Ace in the Hole!
From the pixelated titles of the 8-bit or 16-bit era to the high definition, current-gen entries, space shooters have invaded the various download services. Because the genre has been inundated with such a vast array of them, it was always going to be difficult for Aces of the Galaxy to stand out. Thankfully, the beautiful graphics, challenging difficulty, co-op and online multiplayer, branching level paths, and amusing storyline make this an excellent addition to the XBLA. The game doesn’t come without a few minor issues, as the controls will make your hands tire quickly and the rail-shooter aspect feels somewhat confining. Nevertheless, Aces of the Galaxy is a fun arcade title that’s definitely worth your $10!
Aces of the Galaxy pits a bellicose alien race against a lone human (or a pair during co-op play) who has hi-jacked one (or two) of their Omega Prototype space fighters. You are the human race’s last hope, and not even Brood Master Vrax, The Brotherhood of Evil Aliens, and the rest of the Skrugian Armada can stand in your way! Sounds like a fun challenge? You bet it is. Certainly there’s nothing groundbreaking in terms of bucking conventions, but the taunting storyboards between levels are humorous and contain familiar references that do a good job of bringing players into the action.
To aid you in your mission, your ship is outfitted with three upgradeable weapons including a Chain Gun, Cluster Missiles, and Torpedoes. The Chain Gun is a glorified machine gun devoid of any fully or semi-automatic setting (more on that later). Cluster Missiles are ideal for taking out weak, yet pesky enemy formations, as multiple warheads spew forth from your cannon and home in for the kill. The Torpedo is by far the most powerful weapon in your arsenal. It was made for locking on to large and dangerous foes and tearing their hulls asunder. Each weapon system has unlimited ammo, but the reload times for each depends upon the relative strength of the weapon. In other words, the Chain Gun keeps pumping out the lead, while the Torpedo has a much more significant delay between rounds. Picking up the floating weapons icons in space will upgrade the corresponding armament until you eat space dust or advance the story.
Enemies will come at you in waves and formations. You can think of Aces of the Galaxy as if it were Galaga on some kind of illicit HD substance. There are a staggering number of enemies to shoot at, and each has unique characteristics. Some shoot relatively slow moving blasts, some are doomed to kamikaze runs, some leave a trail of bombs in their wake, others will blast you with a charged pulse of plasma, and others are cloaked and require you to use your scanner to reveal them. When all is said and done, it is your job to destroy as many of these baddies as you can, while making it to the next stage in one piece. It’s a straightforward mechanic that has worked for decades, and it proves to be very satisfying to players of Aces of the Galaxy. To mix things up just a bit, there are unique commander ships that bop into each level. They’re the ones jawing at you over the comms system before the level starts, and it’s enjoyable to shoot them down. These mini-bosses can’t be considered true boss battles, but they are a fun challenge, especially at higher levels of difficulty.
Level progression involves a branching path. After fighting it out in the initial Asteroid field, players are then allowed to choose a path to glory. You can stay in the Asteroids ala the Millenium Falcon in Empire, head for the Dark Star, or try to lose them through an Ice Nebula. You’ll be stuck on this path unless you find the Warp icon. This allows you to hop between the three paths after the stage is completed. This branching system serves gamers well, as each path has a distinct look and characteristics – thus, adding to the replayability of the game. Furthermore, the challenge of getting four and five star ratings on each level will push players to hone their skills by playing the title over and over again.
Speaking of challenges, Aces of the Galaxy is a very difficult game to beat! At least it is on Normal and Hard difficulty settings, but not so much on Easy. Regardless, in true arcade fashion, there is no saving and no mercy. If you die, you will have to return to the beginning of the level, and if you lose all your lives, you’ll have to go to the title screen and try again. Sorry folks, that’s how the Swamp Slug slithers! This may be disconcerting to many (even most players), but the boardwalk hardcore will appreciate the level of skill the game demands of its players. That said, I did find targeting enemies to be easy on any difficulty. So players of all skill levels should be able to leave their mark on the Skurgian menace before getting toasted.
Unfortunately, the varied paths players can choose at the menu screen don’t apply to in-game level design. There is a way to open up secret sections by blasting special glowing enemies, but really the title has a rail-shooter feel while progressing through the levels and is definitely confining. The game does allow for some directional control (to pick up power-ups, avoid debris, dodge incoming fire, etc.), but players are more or less whisked along a straight path with guns blazing. It would have been nice to have a bit more control within the levels. Again, this is an arcade title; one shouldn’t expect it to be an Ace Combat game. All the same, having everything in front of you does get repetitious after a while. Essentially, Aces of the Galaxy feels like a high-speed shooting gallery rather than a fighter pilot simulator.
The graphics in Aces do a great job of depicting chaos and even speed to some extent. I wouldn’t say it’s as masterful as it is in F-Zero GX, but it can be nearly as dizzying. The environments within which you are thrust are detailed and breathtaking. Also, the enemy ship designs are really cool, and the fluid way in which they attack is pleasing to the eye. My only gripe with the visuals is that the powered up weaponry should have had more dazzling effects. That’s not to say the ships you destroy won’t break apart satisfyingly, it’s just that these animations could have been stunning and they’re not. Finally, there is a ton of action on the screen that may be confusing to the eye, but I feel it’s necessary to communicate the appropriate level of insane mayhem. Some players may be overwhelmed though.
The sound package is quite nice. The main theme between each level is a chill collection of electronic bits. Additionally, the sounds of the explosions and weaponry rapport are unique and interesting. However, with so much shooting going on it can be somewhat of a sensory overload.
The controls don’t quite hit the mark. As mentioned, it is very easy to target enemies and deploy your Cluster Missiles and Torpedoes, but constantly having to tap the A button to fire the Chain Gun is an arduous task for your hands. In fact, those who quickly tire may never reach the end of the game unless they take long breaks between levels. Interestingly, I don’t find the developers at fault. After all, rapid tapping is an arcade staple. However, the 360 controller is not well suited for this type of mechanic. This is the kind of game that screams for the controls of an old-school cabinet. If you’ve got the extra cash lying around, I would suggest picking up an arcade controller setup. The only caveat is the LT and RT buttons are perfect for barrel rolls. However, shooting proves to be far more desirable than evasion in Aces.
Finally, the game employs a cooperative offline and online mode. Co-op play is very amusing and does a good job of lightening the load. Moreover, it is a whole lot of fun arguing over who actually got the kill and who deserves to get the power-up; naturally, I do! That seems to be the general mentality and attitude, so stealing the glowing buffs from your partner is an art form. The only drawback to having two players is the already confusing visuals are muddled even further by the second craft. At times, it can even be difficult to know who’s who.
When all is said and done, this is an XBLA title that is worth its weight in Gold Memberships. The frantic pace and satisfying gameplay will appeal to fans of space shooters. However, if you’re not a particularly skilled gamer, or you’ve got carpal tunnel issues, I would suggest sticking to the surfeit of quality puzzlers on XBLA. If you think you’re part of the gaming hardcore, give Aces of the Galaxy a spin. You won’t regret the purchase.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.2 Graphics
The HD look is silky smooth, but the sheer amount of stuff going on can get confusing. 3.6 Control
The controls would be perfect in a cabinet. If you’re stuck using the 360 controller, you may find a whole lot of cramping going on. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The funky electronic theme is great. I also liked the in-game effects, but they can be overwhelming. 3.8 Play Value
This is tough to judge…Most people will find the game too challenging, but the veterans will feel right at home. Ultimately, it’s just another space shooter, but it’s one of the best from the modern era. 3.9 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.