Reviewed: March 26, 2007
Released: March 20, 2007
I can't remember the last time I played After Burner. It may have been back on the Genesis or possibly even an arcade in some airport, movie theater lobby, or bowling alley. All I do remember is the gameplay that had me staring at the twin jets of a fighter plane and the large flight stick that was a trademark of the arcade version.
When it comes to flight games the consoles always seem to get the fun arcade-style title while the PC gets the sims. The most popular of all console flying games is the enduring Ace Combat, which manages to blend arcade and sim elements, and this franchise even made its debut on the PSP a few month ago, so I was understandably curious to see what SEGA was going to bring to the party with After Burner: Black Falcon.
After Burner is known for supersonic speeds and intense aerial combat and the PSP version delivers just that along with some impressive visuals, decent controls, and even manages to work in a decent story told through some comic panel cutscenes.
While not terribly original, the story has you playing as one of three possible members of the Joint Task Force Scramble Team. A rogue group of commandos has stolen 13 prototype fighters dubbed The Assassins and plans to sell them to the highest bidder. You'll need to chase down all 13 planes using conventional fighters equipped with a prototype engine - the Afterburner Mark X.
The first thing you have to do is pick your pilot. You have three to choose from; two hotshot guys and one girl who is just plain hot. Other than a few specific tweaks to the story and some conversations it doesn't really matter who's in the cockpit.
Black Falcon offers up a linear set of 24 missions in a campaign structure, and once completed they are unlocked so you can go back and replay and try for better scores. Usually each mission will have multiple objectives like taking out secondary targets or a specific enemy, or earning a certain amount of points. The better you do the more money you make and money means new planes and upgrades.
Prior to each mission you can visit the Showroom to view your stable of jets and purchase upgrades like improved afterburner, better rockets, missiles, or cannons, or increase the maximum ammo capacity. Upgrades are specific to the plane you buy them for, so it can get very expensive to maintain a fully functional fleet of fighters. If you have any spare cash left over you can purchase visual upgrades like jungle camo or racing stripes. These are more about fun than function.
In addition to tracking your planes you can also review your pilot standings that keep track of all sorts of variables for both solo and multiplayer games. There is no Internet play but you can setup two player co-op games or four player competitive games.
My biggest concern was how this game would control and play on the PSP. After all, the analog nub is a poor substitute for a big flight stick. Thankfully, it only takes about two missions to get used to the analog flight controls and funky chase camera view. You fly at a default cruise speed that can be adjusted by braking or firing the afterburners using the triggers. Triangle initiates an evasive barrel roll while the rest of the face buttons fire cannons, rockets, and missiles.
After Burner: Black Falcon is a game of intense speed requiring split-second reaction times. Air targets (blue) and ground targets (green) appear as boxes on your HUD. When you get in range and have a firing solution the target turns into a circle and you can fire rockets for ground targets and missiles for air targets. A red X indicates a rocket or missile is on its way, although some larger targets require multiple hits or even upgraded ordnance.
All of this action is happening at speeds faster than sound leaving very little time to think or plan any strategy. You'll likely run out of ammo at least once during the mission, but there are checkpoints where you can land and rearm as well as parachute ammo pick-ups you can fly through in flight.
Black Falcon has some rich and colorful environments, probably a bit too colorful for a realistic sim but just perfect for a fast and furious arcade title such as this. Youíll fly through blue cloudy skies and skim over orange and red deserts, green plains, and white arctic tundra. Most of the targets are too small to actually see what you are destroying. By the time you see the square to the time it changes to a circle to the time you fire all happens in about 1.67s and if you are lucky you might see an explosion as you fly past the devastation.
The plane models are nice Ė at least the planes you are flying. Again, you seldom see the enemy planes beyond a square or circle lock with the exception of a boss fight where you might have to tail a target for an extended period of time. I really liked the various custom paint jobs you can purchase for your plane, but other than the landing-to-refuel cutscenes you seldom see more than the twin engines and tail fins on your plane.
The in-game HUD is fantastic with dual afterburner gauges on either side of the screen, a health meter in the bottom corner beneath you lives counters, remaining weapon ammo, and your total score and cash earnings. The target system is genius with green locks for ground targets and blue for air.
There are some really great special effects like blurring when you kick in the afterburner, slipstream trails coming off your wingtips, fiery explosions, and plumes of billowing smoke. There is even some excellent lighting and shadow effects than can make it quite treacherous navigating through narrow canyons.
I wasnít terribly impressed with the soundtrack. Itís good in a classic kind of way. Itís mostly generic high-energy rock that fits with the high-energy gameplay. There are a few military-themes and victory music for some of the cutscenes.
The sound effects are superb with all sorts of cannon fire, rockets and missiles swooshing around, and incoming bullets zinging off the skin of your plane. There is always the underlying hum of the jet itself and that ramps up significantly when you kick in the afterburner and your plane turns into a spec in the distance.
Admittedly, the gameplay is repetitive, but such is the nature of any arcade game. The designers do a good job of mixing up the environments and requiring all sorts of unique objectives to achieve the max score. If you are a perfectionist it will be hard to move on to the next mission until you have completed ever objective in the current one.
There is a substantial amount of unlockables including the 24 missions themselves as well as 15 unique fighters ranging from the A10 Tank Killer to the SR71 Stealth Fighter. It will take thousands of dollars and hours of gameplay to upgrade and customize each of these planes.
The multiplayer support for both co-op and competitive is a nice touch, but without Internet or Game Share youíll have to find other pilots with their own PSP and copy of the game and get them in the same room.
Right now your choices are fairly limited when it comes to a flight-action game for the PSP. Ace Combat is merely an OK port of the console version, technically it was quite nice but rather boring after awhile. After Burner: Black Falcon is much more exciting, colorful, and just plain fun. It delivers addictive arcade aerial combat requiring almost instinctive reflexes, all at the speed of sound.