Ace in the hole

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

In the late 90s I was exposed to the Ace Combat series after playing a demo on a friend’s PlayStation. I loved it. There was something about flying a plane without the multitude of button presses usual flight sims entail that really appealed to me. Not to mention the almost endless self-targeting rockets strapped to my wings. As the years passed, so did the Ace Combat games spanning a number of platforms but in recent years, arcade flying fans could only get their kicks on portable systems. As excited as I am every time a new Ace Combat is announced, I quickly grew tired of the series and since Namco Bandai shied away from home consoles, I figured so did a lot of its followers. Apparently not as the publisher has announced that total sales of the series has surpassed 10 million units worldwide, an impressive feat for any long running franchise.

Ace Combat started life as Air Combat in the arcades over 15 years ago and it was the comically dramatic story lines and increasingly striking graphics that prevented it ever becoming a cliche sim. The next in the series, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, is the first multi-platform release and throughout its development has promised a new approach to an evidently popular but tiring franchise. Dog fights are said to be more exciting, the pace is supposedly faster and helicopters have been included to the flying arsenal. A few weeks ago, a demo appeared on Xbox Live and PSN which proved to be very successful in terms of downloads. Over 1.2 million gamers have had a taste of the game and puts Assault Horizon in a good pre-release position.

But there is a snag. From what I’ve read from commenters online, although so many have downloaded the demo, I’m yet to read a more than a handful of positive comments for it. That’s not to say the neigh sayers won’t pick up the game (we all know how quickly the Internet can dismiss things) but I too found Assault Horizon to be a little lacking. As promised, the adrenaline was heightened and the pace has gone up a couple of notches however it still felt like the same kind of game we’ve had for the past 15 odd years. Maybe the demo wasn’t great at showing how the series has moved on but what I got out of it was a stronger desire to play this kind of game on my 3DS. It’s meant to be coming towards the end of the year and right now I’m holding out for that version as Ace Combat has become the kind of game I want to pick up and play rather then dedicate lengthy amounts of time in front on my TV. Is that a bad thing? Not really although is quite interesting how I’ve wanted the franchise to make a triumphant return to home consoles and Assault Horizon is the closet thing to that yet I’d rather play it on a handheld. I wonder how the rest of the 1.2 million downloaders thought.


The great porting dilemma

Lord of everything Street Fighter and all round funny chap Yoshinori Ono has told what he thinks of direct console to handheld ports. In a nutshell, Ono thinks they’re dumb. He and his team at Capcom prefer to see the transition to a portable device include specific features to take advantage of that hardware. Cramming a console game onto a something smaller are meaningless to him.

“A lot of people, when they’re porting to new hardware, especially a handheld, they’ll talk about how it’s difficult because of memory restrictions or speed or things like that, and I haven’t found that to be the case,” Ono said. “We’ve been putting less energy into the porting process itself and more energy into adding additional features, because we don’t want to do a straight-up port – that’s silly and meaningless.”

Two of Ono’s games making their way to the PSVita are Street Fighter X Tekken and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Both will feature additions that supposedly utilise the Vita’s many inputs much like Super Street Fight 4 3D did on the 3DS. Ono said how the 3DS game has helped with development as he’s already racked up some experience with a touch screen and making a game fun to play on it. But Vita’s multitouch capabilities offer even more cool opportunities for entertaining play although the rear touch panel is a bit trickier.

“The rear panel presents kind of a challenge for us, because when you’re playing a fighting game, given the button configuration you’re going to have your index fingers on the top and your thumbs on the front,” he said. “We don’t want a situation where you’re accidentally throwing shoryukens because you moved your ring finger in the middle of a bout.”

No, we certainly don’t and my thought is if it doesn’t work, don’t use it. The ethos of exploiting the new tech to its fullest is highly commendable of Ono but there’s a danger too that things may get a little silly with features shoehorned in for the sake of it. The great thing about Super Street Fighter 4 3D was how well it used all the best bits of the 3DS, the stereoscopic screen, boosted CPU, online mulitplayer, Street Pass and analog stick. Other than 3D, the Vita can do all those things for Street Fighter X Tekken and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and more – but it doesn’t mean it has to. If the feature set stopped there, I can’t imagine there’d be too much concern over an unused rear touch screen.

That aside, it’s the tailoring of games that will help the PSVita win over dubious consumers who aren’t sold on the idea of a pocket console. And I don’t mean handheld gamers, but those burned by the PSP which had too many titles trying to emulate home console games. The experience wasn’t right and the hardware couldn’t compete with PS2/3 graphics and controls so more often than not, things felt a little underwhelming. Not every game fell into this category and if developers continue to think the same as Ono, that category will become smaller and smaller.

