game handles well.
Visually, the PSP's smaller screen works in Air Conflicts' favor. Aside from changes in the game menus and subtle differences among HUD elements, Air Conflicts looks exactly like its Wii counterpart. That's not much of a compliment. The small planes are reasonably detailed, and the skies have some nice visual effects, but the terrain is bland and lifeless. Condensing the action to a smaller screen helps the situation, though it doesn't negate the general ugliness of the landscape.
Having all but loathed WWII Aces on the Wii, I'm surprised to admit most of the changes implemented in Air Conflicts already feel like a substantial improvement - even if it ultimately feels like the same game when you get right down to it. Waggle-free controls are now simple and functional, but it's a real shame to see the fun and fancy moves left on the cutting room floor. At times, the difficulty curve is all over the board; some missions seem doomed to failure from the start (particularly escort and protection missions), though you're thankfully not punished too much for sucking out in the skies. The expansive campaigns spanning hundreds of missions offer a lot of play value, and unlocking new planes and medals provide some reward for your efforts. With game sharing and an ad hoc wireless mode, you can also pump some led into your pals in multiplayer action.
While taking a rather crummy game that showed some potential and revamping it in hopes of making good on its original promise is a dangerous gamble, Cowboy Studios is on the right track. Undertaking such a task is a questionable move, yet most of the changes here are for the better. If this path of progression continues leading up to the game's release next month, Air Conflicts: Aces of World War II should be a solid offering for PSP owners.
CCC Staff Contributor