Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Review: After Burner Climax (PSN & XBLA)

Before wanting to be a videogames journalist, or before that a palaeontologist, I have always wanted to become a fighter pilot, shooting down those pesky Migs just like in the 1986 movie hit Top Gun. No rules, no regulations, or training required, just some awesomely cool dog fighting action. As it so happens, I got my first taste of this first-hand in one of my local seaside arcades when I was about five or six years old. I had encountered Sega’s mid-eighties spectacular After Burner, a jet fighting, rip-roaring, aerial action game complete with a really, really, cool moving cabinet.

I only had one go. That was all I was allowed. But it would be an experience I would never forget, a rush of excitement and exhilaration that few games today have delivered in such a concentrated dose. And despite never making it past the first stage, I yearned for more, not ever having the chance to properly sample delights of such similarity again… until now.

In 2006, Sega unleashed upon a dying arcade world the little known After Burner Climax, one of their first next-generation arcade outings. Running on their newly formed Lindbergh arcade board, it brought to the screen fast-paced aerial action and a hint of 1980’s excitement, all at the pre-requisite sixty frames per-second with a slew of smoke and particle effects. Finally my chance to sample once again my childhood delights had arrived, except for the fact that a scarce one or two go’s would be my only chance of salvation. As per usual, Sega had decided it seemed, to completely overlook such a title for an early next-gen console launch, instead relegating it to the ranks of forgotten arcade gems.

Today, all that has changed, and Sega, in combination with Sumo Digital (their usual porting house) have seen fit to release this nearly forgotten arcade non-hit to both PSN and XBLA. Get Ready to re-enter the danger zone, Kenny Loggings style!

Graphically the game is pretty much arcade perfect on both platforms running at the expected 60fps, featuring basic but fairly detailed texture work, with bump-mapped and shiny (specular and diffuse effects) surfaces, and plenty of smoke and particle effects expected for a 2006 game. As with Virtua Fighter 5 on PS3 and Lindbergh, no AA is present on the PS3 version although at least 2xMSAA is used on the 360, but then again, the game does render in 720p on both formats.

The 360 version however, seems to feature slightly better lighting than the PS3 one, matching the arcade version like for like, whereas on PS3 the lighting is ever so slightly less intense. It’s not even an issue for me, and despite with myself being just a little bit of a graphics whore, decided to make my final purchase of the game for my PS3, to go along with OutRun Online arcade and Tekken Dark Resurrection (amongst others) in my growing collection.

The premise of the game is the same as in the 1986 original; flying around at varying speeds above and below the clouds, you are tasked with blasting enemy planes and ground vehicles into obliteration, whilst relying on just a few well-aimed missiles and an unlimited use of a paltry machinegun to get the job done. Along with your limited assortment of weapons, you also have the ability to out-manoeuvre enemy craft using the series trademark ‘barrel roll’, mixing it up between all out shooting, and cleverly skilled avoidance of the impending doom heading your way.

Did, we also mention, blue skies, bright white clouds, and a variety of different environments, each making little sense in the grand scheme of things when it comes to aerial combat. But they sure as hell look really cool, an infusion of colour in an increasingly drab modern videogaming world, just what we need to see a lot more often.

The dossier on the game reads something like this: three selectable aircraft, check; skilful but simplistic gameplay; check; cheesy 80’s rocking arcade soundtrack, check. And so on. It’s After Burner through and through, and one of the last truly decent games created by Sega geniuses at Sega-AM2, minus Virtua Fighter 5 of course.

Staring off by selecting one of three planes, the F/A-18E, F14D Super Tomcat and the F-15E, and then choosing the colour, the game has you flying through a multitude of different, beautifully colourful environments, barrel-rolling and blasting your way through hordes of enemy aircraft and resistant ground forces. Twice along the way the game’s stages branch off to create two separate routes to take, each with new stages and a different second set of routes to take. Should you meet hidden objectives set out for you by the game, you might also encounter a secret stage or two, usually absent from your somewhat short progression to the end.

The experience as a whole is pretty short and really very linear, much like Star Fox 64 or any on-rails shooter worth it’s salt. There’s not much more to do once you’ve completed all the routes available and seen the end credits a handful of times, not even all that much in the way of added depth, or hidden skill to master outside the basic ‘roll and shoot’ and ‘Climax Mode’ mechanics.

However, mastering the basics (is there anything beyond?) isn’t quite as easy or straightforward as it might seem, though lacking the depth of say, OutRun or Sega Rally, but having more to do than the likes of Virtua Cop, or Ghost Squad.

