Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Review
Developer: Project Aces at Namco Bandai Games
Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
Reviewed on Xbox 360
A rogue faction of the Russian military is armed with a powerful new weapon and mysterious goals. Only the combined might of international air forces have a chance at intercepting the creme of the defecting Russian Air Force and saving major cities from certain destruction.
I've been playing Ace Combat games since they showed up on the PlayStation 2, and I've enjoyed none more than Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. At times, the Ace Combat games have verged close enough to simulation that just landing after a difficult mission was a challenge that took preternatural skill or extensive practice. The only gamers who will be disappointed in Ace Combat: Assault Horizon are those looking for a simulation-oriented aerial combat experience.
From the moment the game begins its tutorial, you are hurled into arcade-style dogfights, introducing the controls one at a time as you battle rogue Russian fighters over Miami. It's an exciting and intuitive way to learn the controls. Just as I felt up to speed on the basic controls for fighter jet combat, the game jumped into the opening credits. Those were hardly passive – the credits ran in the background during a dramatic helicopter door-gunner sequence. While it required less attention and skill than fighter combat, it was a perfect change of pace.
I really appreciate that Ace Combat: Assault Horizon brings the Ace Combat franchise back into the real world out of its mysterious alternate reality. This time, there's a story penned by Jim DeFelice, an author of military dramas. That makes the game much easier to enter for novices who aren't familiar with the confusing backstory for the rest of the Ace Combat universe.
I'm capable of competing in a world of flight combat simulation, but for me it blurs the line between fun and work. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon hits the perfect balance between challenge and entertainment for me. In many ways, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is less like a flight simulation and more like a fighting game. Winning a dog fight is a matter of hitting the right button sequence at exactly the right time without doing something stupid, like crashing into the ground. I was able to master the basic techniques quickly, but started to feel really cool as I mastered the moves and counter-moves that would evade a tailing fighter and flip around to blast it into pieces. If I did things right, I could even jet through the exploding wreckage and lock on to another combatant in dogfight mode to continue the process. The game is less about aerodynamics than about evasions and counter-evasions (with plenty of trying to keep another fighter inside a circle).
What keeps Ace Combat: Assault Horizon fresh is the constantly changing mission types. There are plenty of aerial combat missions, but these are interspersed with on-rails gunner missions and helicopter gunship missions. The helicopter missions are completely different, mostly requiring you to keep low to avoid surface-to-air missiles while supporting troops with an incredible amount of hovering firepower. They also require a moment to adapt to slightly different controls. These missions were entertaining enough, but more welcome as a change of pace from the fighter combat. As with any variety of shooters, health regenerates, so avoiding SAMs in the helicopter is more about not having to do the air-sickness inducing flips than it is about damage.
Even the jet missions differ enormously, as the game's "ASM" system for ground assault is pretty keen. It bears some resemblance to the landing routine, but has players moving into a predetermined strike path that slows time and increases the rate at which weapons can fire, allowing planes to do devastating damage to ground targets. This can happen in support of ground troops or on a bomber mission critical to the story. It's fun in faster planes, but I was thrilled to pilot an A-10, and even more excited to watch that A-10's armaments crack a corvette in half.
The ground looks impressive, too. Clearly, the ground is taken from captured images, and looks great while in dogfights high above. Get too close, and things look a bit dodgy, but only in areas where you weren't meant to descend. Cities like Moscow and Washington have important landmarks and supporting buildings built in 3D to lend a feel of authenticity. The first time I noticed the Burj Al Arab hotel while battling over Dubai, I was so busy admiring the architecture that I crashed right into it. Also, while I wouldn't ordinarily fire guns and missiles while dogfighting amidst apartment buildings, this is a game, so I'm pretty sure both the Kremlin and Washington Monument ended up as collateral damage.
The campaign is heady stuff, but hardly all the game has to offer. All the campaign missions can be replayed for a score in the "Free Mission" mode. This gave me a chance to realize that my seemingly stellar performance in the campaign barely rated a "C"-grade, reminding me of my first experiences with an Ace Combat game. Playing online in the variety of competitive modes is an altogether different experience. There's a lot more going on, and it takes a few missions to get up to speed. Things aren't carefully coordinated as they are in the campaign, everything is chaos and it takes a moment just to get used to target acquisition. I never managed to initiate a co-op mission, but it seems like a nice feature if you can arrange to meet up with a friend.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a seriously thrilling experience filled with arcade-style aerial dogfights, on-the-rails gunner sequences and helicopter gunship missions that kept me clutching my controller and gritting my teeth until the very end, making it an easy game to recommend.