Every twitch-addicted shoot ‘em up fan had to start somewhere. Me? I cut my teeth back in the 70s when most of you were still a devilish glint in the milkman’s eye with the relatively plodding but relentless pace of Space Invaders.
Since then I’ve fallen in love hook line and sinker with the genre and along the rocky road to Aces of the Galaxy I’ve seen things…that you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shores of Galaga. I’ve watched laser beams glitter in the dark near the Gradius gate. All those moments won’t be lost in time because those games are happily still part of my collection. Aces of the Galaxy? If I still remember it this time next week I’ll be very surprised.
You see, it’s not that it’s particularly terrible – and in fact going back to the notion of a rookie shoot ‘em up fan chancing their 800 points on this as their first foray into space combat, there are far worse games lurking in the foetid annals of the Xbox Live Marketplace than this, but it’s by no means any competition for other 800-points-a-throw games like Ikaruga or Rez, which I’d really hope in my heart of hearts that a shoot ‘em up novice would hit first.
Aces of the Galaxy delivers some nice crisp visuals which made me hum “Geosword, this is Geosword” to myself – in fact I actually dug out my Olympus Eyetrek goggles and went through the rigmarole of hooking the things up to the 360 just to try and recreate Starblade, the massive sit-down-and-shoot arcade machine from the late 80s. For a short whilte Aces of the Galaxy delivered that same zero-gravity taste of acrophobia that Starblade instantly gives you with its massive wraparound screen (I don’t know if any London-based Totaleers will remember the big 3D galaxians machine in the Trocadero but this was the same sort of deal). Unfortunately the eyetrek’s a bit low tech and a bit puke-enducing so I ended up connecting the 360 back up to the TV to continue the review. Nice idea though and if you’ve got one of those horrible clunky things sitting around, give it a go to amuse yourself.
So, in single player mode you play a lone pilot trying to get back to his battle squadron. Between you and the last shuttle home in time for tea and spacecakes is the bastard son of the dad from the sitcom Dinosaurs, and Nintendo’s Bowser – a lizard-like dude called Brood Master Vrax. He doesn’t like fluffy kittens, he doesn’t like poetry or flowers – what he does like is annihilating meat popsicles like you with wave after wave of his Skurgian Armada so you’re going to have a fight on your hands.
Controls are a little busy for a twitch-shooter but it’s nice to have a range of firepower at your disposal. You’ll need a flexible thumb to keep hitting the A button to fire your chaingun, the main weapon and actually surprisingly the most useful one when it comes to taking down attack pattern after attack pattern of Skurgian cannon fodder. In addition you’ve got the meatier cluster missiles. These act a bit like the lock-on missiles in Rez, so you can highlight a wave of attacking enemies, lock onto them and watch as a satisfying burst of fire takes them out one by one, scoring you a nice little combo bonus.
Lastly there are the torpedoes which are a bit trickier to target on enemies, but have a devastating effect on the larger ships in the Skurgian fleet. Save these up for the annoying (and sometimes invisible) fleet command ships, which you’ll need to keep an eye out for by using the Y button to scan for them if they’re cloaked.
Your defensive measures are limited to shields and the ability to jink left and right in a barrel roll if you need to avoid large oncoming obstacles like ship debris or asteroids.
There’s one other trick up your sleeve though. Your spunky little fighter has the ability to cause a temporal shift, slowing down the on-screen action just long enough for you to target fast-moving attack craft or bail your butt out of trouble. The shift can take a while to recharge and lasts for a fleeting moment but sometimes it can mean the difference between avoiding trouble or losing a life so it’s worth saving up.
As your ship dives into the inky void across various vistas ranging from fiery volcanic-looking asteroid fields, to icy blue clusters of frozen crystalline formations you’ll realise that playing the game on the easiest difficulty level was a mistake as you’ll rattle through the entire game and its formulaic attack patterns in under 50 minutes. For something that for a lot of single players will be a one-shot deal, that’s shockingly short so take my advice if you buy this, play it on the most difficult level if you really want to get your money’s worth from it. A game like this is best played as a scores on the doors type deal and again on higher difficulty levels you’ll find it easier to get a decent score at the end of it all, plus a few achievements for your trouble.
Extending the game’s life a little are the by now de-rigueur online score leaderboards, and also a rather pleasant little localised co-op mode if you’ve got a twitch-addicted friend round for the evening and you fancy taking on old turdy-chops Vrax together.
Artech Studios have tried to take cues from various shoot ‘em up classics, but for some reason the package as a whole doesn’t really gel, and when a developer’s gone to the trouble of ticking all the focus group design favourites like co-op play and online willy-measuring for scores, it seems a shame that they’ve forgotten how to build something that is varied, challenging and can be played by either novice blaster fanatics or hardened space war veterans. Ramping up the difficulty level just seems to drain your shields quicker when hit and speed up the attack patterns a little.
The game’s main enemy seems to be as vital to the game as an irritating wasp is vital to a quiet pint of cider on a summer’s evening in your local pub garden, and when Vrax usually appears you’ll spend hapless minutes shooting at him to little or no effect (sometimes if you’re lucky enough to score a good few torpedo hits on him he will spin off into the inky abyss, Vader style but he always comes back).
The biggest challenge in the game comes from trying to avoid the suicide units, which are screamingly fast, and are usually hitting the hull of your ship before you even notice them because Aces of the Galaxy gets more than a little busy, and more than a little indistinct as the levels progress.
To summarise then, all the ingredients for a shooter are here, but they’ve been cooked at the wrong gas mark for a ludicrously short time resulting in a shoot ‘em up pie that’s only half baked and lacks the tasty moreishness that any good game in the genre should have from the word go. To those rookie mavericks out there looking to settle the galactic score for the first time against oppressive invaders, there’s far tastier fare available on the Xbox Live Arcade and elsewhere, but if you’re not short of a few bob and fancy a gaming challenge that could take you under an hour to get through (shorter in co-op and possibly even shorter on the easiest difficulty level) then you might be OK with this, but as a shoot ‘em up veteran of some 34 years standing, I’d be remiss in recommending this.