While Ace Combat‘s quirky storylines and fictional setting kept fans happy for years, there were those out there that didn’t want to fight over the skies of fictional Whateversburg. The wanted to dogfight over Africa, or Miami, or Scottsdale, Arizona. They wanted their real planes flying over real places, so Project Aces did that. They wanted more dynamic combat, so Project Aces slipped semi-scripted sequences into battles. Some folks wanted helicopters. What the hell, in they went. And now we’ve got Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.
The end result is a game that carries the name Ace Combat, but is different enough to really make the reviewers work for it. Let’s see how that went.
In Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, the last action you take is not to participate in a thrilling dogfight, or to victoriously soar through the clouds in an F-14 Tomcat. No. The very last thing you do in this airborne action game is to press a button to pump your fist in the air. No single moment exemplifies the spirit of the new and soulless vision of Ace Combat better than this display of alpha male bravado. Assault Horizon provides heaps of the visual spectacle you’d see in a summer blockbuster — but absolutely no depth. Gone is the devotion to heartfelt storytelling of previous Ace Combat games. Gone are wingmate commands, varied mission objectives, and even (mostly) the fear of crashing into anything. Assault Horizon is about being in your face. Like most visual spectacles, those in this game draw your eye for a short while, and even provide some shallow entertainment. But no matter how loud and bright the explosions get, they can’t disguise the obvious: Assault Horizon is so easy and repetitive that it almost plays itself. It is so busy being a movie that it forgets to be a game.
Series developer Project Aces realised that change was needed though and so this is their attempt to reboot the series and create a ‘Call Of Duty in the skies’. Almost all of their changes make logical sense on paper, but as ever the devil is in the details…
The first obvious alteration is that the tiresome backstory of the previous home console games has been jettisoned and all the made-up countries have been replaced with real ones. In practise though the plot is a silly Call Of Duty knock-off, with caricatures instead of characters and movie quotes instead of dialogue (including a straight-faced paraphrasing of Darth Vader’s ‘I have you now’).
While the game eases you in with dogfighting familiarity, soon enough you’ll be piloting an Apache Longbow helicopter, hovering over terrorist camps like a throbbing cloud, raining death from above in a mission reminiscent of the flying stages in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2. The next moment, you’re manning the 50-cal turret on a Black Hawk, exploding yachts in in the Suez Canal, and later you find yourself flying metres above the ground in a B-2 Spirit bomber en route to preventing an ICBM launch in Russia. Modern Warfare‘s most memorable flying mission is lifted almost in its entirety as you line up a dispassionate thermal imaging reticule on targets from an AC130 Spooky (before rescuing a downed pilot in a climax that surpasses Infinity Ward’s).
But for all its unavoidable similarities to Modern Warfare, it still does a lot of things right. Chief among them is the jet combat, which looks as good as ever, but has been greatly enhanced by the new dogfight mode. Now, rather than engaging in endless turning wars, the computer will automatically lock you onto their tail, where you’re free to pelt them with missiles so long as you can keep them in your sights.
Dogfight mode accomplishes a couple things. First, it’s an easy and intuitive way to lock onto an enemy ace and put a missile up his tail pipe without being a guaranteed kill. It’s possible for the enemy to escape with an Immelmann turn, and you never know when their buddy will sneak up behind you and start firing. Dogfight mode is also a sneaky way by which the developers have slipped in scripted events. Go into dogfight mode over Dubai, for instance, and you may find yourself narrowly avoiding escaping commercial airliners. In Miami, dogfight mode will have you dodging between exploding buildings. Basically, it’s a seamless way to inject a little drama into the chases without interrupting the flow of the action.
Along with a lengthy singleplayer campaign, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon also features a multiplayer mode, where up to eight players join two competing teams to take out their opponent’s base. These scuffles take place in such cities as Paris, Dubai, Miami and Washington DC, and put you in charge of fighters, bombers, attack aircraft and helicopters to mow them down. It’s a little unpredictable at times, and the servers can be iffy, but overall it’s a refreshing addition to the usual dogfight modes you see in other flight games. And yes, dogfights are a go.
Overall, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a pretty great game, and definitely worth checking out. Even if you’ve never had much interest in the series, or have found your interest waning over the years, I think this is enough of a departure from the norm that you might find your interest renewed. It’s not quite flawless, and it would be great to see a current gen Ace Combat that would run at 60fps, but Namco’s attempt at revitalizing the series is actually pretty solid. It’d be great to see them expand upon this title, and hopefully it does well enough for that to happen.
It can be my wingman some of the time.