M.A.C.H. PSP Review - 15/03/2007

Modified Air Combat Heroes might not be the most inspirational name for a game, but there's some good solid gameplay in there, making for an addictive and satisfying, if not particularly deep, game.

It is basically an arcade aircraft racer, sort of a mix between Afterburner and Wipeout, but with a dogfight mode to boot. The story is pretty standard, with the government decommissioning thousands of jets in order to replace them with automated flying machines and a cheaper arsenal. However, the pilots that lost their jobs from this reformation were outraged, and eventually the decommissioned crafts made their way onto the black market to give rise to an underground racing/fighting scene. This plot is in no way represented in the game's single player mode, but that's the premise given in the instruction guide at least.

The single player mode allows you to play Arcade, Career or Challenge modes. Arcade lets you race or fight on any of the five courses. Career sees you playing in a Mario Kart style tournament, first choosing one of five difficulties, then a series, named imaginatively after cloud formations – with more available on higher difficulties. The races you play change depending on the series, and while there are only five courses, you do get short and reversed versions that feel suitably different as you progress through the game. A plus of having a smaller selection is that the graphics throughout are superb, some of the best on the PSP. Very few jagged edges, a great sense of speed, and immense water effects help create a racing experience that is really satisfying to play through.

Take note: This is not a game based on Gillette's line of shaving utensils.

Throughout the straight races in career mode you will be treated to a number of powerups along the way. Missiles, which you have to lock on before firing; Cluster Bombs, which you fire forwards that home in on the enemy providing they're in your sights; Mines, which you lay behind you; Stealth, which renders your ship invisible and means missiles cannot hit you; and Mach Power, which refills your boost bar. Boost is otherwise gained by flying as close to the ground as possible, and is used by double tapping X. X is also used to accelerate, and this seems a bit pointless, as you will rarely not want to be going at full speed, as the brake, assigned to Square, slows you down plenty well enough to make the tight bends on some of the courses. This means your thumb will start to hurt after long sessions, as it does in most games on the PSP, but with the double tapping and constant need to hold the button down, the problem is just accentuated.

Having said that, you rarely notice the analogue nub's problems, which is good for a fast paced racing game, and while the developers Kuju do give you a lot of leeway in terms of hitting objects (often you'll just slow down and grate along side them, with sparks flying of course, although a full head on collision does mean a certain explosion), it all feels responsive enough to avoid too many crashes. Travelling at 600mph, you do need to get used to some of the courses and indeed the controls themselves, before you'll be advancing through the tiers. The learning curve is suitably balanced, although it may be a little on the easy side to begin with.

Career is a bit of a daft word to use for it, because while you do progress through the ranks, from Rookie to Hero, there's no character progression, cutscenes, story or plot. That's not such a bad thing, as it would probably only get in the way of what is a very simple and playable racing shooter, and in fairness it's unlikely it would be compelling enough in conjunction with the level structures.

At times M.A.C.H. even rivals Burnout for sense of speed

As well as the racing though, you play in dogfights, which put seven AI aircraft as well as yourself in a free for all in large, open arenas. Pickups are regular, meaning missiles are flying all over the place, and if you manage to go on a rampage, whereby you kill five other players without dying, you get an instant kill laser beam. It actually works really well and can lead to some hugely satisfying fights. Should someone use a missile or cluster bomb to try and take you down, a warning pops up on screen, and, using a combination of the Triangle button to glance behind, and the regularity of the warning beeps, you can time evasive manoeuvres by tapping the Circle button – seeing your plane barrel roll (hopefully) to safety.

It works well, and requires about a quarter of your boost bar to use – meaning if an enemy fires two consecutive rockets at you, and you've been careless with the afterburner previously, certain death will follow. Sometimes you can weave in and out of objects to avoid getting shot down, but the missiles travel so fast that only very skilled players will manage it. The missiles and evasive system works exactly the same in the straight races too, meaning you will often be barrel rolling round a corner to avoid being shot down, leading to some reflex intensive manoeuvres when you emerge into clear air again. You also get a chaingun in the dogfights, which has a very effective auto aim allowing you to shoot down enemies in about five seconds with a sustained burst – it does overheat though, so it never feels to unbalanced. Plus, it's just as effective in the enemies' hands as in your own.

