Aces of the Galaxy Review

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Aces of the Galaxy Publisher: Sierra Online (Vivendi)
Developer: Artech Studios

Platform: Xbox 360, PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
Official Site:

The frenetic, on-rails space shooter genre has come and gone... and come back again. Sometimes it's a 2D-scroller. Sometimes, it's a 3D (or 3D-ish) fly-by. Regardless of the presentation, these things have always punished their fans. They sucked down your roll of quarters in the '80s and you wouldn't even get halfway through the game. Your thumbs bled, playing the console versions, but you always went back for more. Artech's Aces of the Galaxy is a throwback, next-gen shmup (the currently cool way to say "shoot 'em up," if you're 14). It's a throwback, both honoring and imitating the genre. But it's very next-gen as well, with slick, polished graphics (especially for an Xbox Live Arcade title), an appropriate musical score, and plenty of thumping sound effects. But keep in mind: This is a shmup, and it can be brutally hard.

Kevin Rice

Space Harrier 2008

Although not classically a shmup, Space Harrier is the closest comparable game. It's played in bite-sized waves along the rails of a larger level, usually no longer than five minutes or so per level. However, the distinct waves, their patterns, and figuring out the weakness of the bosses – these are all shmup qualities, and every one of them is present and accounted for.

Aces of the Galaxy allows considerably more freedom than the old school games it so lovingly mimics, but it's still very much on rails. You have a little bit of latitude as to where you are on the screen – position, point of view, etc. – but the game is doing most of the steering. This is actually nice because this is one area of space so chock full of crap that you would probably easily get lost if the steering was up to you.

There is No Freespace

Part of the reason for the game steering you along is the simplicity of the controls. While games like Freespace, Freelancer, and others of that ilk allowed you complete navigational freedom, the controls often involved fifty of the keys on your keyboard, and that was after assigning the "main controls" to a quality HOTAS controller.

Aces has three weapons, assigned to three separate buttons – no weapons cycling – a button that scans for invisible enemies (there's an audio cue when you should look for them, as cloaking technology is nothing for the aliens, but apparently they still run on V8 diesel engines), the ability to barrel roll left and right with the triggers, and a reloadable bullet-time effect that helps get you out of jams. That's it. No commands to wingmen, no shield distribution and no waypoints. This is, first and foremost, an arcade game, and it's better for that.

Your weapons are useful in taking down various enemies, with one weapon usually better suited to a particular enemy type than another. The chain gun is good for the grunts of the alien onslaught. The cluster missiles, which can be strung together by holding down the X button and then letting go a la Rez, are great for taking out chunks of enemies at a time. Finally, the torpedoes are the standard "this is either a boss or a Corvette-class ship attacking me" weapon of choice. Thankfully, you have infinite ammo. The missiles take a little time to reload, but it's hardly noticeable.

Of note is the fact that your main weapon, the chain gun, is more like a shotgun. It's not automatic. If you want to fire ten chaingun shots, you'll be pressing the A button ten times. At first, this seems like a poor development choice, but if all you had to do was hold it down, then the missile weapons would become almost useless. Additionally, once you get into the flow of the game, you'll probably tap off a few chain gun shots, then target using cluster missiles, and then pick something off with a torpedo. It works well, although I think some gamers will hate the not-so-automatic chain gun.

Something to See Here

One of the main things that make shmups difficult, especially games like R-Type, Silpheed and Einhander, is that there's a lot going on at once. Not only are the grunts coming in waves at you, there's a tank on the ground lobbing mortar rounds, there's something huge shooting a beam from off-screen, and did that last wave just drop bombs on my head? That's part of what makes these game so difficult – there's a lot happening at once – but that's also where the feeling of satisfaction comes from, after succeeding.

Almost to a fault, Aces has (perhaps) too much going on at once. Not only is it moving very quickly in full 3D, there are lots of explosives, and those cause debris. And then there are the asteroids. And watch out for that big mothership. And is that debris or a – BANG! – I guess something shot me.

