If you enjoy the aerial combat genre, have a spare hour, and can rent the game, then Ace Combat Advance is well worth a try. The game is far from flashy but, buried imperceptibly within its monotonous missions, there’s a force that’ll tug on your subconscious. If you react to it as I did, then you just won’t be able to put the game down until completion. Unfortunately, this feat, as indicated above, will not take up too much of your game time. And, as much as it’s tempting to put that down to superior gaming prowess, such an accomplishment will not likely be the result of your inner ?Iceman’.
Ace Combat Advance begins with absolutely no plot exposition. You don’t know what side you’re on or whom you’re fighting against. You are simply instructed to go and fight; kill the bad guys and worry not about petty issues such as motivation. Hey! Why are you still here? We don’t have time to explain the reasons why you are fighting this conflict – the game just isn’t long enough. The gameplay focuses entirely on a sequence of 12 missions that the player must clear. Before beginning a mission, you enter the briefing room, where you get to choose your ?cool’ fighter-pilot nickname, discuss methods of ?keeping up foreign relations’, and argue about things that are ?long and distinguished’. Okay, sorry for the deception, but none of that happens – not even the cool nickname part. The first screen of the briefing room is a vain attempt at some storytelling. Basically, it’s just a detailed description of what will take place on the mission proper. The second screen outlines primary and secondary objectives for the mission. The third screen involves choosing your plane, and the fourth involves choosing your special weapon.
Every mission opens with your fighter taking off from one airstrip and ends with it landing at another. The plane is essentially fixed to the bottom/middle of the screen, and the player is looking down at it from above. The bottom right corner contains the aircraft’s radar, which clearly delineates ground and aerial targets. Primary and secondary mission objectives are also highlighted when relevant. The top right corner displays the fighter’s armor durability. The plane starts each mission with 100% armor status. Getting hit by enemy fire obviously subtracts from this percentage, and when it reaches zero, you blow up. The top left corner contains a points score total and the remaining mission time. The bottom left displays your remaining supply of secondary weapons.
The game controls are very simple. Right and left on the control pad turn the plane along a 360-degree arc. Ace Combat Advance is not like the Super R-Type of old or the Life Force of really, really old, where you were forced to travel in one direction. When you turn, though, it’s the landscape that’s essentially rotating, while your plane remains in the same on-screen position. Pressing up on the control pad causes the fighter to dive towards the ground. If you hold up, you can stay at this lower level. You can’t adjust your altitude by iterations, however. Releasing up causes the fighter to automatically return to the standard altitude. Pressing down on the control pad cycles between your two secondary weapons. The ?A’ button fires your primary gun, which consists of a single stream of bullets, and the ?B’ button fires your secondary weapon. Holding the right shoulder button fires your afterburners, which increases speed; and holding the left shoulder button causes your plane to strafe, which in advanced aerial combat speak is called ?yaw’. The start button pauses the game and allows you to quit or restart the mission. The select button summons Mother – we’ll get to her later. All in all, the controls work very well when moving your fighter throughout Ace Combat Advance’s maps.
The missions themselves, though, are simply not particularly engaging. To complete a mission, you must accomplish all of its primary objectives. Most of the primary and secondary objectives for the 12 missions involve blowing up ground targets. Therefore, to successfully pass most missions, you don’t even need to shoot down a single enemy plane. Because the mission objectives contain little in terms of variety, the optimum choice in plane and secondary weapons is fairly obvious. With each new mission, you receive a new choice of plane. Only two missions require the use of a specific plane – the opening mission, because you only have one to chose from; and another one further down the line when you have to pilot an enemy plane while spying. The planes are distinguished from one another by ratings in various categories such as air-to-air combat, mobility, and armor. The nature of their strengths and weaknesses in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat dictate what optional secondary weapons they can use. Each plane has unguided air-to-air missiles as its default secondary weapon. There are only six choices in optional secondary weapons, however, and there isn’t a great variety among them. As outlined earlier, though, the nature of the mission objectives suggests that you use planes with higher air-to-ground combat ratings, and thus have access to the air-to-ground secondary weapons. You can always blow up ground targets with your gun, but it takes longer. This would not be a problem, and would add a higher degree of difficulty to the game, if it weren’t for the fact that each mission has a set time limit. Plus, there appears to be no reward for completing the mission in a more difficult fashion. You get a grade at the end of each, the highest for some reason being an ?S'(!). To receive your ?S’, though, you only need to complete all of the secondary objectives – also known as blowing up ground targets.
When you start running low on secondary weapons, and you will because even the best air-to-ground fighter can only hold 15 guided bombs. Plus, while this may sound like a lot, the ground targets often require more than one bomb, and though they’re guided it provides no guarantee of impact. So, when your ammo or armor is running low, you can call upon Mother. After a few seconds, a supply plane will appear on your radar. You simply have to fly to the indicated spot and Mother will automatically restore your armor to 100% and refill all of your secondary weapons. Mother won’t hang around forever, but she usually chooses a drop spot devoid of enemies. You can call on Mother’s assistance an infinite amount of times but you must always be aware of the mission time limits.
Ace Combat Advance has two difficulty options: Novice and Ace. You have to set the difficulty level before you start the campaign; it’s not applicable on a mission-to-mission basis. There is no difference in mission objectives between the two difficulty levels. When on Ace, the enemies are a little tougher, but not overtly so, and you’ll likely get blown up a few more times.
The game’s graphics are nothing to write home about. Each plane looks slightly different in shape, but there’s nothing outstanding or impressive when it comes to the details. The enemy planes and ground units are pretty homogenous, as is the terrain. You may be fighting over the dessert on one mission and the sea on another, but you can’t crash into anything on the ground, even when flying at low altitude – so it doesn’t make much difference what the terrain looks like. The music is fairly bland as well. Simple synthesized riffs try to create an environment of intense action, but without much success.
All in all Ace Combat Advance is a pretty average – and notably short – videogame. The time limit for each mission averages at only around five minutes. If you succeed on every mission first try, which isn’t an especially difficult proposition once comfortable with the controls – you’ll only amass two hours of solid gameplay when running through both available difficulty levels. Added replay value could have been achieved if incentive through a variety of aircraft and secondary weapons had been included to the game – but it doesn’t exist. You can go back and play previous missions with newly available planes, but it is pretty much just more of the same. If there was more depth to the game, this reviewer couldn’t find it. After completion of every mission on the game’s toughest setting, there was no noticeable unlockable content. The game does have an encyclopedia that briefly discusses the planes and secondary weapons. Whoopdee-frickin-doo! Also, and as a plus point this bears mentioning, the game has a password system to mark your progress. If you turn off the GBA, you must enter a certain string of letters and numbers to resume your campaign. While usually a lover of games involving aerial combat, and though I was certainly looking forward to feeling ?the need for speed’ this ?Ghost Rider’ was disappointed with the lack of replay value and depth.