Greatly extending the life of the game, Challenge mode uses a host of new game modes, including Mach Melee, where you have to kill as many enemy craft as possible with the one-hit kill laser weapon; Mach Dash, where collecting coins along the way extends your time and improves your final score; Time Check, which involves flying through rings to earn boost; Mach Lap, where you race on a standard course and each lap the time is decreased to see how far you can progress; and Dog Tag, with a tag in the middle of an arena map that players have to steal and hold for a given amount of time – with full weapon pickups on to aid everyone else.

The Dogfights would be improved no end by some sort of rival system. Loki is the name of the ship by the way, not the player.

An unusual, yet substantial part of the game comes in the form of the ability to modify and upgrade your ship. Starting off with just one craft, you unlock more (up to 11) along the way, and can upgrade everything from the wings, to the engines, to the guns – all improving the speed, agility or power, as well as the general awesome appearance of your fighter. There are three tiers for each component, and these can be upgraded on each of the 11 airplanes, again using the Rookie, Pro and Ace formula. They all look very different on each craft, and when combined with the visual upgrades, with decals, flags and fresh paint jobs all available, it makes for much more than just a tacked on extra that so many games try to provide. In fact, you need to improve your fighters if you hope to compete on the higher difficulties, and it can be truly satisfying to see the beautiful particle effects of your new engine set, or the roar of a brand new, far meatier weapon emplacement.

You can show off your modified aircraft to friends via Ad hoc wireless network or through the Game Sharing system. The options available to you over the network are immense. Choose whether to host a race or a dogfight, allow modified planes, turn on AI opponents (a truly great feature for a PSP game), pick the track, and set which weapons can be picked up along the way. While initially I thought the racing was by far the best part of the game, the dogfights grow on you and the races get tiresome, before the roles reverse again. This will happen plenty of times to you along the way as you curse at the AI, your own slow reactions, or just that you confused some of the buttons. At times, the control system does let you down, but as usual, this is largely due to the inadequacies of the PSP, and only occurs very occasionally.

Also, you can fly out of bounds all too easily if you don't know a course too well, and this can easily cost you the race when you're just trying to coast over a mountain to steal the lead. A white flash and a reset on track can lose you places, and while it doesn't hurt so much in the dogfights, it can interrupt you in the middle of a rampage. Some objects such as trees are also passable – in that you can fly through them. This allows the speed to stay constant, and it is shown so well on screen, that it can perhaps be accepted as a good design decision.

There's often loads going on at once, and it's down to sharp reflexes alone to keep your craft in the air

Often, while the gameplay is pretty simple, you will need to outwit your foes to come out on top. Saving a stealth powerup to allow missiles to pass through you, or keeping a weapon until just before the finish can make for some really tense and intelligent gameplay – it just doesn't happen all the time. This strategy allows the multiplayer to be fun and frantic, and the game sharing option is a much underemphasised part of the PSP's abilities in most games.

With the Challenge Mode and multiplayer, the lifespan of the game is extended considerably. Just five courses is disappointing, and the career mode does get tiresome, but when a huge part of the game is the ability to memorise tracks in order to react quickly enough to win, you may be thankful for this come the end of each race. It's all of a very high quality, with great graphics and a strong soundtrack (although music plays almost silently in the background).

Perhaps a few characters to allow rivalries to develop would be nice, as only the names of the aircraft appear on your screen. More races and weapons would also go down very well, but for what it is, M.A.C.H. outperforms most arcade fighters in this simplistic mould and is up there with Wipeout at times for addictiveness and fun. It's just a shame that there's not more depth and ultimately sustained playability on show, but for the budget price, it's well worth a purchase for a quick gaming fix.


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