When a game is decidedly average, it's almost easier to dislike than something that is utterly awful. Playing the real turkeys, you learn fairly quickly that you're not going to waste too much time frustrated and dismayed by their shortcomings. Heatseeker, though, is one of those middling titles that keeps you playing, holding your attention by perpetuating the sensation that it is about to reveal itself as something beautiful.
Sadly, this cocoon of a game never turns into a butterfly, instead languishing in its own mediocrity. It isn't that Heatseeker is all that bad. Despite understandable concerns, the Wii control system is actually fairly decent, distinguishing Heatseeker from the numerous Wii releases that couple a fairly decent game with awful controls, when a traditional controller would have done a fantastic job.
Using the remote's pointer to direct your targeting reticule and steer your aircraft, whilst controlling your speed with the Nunchuck's analogue stick, provides enough agility to handle most of the dog fighting and bombing raids that make up the majority of the game.
A generous lock-on and a simple weapon scheme work well as a combat system, and the controls do allow you the manoeuvrability needed. Heatseeker demands none of the aerial coordination or wizardry of Ace Combat, and this reservation on the developer's behalf is what allows the controls to work. Like any pointer-based Wii game, those moments when you fail to notice you have slipped away from the screen and are pointing towards a radiator or speaker are infuriating. Though these can easily be blamed on the player's inability, turning in the air can push even more experienced players into repeating this basic mistake.
As you take off in the early missions, you quickly get a taste of dog fighting, pounding exotic islands with air-to-ground missiles, and lobbing bombs onto invading forces. Immediately it is clear that this game has a distinctly arcade feel about it.
Unfortunately, it's a slightly dated arcade feel that reminds of the kind of games that caused a ripple of excitement around cabinets at the turn of the millennium. Everything from the bold colour scheme through the audio effects and menu design reeks of classic Namco and SEGA arcade machines.
That is not to be disparaging, as initially Heatseeker is quite good fun. As you float through the sky, without a care for stalling or out manoeuvring your own ability and plummeting to the ground, you quickly learn to nimbly obliterate countless waves of foes. And then it all starts to go a little down hill.
Most frustrating is the lack of variation, unforgivable in a game with only 18 main missions. A little longevity comes from the three secret bonus objectives to each mission, which, on completion, reward the player with new weapon sets, aircraft and plane skins. However, after your first repetitive play-through it is unlikely you are going to be to keen on retrying the missions over and over to discover the hidden parameters that make up the extra objectives.
Technically, the graphics are handled well by the Wii, but stylistically they leave something to be desired. When a game is shrouded by the shadow of the power of the PS3 and 360, it seems odd that it would feature such uninspired design. All too often empty blue skies meet with empty blue oceans broken only by mere slithers of low-res terra firma.
For those unfamiliar with Ace Combat, the series' trademark style focussed on a filmic quality, brought to life by extended cut-scenes, constant and enthralling radio chatter in game, and a sombre atmosphere concerned with the brutality of the war you fought. The action was still enthralling, fast paced and very exciting, but the tone of Ace Combat was key to its success.
So what does Heatseeker do to differentiate itself from a standard air combat title? Nothing quite so grand as its main rival. Instead it offers the Impact Cam. Like an aerial Burnout, at the moment you turn a rival jet into a cloud of smoke the camera snaps away from your point of view, instead zooming in on your kill and leering in slow motion at the spoils of your victory.
Sadly, the impact of the flow of the game is terribly frustrating. Though the Impact Cam is only triggered when your payload is assured a strike, it still feels a little random, and all too often rears its ugly head when you are in the midst of a complex manoeuvre. As a concept Impact Cam is a nice idea, but the lingering attention paid to the rather unexciting explosions, and its minimal contribution to the gameplay make it a rather redundant feature that becomes a painful inclusion when it throws you at a crucial moment.
Heatseeker's final insult to players comes when it requires that you land. Though not a prerequisite of many missions, when you do need to touch down it is an infuriating and clumsy battle, mostly resulting in your plane exploding just above the surface beneath you. Thankfully, a forgiving checkpoint structure makes the process of going to ground a little more bearable.
There's still a tidy little game at the core of Heatseeker. The bombing aspects are enthralling, varied and exciting, the weapon sets well considered and the gameplay on a whole is solid and accessible. It is just too repetitive and uninspired to make any real impact on its genre, despite its apparent selling point in the form of the Impact Cam.
As a game for the younger player, or adult with a busy timetable looking for an incredibly casual gameplay experience, Heatseeker has enough on offer to make it a worthwhile purchase. It might not evoke the drama and cool of Top Gun, but it certainly proves that novel Wii controls can hold their own.