An uppercut of aerial action, a swipe of slick graphics, a firm push towards lasting value with tons of missions and multiplayer modes - Ace Combat: Joint Assault is nothing short of an all-out attack.
Putting previous portable instalments out for the count, publisher Namco Bandai has created the most robust, fully featured, and polished aerial combat game available on a handheld.
As long as you can wade through layers of pre-flight menus and bear some of the brow-raising voice acting, there's immense fun to be had with Ace Combat: Joint Assault.
Both hands on the flight stick
As with any flying game, excellence starts with the fundamentals of control. Options abound, though two finely tuned control schemes eliminate the need for much tinkering.
The default configuration offers arcade handling via the analogue stick, while a more advanced Simulation mode allows you to control yaw and pitch with the D-pad.
The latter provides greater manoeuverability, although the default scheme gets the job done nicely. There's never a sense of deficiency in the controls: on the contrary, they're responsive without devolving to the finicky sensitivity of a dedicated flight simulator.
A sense of mass in handling coupled with the straightforward arrangement of the controls makes the game feel great.
Loads of weapons help preserve the game's arcade roots. Each aircraft comes equipped with an unlimited machine gun, which is joined by two customisable auxiliary systems.
Completing missions nets you performance points that can be spent on plane-specific weapons ranging from air-to-ground bombs to quick-fire missiles. You're also able to purchase new aircraft - more than 40 in total - and upgrades to boost engine power, wing aerodynamics, and other components.
Customisation provides a reason to invest time into the game, while a long list of single- and multiplayer missions and modes prevent that time from being repetitive. A branching single-player campaign has you confronting a previously unknown military aggressor across a number of missions set in Japanese, Egyptian, European, and American airspace.
These are fun played on your own, but what rockets Ace Combat: Joint Assault to the next level is support for co-operative play through the campaign.
Connecting via ad-hoc or infrastructure modes, up to three buddies can join you for group operations or split up to tackle concurrent missions. It's a mission structure than matters little when playing solo, but is loads of fun when tackled with others.
Of course, competitive multiplayer awaits as well with both local and online options available. A maximum of eight players can link up for competitive rounds.
Voice of criticism
Finding reasons to complain about what is easily the most feature-rich aerial action game to ever grace a portable is difficult. Ace Combat: Joint Assault has everything you could demand from such a game and any nit-picky criticisms about the voice acting and menus are trifling compared to its rousing success.
After all, the excessive menus are a byproduct of aircraft customisation and the joint assault mission design - elements which are entirely welcome.
Namco Bandai ought to take a look at the voice acting - which admittedly isn't bad, just occasionally off - because it's the only area in which the game could stand improvement. In every other respect, Ace Combat: Joint Assault is a blitz on a genre already packed with great games. Consider this the champ.