Considering the desire to fly is one of man's primal urges, right up there with eating and making sweet, sweet love, there's a stunning paucity of flying games of note for the home consoles. Sure, PC users have their flight simulators... but even if you judiciously add a 't' to their name, they'll never be interesting enough for normal people. No, it takes a very particular kind of enthusiast to spend hours in his bedroom, bathed in the wan light of his monitor, feverishly working his joystick in order to perform a real-time SYD to LHR flight in a Boeing 747-400.
The rest of us want to soar free, like birds, only supersonic ones. And armed with powerful ordnance, like Maverick and the Ice Man in Top Gun, though without all those messy homosexual overtones.
But games publishers have largely ignored our Icarian urges, with the exception of Namco. Since 1995, Namco has been furnishing the would be fighter-aces of the world with PlayStation aviation thrills. They even once slipped one out - Ace Combat Advance - on Game Boy Advance in Japan and the US, but it never made it as far as this septic isle. Initially a conversion of the Air Combat arcade game, the series has gone on the be the most enduring of all aviation combat franchises.
The Ace Combat series has alighted - or should that be crash-landed - at last, on the PSP. And it has the all important trendy shorthand for ten (X) in its name, plus the thrilling subtitle, The Skies of Deception - which sounds quite exciting, but also a little trepidating.
Ace Combat X: The Skies of Deception is no hasty port from the recent PS2 release, Ace Combat: The Belkan War (which reminds this reviewer of his high school science teacher Mr Belk going to battle with Serbia and Montenegro). Instead the game features 15 all new maps... and an all new storyline featuring a battle between the implausibly named Leasath and Aurelia.
Ace Combat sits in the gaping yaw between a flight sim and an arcade game, though much closer to the arcade end of the spectrum. If you're now wondering what a 'gaping yaw' is, then unlike SPOnG, you've never hung around with sailors. You can choose to fly one of a selection of real-world aircraft, all officially licenced from the military-industrial complex. Although each aircraft does behave in a different way, this will only have overall effects on your mission success. They don't really 'feel' different to fly. But top speed and manoeuverability will certainly affect your ability to give chase and dogfight with enemy aircraft. Slower planes give you more time to target ground-based targets. You can also tool up your plane with a selection of air-to-whatever ordnance. Choosing the correct weapons will affect your mission success rates much more noticeably. Run out of missiles before you run out of enemy planes and...well, good luck with the machine guns. You can upgrade your aircraft with parts you obtained while completing missions. Missions themselves vary from game to game, so each replay is different from the last game.
Progress through the game comes from completing the Campaign Mode - but you can hone your skills and practise in Free Mission mode. And you can take on your friends in the ad-hoc wireless mode, which enables you to play head-to-head or co-operatively.
Controlling your plane is simpicity itself, though judging speed and angles of turn can be tricky at first. Targeting the enemy can be left to the auto-targetting system, and your heads-up display gives you all the information you'll need to find and lock-on to your opponents. Before long, you will find yourself winging around the skies like Douglas Bader would, if he had legs and could fly a jet fighter.
On PSP, Ace Combat looks superb; the combination of the small screen and the middle-distance atmospheric haze giving an impression of near photo-realism that isn't present on larger screen versions. The result is one of the best looking PSP games - the graphical style suits the game subject perfectly...
All this begs the question - if arcade combat games are so much fun, why are there not more of them. Heatseeker and After Burner: Black Falcon are due out for PSP next year - but until then, Ace Combat X is the only choice for PSP owners.
We're looking forward to getting our hands on the completed version, and we'll bring you a full review soon.