A squad of aces pulls off a few rough maneuvers.
I got a call from a friend, who recently returned from a trip across Europe and was looking to get together for some drinks. When I told him that I’d just downloaded 1942: Joint Strike off Xbox Live and was looking for someone to help me try out the multiplayer, his response was, “The airplane game? I’m fucking there!”
If Capcom’s 194X series evokes that same kind of reaction from you, you’ll be happy to hear that Joint Strike is a worthy addition to the franchise of WWII-era planes using anachronistic weapons technology. It’s sort of a “best of” for the series, incorporating most of the successful elements from previous games while tossing out the bits that sucked.
One aspect that thankfully got thrown out was repetitive level design. Though 1943 had 24 grueling but similar stages, Joint Strike gives you just a handful of levels, but each with a distinct look and feel of its own, showing off some gorgeous 3D backgrounds and effects. The very first level will have you flying over an active volcano in a Pacific atoll, as the heat from the giant pool of molten lava rises in a haze, distorting the objects above it.
The game knows it’s pretty, of course, and a few short cut-scenes pepper the game, zooming in to show your plane flying over particularly cool bits of scenery. These scenes are presented in a grainy, sepia-toned style that mimic old war footage, and the transition between them and regular gameplay is seamless. These sequences aren’t long, but they provide a nice place to catch your breath and stretch your thumbs before you plunge back into the action.
With just five stages, Joint Strike is the shortest game in the series, but like your girlfriend says
but may not mean: Size doesn’t matter; it’s how you use it that counts. Joint Strike throws everything it can at you in the short time you’ll have together. Make no mistake, this game is hard. You get tossed into the shit from the word "go", and the only change between the hardest and easiest difficulties is how many lives you get to deal with it. And when they’re gone, it’s time to start over, no saves, no continues, no nothing.
That doesn’t mean it’s as tough as some other games in the genre like Ikaruga. A health meter means enemies won’t one-hit-kill you like they did in the original 1942, and you do get extra lives, unlike in 1943. Of course, that just means the game can get away with sending more insanity your way. While you'll occasionally (with an extremely satisfying smile) get out of a chaotic tangle with the meter still full, more often you’ll think you did pretty well against an enemy wave, only to look up and wonder where all your health went.
For different styles of gameplay, you can choose from a few different planes, which fall squarely into theclassic gaming triumvirate of slow and strong, fast and weak, and all-around average. Each starts with the same basic machine gun as well as homing missiles and a limited number of screen-clearing bombs. Your primary weapon can also be upgraded with one of three power-ups: the spread, the quad, and the laser.
I’m pretty sure you’ve seen all this before. I’m also sure someone at some point is going to map out when to pick up which power-ups so you have the best weapons for every situation, kind of like those obsessives who map out optimal star power paths in Guitar Hero
(absolutely not Nick). Chances are, you’ll just find one weapon you like and stick with it for the whole game. I liked the laser. My friend chose the spread. Contra has taught him well...
Of course, the game is called Joint Strike, which means an emphasis on multiplayer is expected. You’d better invite a friend over, though, since finding online match-ups over Xbox Live is an exercise in futility. Even then, your friend can’t just drop in as a guest. You’ll have to set up a Gamer Tag for them so they can play with you, which is a bit of a pain, but my friend got so much enjoyment out of naming himself “Boozy McFly”, that I can forgive it.
The “joint strikes” in question refer to alternate weapons in multiplayer that replace the single-player homing missiles. You choose which joint strike to use, from three available, when you start the game, but here the game is seriously unbalanced. You have a choice of quickly taking out all enemies in a line between you and your wingman, spreading a lightning “net” between you that lasts for several seconds (which sounds great until you find out you can’t shoot while it lasts), or destroying everything on the screen with very little coordination involved. If there’s any reason at all not to choose the third option every time, I’m not seeing it. But even then, joint strikes are more trouble than they’re worth. The homing missiles are still more effective, but unfortunately, you can’t choose to just give missiles to both players.
Another issue is that multiplayer inevitably results in one player losing all their lives before the other, and once Goose dies, there’s no bringing him back. Either your friend sits there bored as you continue on solo, or you restart the game. Allowing a player who’s hit Game Over to use his wingman’s extra lives would have been nice so that the game could end at the same time for both players. It would have also provided an additional challenge for an expert player to try and carry a beginner through the whole game.
While 1942: Joint Strike brings nothing new to its series, it’s just good nostalgic fun when you’ve got a wingman with you. Fighting over power-ups with a friend is always
a motive for murder a blast, and even flying solo is great for a short gaming session to blow off some steam. Mowing down wave after wave of incoming planes is as satisfying as taking a ride into the danger… no, that’s just too easy.