Macross is by no means an anime series to be taken functionally for granted. Dealing with the three disparate modes of each variable fighter has meant that the developer has to somehow craft three separate games that can all interact instantly with one another. Purely from a logistical standpoint, implementing a functionally coherent Macross game is an immense task.
This is often why many of these games aren’t very good. Either down to real world budgetary constraints or lack of time, trying to tackle the raft of very genuine issues has meant that the final game has suffered. Yet some get lucky and are allowed to tackle parts of the problem and simplify other aspects to make the overall package gel more convincingly. SEGA AM2 and From Software managed to do just that in their attempts and now Artdink have joined their ranks.
It’s worth prefacing the fact that this is the second Macross game Artdink have made, as Macross Ace Frontier was only just released last year. In addition, Artdink have made a recent name for themselves with the four progressively more accomplished Gundam Battle games also available on the PSP (of which these new Macross games share the same tech). Ace Frontier built upon the Gundam Battle games and approached the overall focus of the game as being mecha centric, rather than SEGA AM2’s flight sim approach for example. This meant the game had a suitably arcade nuanced flight model for the fighter mode of each of the variable fighters. Something not overly ideal but the game was scripted so as not to bring this issue to the fore. However, Ace Frontier suffered from a slew of very real issues that need explaining before I go further. Specifically the grind.
Handheld games, on the whole, need to be more accessible than their console counterparts. This doesn’t mean they have to be easy but it does mean that playing the same missions over and over again to boost your stats is very much out of place. Doubly so when it’s obvious that a lot of the art budget has been spent on sprucing up the mecha rather than the environments, so you not only play the same missions over and over again but also have to deal with multiple missions using the same bland environments. Couple that with a few incongruously awkward EX missions made the whole affair was a bit tedious in places.
Naturally, this was a shame as the mecha functionality was superb as was the combat. Not to mention the sheer variety of variable fighters to choose from as well as the enemies to face. It’s just the missions wore thin and fast.
In some ways this was partly the fault of the Gundam Battle lineage, as the tech was only set up to handle relatively small environments with far simpler collision compared to Ace Frontier. After all many of the variable fighters in the anime travel at hugely quick speeds, which means you need a larger environment for the player to traverse.
That said, there are ways around all these faults and for the most part Ultimate Frontier fixes the vast majority of them.
For one the grind has been greatly reduced and, coupled with the freed up art budget, there are now more varied environments. The grind specifically has been dealt with quite shrewdly, as you can now shortcut to more powerful variable fighters by buying them in a separate shop. So instead of being locked into finishing a certain mission to attain a specific variable fighter you can now buy it directly. You still have to improve your tuning stats in some instances but it’s a lot less than in Ace Frontier and far less irritating.
Separately, there has been a huge amount of effort put into the in-game messaging in terms of HUD elements. Previously, missile locks were simple all or nothing affairs. Now, they’re visually graded. The lock itself is coloured either red, yellow or green. This corresponds to which direction you’re facing when you fire your missiles. Red means that your missiles may not find their target or will just take very long time doing it, whereas green means your missiles will track the enemy fine but this means you’re normally directly facing them when you fire. Obviously, yellow sits between the two. Thing is, this system is also present on the range for the target. So if you link the two in terms the green HUD feedback, it means that not only will your missiles track your target but you’ll do more damage to it quicker. This simple change makes the missions a lot more direct and obvious, again reducing the grind.
There are also flares you can deploy now as well, so in more intense dogfights you can at least defend yourself to an extent. However, the AI uses this as well so you need to be more tactical with your missile use.
In addition to the reworked missile system, there is now a dedicated flight mode option available. This switches the fighter mode display to that of system not to dissimilar to something you’d see in an Ace Combat game. Naturally, the flight handling has also been greatly improved in fighter mode to make this setup more viable.
The handling of all the super, fast and armour packs is also done quite shrewdly too. As it’s an equippable option that adds another layer of health on top of your base stats as well as often improving your weapon load out too. The nice aspect of this is that’s effectively what it does in the anime, so the functional parity shows that Artdink at least know what they’re doing with the license.
Visually, in terms of rendering, the game is noticeably more polished. As you have all manner of heat distortion and motion blur effects now (which don’t incur on the solid framerate either). So it’s very obvious that Artdink haven’t just dumped this out without any care.
All these changes alone, many of which are quite substantial in terms of how they effect the overall game, would be impressive in such a quick sequel but all the additional content from series like Macross Dynamite 7, Macross II and an actual full fleshed Macross Zero campaign makes the final game quite special and it begs the question whether anyone at Artdink has slept since Ace Frontier was released.
If you’re someone who has enjoyed any of the Macross saga and owns a PSP, then you really need to get this game. However, even if you’re just a regular gamer then Macross Ultimate Frontier is a remarkably substantial and functionally polished game that does the PSP software library credit.