Your basic machine gun fires off rapid shots used to take down most close range enemy aircraft, whilst your missiles are used primarily to initiate an early strike against forces yet to reach your position. Missiles have to be locked-on, much like in the movie Top Gun, and you can target up to a handful at any given time. For each one to be launched you have to push down on the fire button, rather than hold, hit, and fire, which simply will leave you firing off a single missile against one target instead of the group you’ve just locked-on to. This, along with the game’s titular ‘Climax Mode’ brings some much-needed depth to the experience, regardless of how light it actually is, making you learn and remember enemy attack patterns, before blasting them down seamlessly for that barely obtainable ‘100% rating’.

Movement, as with most on-rail shooters, is restricted to flying around between all for corners of the screen, flying into the screen and the oncoming environments and enemies. It’s possible to perform a ‘barrel roll’ using a quick flick of the analogue stick in the opposite direction to which you are moving, whilst the camera automatically pushes you down a fixed course.

Unfortunately, I found it all too easy to accidentally initiate the ‘barrel roll’ whilst attempting to quickly move and target enemies on the opposite side of the screen, rather than change direction and shoot em’ down with some missiles. Maybe it would have been better to have a ‘button and stick movement’ system to activate such a move, thus avoiding the issue from ever coming up. Saying that, the current control set up does make the game feel more like you are flying an unwieldy fighter jet at a fast and frenetic pace, for better or worse.

Moving on, the titular ‘Climax Mode’, activated when the ‘Climax Gauge’ fills up to its maximum position, basically slows down time Matrix stylie, allowing you target and takedown a multitude of enemies far more easily than at high speed. A small counter also appears telling you the amount of enemies that are on screen, which if you manage to destroy all at the same time, you’ll receive an added increase in your score outside that given for simply taking down enemies.

It’s all as simplistic as it gets, with most of the depth and replay value coming from trying to get a perfect ‘takedown’ rating, or by achieving the highest score on the leaderboards - the game’s only online option. It’s also pretty hard, and very chaotic at times, sending a screen load of adversaries at you at any one time, repeating the process over and over until the game ends. Certainly you can tell, that like the 1980’s original, this next-gen sequel was also designed specifically to keep you pumping 50p pieces into the machine.

Challenging, and sometimes unfair, especially later on, is how I would describe After Burner Climax, though never to the point where the wild ride on offer becomes just another bag of stress rolled up and ready to be thrown across the room. Authentic, yes, but expected all the same. After all it’s in the series heritage to be this way.

If you are finding the whole experience a little to hard for your liking, then the game features what can only be described as a ‘dip switch’ style ‘EX Options’ mode, in which you can customise everything from the amount of continues on offer, to powering up your weaponry and allowing an auto lock-on function. It is also possible to change the parameters for how the game’s scoring system works making it easier to gain higher bonuses and other such extras. These ‘Ex Options’ only work in the game’s ‘Arcade Mode’, leaving ‘Score Attack’ free of any unwanted tampering for competitive online play, or rather rankings, as there is no multiplayer on offer.

After Burner Climax is a rather short but reasonably sweet dose of vintage arcade gaming, delivering the quick thrills and spills of such great 1980’s hits like OutRun, Space Harrier and After Burner long since forgotten by the general gaming public. It is also extremely short and pretty repetitive compared to the likes of OutRun 2, in which mastering your drift, and replaying every route in the game can become an obsession. Still Climax offers you a similar feeling, just in smaller doses and with unrelenting fury, without the substance inducing style addictiveness to be found in Sega’s 2004 drifting arcade smash.

Sadly, it also seems like part of the experience is missing without ‘that’ trademark hydraulic cabinet so firmly ingrained in our minds from twenty years ago. Surround sound we may have, and that works brilliantly, but really, having the full-on moving cabinet throwing you all around was part and parcel of the enjoyment behind the game.

For anyone looking for a slice of childhood gaming goodness, or those who perhaps spent too many hours playing through Panzer Dragoon, OutRun or even Star Fox on the N64, will find a highly enjoyable albeit short slice of aerial action, let down by its lack of additional modes, and its strict devotion to its late 80’s roots. For me, and I suspect a few others at least, After Burner Climax could be one of the most played PSN or XBLA releases this year, drenched in blue skies, beautiful artistically designed environments, and quick-fix shooty action.

This game is probably the last solid arcade title to come out of Sega’s dwindling development studios since OutRun 2, and the continuing instalments of the Virtua Fighter series. It’s not perfect by any means, being a little too short for its own good, and rather chaotic, but worth picking up for fans, and perhaps people longing for some more arcade action.


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