Thankfully, the game is pretty forgiving when it comes to damage. Your little ship can take a licking and keep on ticking. But some of those licks seem to come from lions, and while it's not a show-stopper by any means, it can lead to a few expletives while you figure out your bearings again. It's best to just avoid everything, but then your rating (both per level and at the end of the game) suffers because in avoiding everything, you're letting half the enemies get away.

I should also mention that mixed in with all this debris, there are power-ups and bonus points scattered through each level. The bonus points are awarded by destroying enemies that glow blue, and those sometimes open up hidden areas that you can see but not reach without killing these enemies. There are also plenty of power-ups of varying colors (including coveted bonus lives), and each weapon can be upgraded twice. However, you can only have one upgrade at a time. If you have a chain gun power-up going and then you run over a cluster missile power-up (intentionally or otherwise), then your chain gun goes back to normal and your cluster missiles are now upgraded. Everything resets at the end of each level, to keep you from turning into a kid with firecrackers smirking near an anthill.

The Paths to Victory

There's one special power-up on each level that's always a bit out of the way, but usually visible enough to signal its presence. This is the warp power-up, and collecting it allows you to vary your path a little bit through the game's 25 levels. There's the fire-based playing area, the ice-based playing area, and the sort-of earth-like area. Level one is the same for everybody, but levels two through nine allow to switch between any of the three paths, provided you've found the warp power-up. This means that the game takes at least three full play-throughs to see everything.

Each level also contains a "boss" of sorts, although it's sort of underwhelming. Where other shmups drive a mothership that's a hundred times bigger than you onto the screen and say, "Deal with it," Aces opts for a boss that may or may not change, depending on whether or not you took him out on the previous level.

This would be okay if these bosses had distinctly different ways of playing, but they typically all do the same thing: They're around twice as fast as the rest of the enemies, they zip across the screen, and they toss out some powerful ammo in your direction. It sounds like they could be a challenge, but the same strategy gets all of them. As soon as their presence is announced, go into bullet time which, when full, lasts around 3-4 seconds, and pound the guy with a few torpedoes (or any other weapon if it's powered up). Boom. It's nice that the boss names are semi-randomly made up – you don't run into the same people a lot. But regardless of the name, they're all about the same in difficulty and strategy, which is disappointing.

Between levels, you'll get a brief paragraph from the aliens about how much they hate humans and how superior they are. If you destroyed the boss in the previous level, there's a blurb exclaiming their amazement at that as well. Go ahead and bother to read these things, at least the first few times through the game. Most of the humor found in the game is in how intentionally derivative and yet respectful Aces is. Everything is partially cribbed from somewhere else, and even though no game in particular is referenced, you'll be able to relate this story to every shmup that had a story within the past 25 years. And, of course, if you don't read it, you'll be eaten by a phlegm-weasel.

This is the End

The game's three difficulty levels are somewhat more forgiving than some may expect. For genre fans and followers, the Easy mode is almost too easy, and will allow experienced players to beat the game on the first or second try. At Normal difficulty, many will probably get frustrated – the game has no continues and no saves in any mode. Lose all your ships at any point, and it's back to square one. Shmup veterans should be able to conquer it, but expect a bit more trouble and sorer thumbs. On Hard, it's approaching R-Type and Gradius levels of difficulty. The game is unforgiving, and it's not afraid to chew you up and spit you out.

Getting to the end game on any difficulty level does have one nice surprise. As the credits fly in, they hover onscreen for a few seconds, before flying off. The treat here is that the credits are fully destructible. You're still in your ship, after all. Enjoy blowing the hell out of the names and titles of the people that made you laugh, cry, swear, and ice down your thumb, all without worrying about debris, death, or the credits ever fighting back. Revenge really can be fun!

Aces of the Galaxy is not a world changer, but it's basically begging for a sequel or expansion of some sort. (The credits threaten this, should you bother reading them long enough before destroying them.) For shmup fans, it's something different from Ikaruga and Assault Heroes. For those who are just curious, it's certainly a looker and worth the demo download. The Xbox Live Arcade version costs 800 points ($10), making it a better purchase than the $20 PC version. The genre isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you like that demo, the game is just more of that. A lot more.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on June 12, 2008 4:40 PM.

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