Angry aggregations

As if Metacritic wasn’t steeped in enough controversy, the aggregation site has once again been made to look the fool by its users. Instead of giving honest and balanced opinions, members of the user reviews section have polluted the figure of Portal 2 with a number of 0/10 scores (via Why? A lot of grumbles are due to the game being a console port – heaven forbid – with PC users are expressing their disgust at how Valve’s highly anticipated puzzler already has a mountain of launch day DLC. A common console idea not generally found on PC titles.

Portal 2‘s length is another gripe. One user said how if it was cheaper, a 10/10 score is perfectly fitting but a 4-6 hour experience isn’t worth $60. The critics disagree. The 19 which have so far been submitted collectively award Portal 2 with 95/100, claiming it’s not only better than the first but one of finest games ever made. That sure sounds like it’s worth paying full price for.

The absurdity of a game’s length directly affecting its price is continuously brought into conversations yet only ever one way. No one ever shouts how a 40-60 hour RPG should cost considerably more than a 12 hour FPS. If a game provides anything more than a satisfactory experience, hasn’t it justified its price tag? And the platform ownerships of titles is a little ridiculous. There are some games which by their very nature are far better suited for one system over another, the RTS genre for example, but if anything, Portal was just a big a hit for the Xbox 360 as it was for the PC so the fact that it’s become more console-focused as a package is expected and doesn’t sound as if it detrimentally effects the actual game.

Thankfully, the user scores aren’t regarded very highly because of occasions such as this but it’s still a shame that it happens at all. Having your own opinion is fine as long as the criticisms are educated and not aggressively negative for the sake of lowering an aggregate score.

The angry man of Angry Birds

Peter Vesterbacka, head of Rovio spoke with a panel at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference and told the attendees that console games are dying. But then he would say that seeing as his company are behind the portable phenomenon Angry Birds. He claimed that innovation in gaming is no longer a found on consoles but has moved to the mobile and social space because of those developers’ ability to be nimble, easily updating their games and providing new content. Vesterbacka believes that while portable gaming is on the rise, traditional games are dying, mocking the existing format of $40-$50 titles and the difficulty to upgrade. Thankfully some sanity was on board in the shape of Tero Ojanpera of Nokia who said they will always be a place for consoles because gamers aren’t likely to plug tablets and mobile phones into their TVs in order to play.

It’s sad that a developer reaches a certain amount of fame and thinks it’s okay to crap all over an industry where he was no doubt inspired by. The concept of Angry Birds can be traced back quite firmly to console/PC beginnings but the success is down to the hardware and type of games found on it. These kinds of experiences are best suited for the pick-up-and-play mentality and while there are those who spend hours trying to beat the top score, console and PC titles for that matter offer a great deal more for people serious about gaming. And I’m not talking about how much you play in a week or your knowledge of the industry but if you want a game with competent controls, rich story, immersive worlds, engrossing gameplay and gorgeous graphics, chances are you’re not solely playing mobile games. Angry Birds delivers on some of those; the competent control – for the simplicity of its mechanics, great art and engrossing gameplay but it’s the depth which for me and a lot of gamers that is missing from mobile games.

Price points are equally a factor when it comes to the sudden popularity of the bite-sized game. Angry Birds can either be downloaded for free or costs 59p. Prices like that aren’t a major investment so when the game surpasses the 100 million mark, it a commendable feat indeed but not the beginning of the console downfall. And as Anthony Ha who wrote the original news story over at GamesBeat (part of VentureBeat), games with a $40-$50 price are more likely to have a greater return on investment. Publishers may start and in some cases already are looking at the mobile and social platform as an area for ‘easy money’ but will do so potentially to fund their bigger and more profitable ventures.

Another thing Vesterbacka has a problem with is the phrase ‘casual games.’ His argument is that we don’t consider films either casual or hardcore so why do it with games. He said that Angry Birds players are just as connected to the game as the so called hardcore are to theirs. I believe that, my wife is hooked on Angry Birds but the kinds of games she plays aren’t the sort I want to sit down with. I may not call her a casual gamer but the way she approaches her games are certainly on a more casual level then how I do.

After Burner Climax officially coming to consoles [UPDATE]

UPDATE: Kotaku confirmed the US/PAL release date for After Burner Climax being April 21st on Xbox Live and 22nd on PSN. Three planes, 20 missions and time-slowing abilities sounds pretty damn good for just under £7!

Original story posted 20th January 2010:

After Burner was an arcade game that hacked a place in our hearts thanks to the moving cabinet and insane playability. A rumour began snowballing online that the recent After Burner Climax will be ported to both Xbox 360 and PS3 as a downloadable game. That rumour has been deemed fact by Siliconera who found an announcement in this week’s Famitsu magazine. For 800 MS Points or around £6.80, players will get the full game – including an option to play After Burner II music – sometime in Spring. So far Japan is the only territory mentioned in the announcement but since it’s available for Xbox Live Arcade, it’s highly likely to come to Europe and the US too.