Despite a rather sparse showing on current home consoles, Ace Combat remains a household name within its fie… airspace… mixing arcade-style action with flight sim sensibilities to great effect. Four years since its last sortie, Assault Horizon signifies an Ace Combat rebooted, with planes, helicopters and gunships all at your disposal and willing to get more up close and personal than ever before. As we climb aboard our Tomcats, grab your aviator glasses, and meet us on the runway.
Game: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
Developer: Project Aces
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Pitted in the shoes of Col. William Bishop (‘Warwolf 1′ to those so inclined), a seasoned war veteran with a bad habit of foreseeing his own death, Assault Horizon begins with American & Russian forces working together in a NATO-driven mission to stop an anti-government insurgency that is rampant in Africa. Their threat becomes considerably more serious when one NATO squadron gets a first-hand experience of a WMD at the rebels’ disposal however, and as former colleagues-in-arms are then revealed as defectors, you and your existing cohorts soon find yourself chasing the rebels across the globe, suppressing them wherever you can.
In what can be presumed an attempt to square off with HAWX and its Tom Clancy branding, Assault Horizon proudly advertises that it’s been penned by best-selling military author Jim DeFelice. Whilst this influence may lend a degree of realism to the finer details, the less-astutely honed military minds among us can still expect an enjoyable ride, albeit steeped in some rather predictable character clichés. Russians are hardened and talk of vodka, whereas Americans wise-crack and frequently hit on the few females on base – it’s lazy, but it works – even if not breaking any moulds.
In no uncertain terms, this is a gorgeous game. Whilst the air crafts themselves look solid and are no doubt commendable on their accuracy, even those opting for a cockpit are in for a treat – between the smooth presentation and the impressively realistic world, you’ll often find yourself cooing at the sights on offer. The decision to have you frequently changing locations is beneficial from a graphical perspective just as much as from that of the story too, and let’s face it – flying over a bustling metropolis in-between missile smoke trails never fails to look good. Swift cuts to action-cameras manage to catch the highlights of the action without ever getting too excessive or distracting either.
With real-world GPS data being used to drum up accurate representations of a number of locations, it’s often quite interesting to look around even during the game’s quieter moments. This does unfortunately lend to some rather compromising drops in texture quality at close quarters – although with that said, if you’re piloting close enough to notice, you probably have more pressing things on your mind than sight-seeing.
Provided you can forgive a little cheese, and can stop yourself humming the ‘Top Gun’ theme for long enough to even notice, Ace Combat has some fun and exhilarating music to keep your ears happy. More calm and contemplated (but still plenty dramatic) numbers carry along the more poignant plot moments, but when the action really begins to move there’s a shift to some surprisingly technical hard rock, that does a respectable job of putting you in the mood for adrenaline-fuelled shoot outs.
With weapons spanning from chopper-mounted Gatling guns to 120mm cannons you can expect a range of sounds to go along with these. Whilst a few pack a slightly weedier sound than the ‘oomph’ of others, there’s a good connection between how weapons look and feel. Stereotype-heavy characterisation aside, the voice acting is solid enough too, with convincing performances from all of the featured cast.
A surprisingly lengthy tutorial tries to run you through a few of the mechanics on offer, and basic manoeuvres aside, one of the most critical to get practising is dogfight mode. Initiated by getting within a set distance of an enemy fighter, hitting two of the shoulder buttons then locks you into an on-rails battle, where you then must shift to keeping your sights over the target and getting close enough to cause real damage. Not too close though, otherwise they’ll let you pass and return the favour. This is where the ‘make metal bleed’ tag line really comes into fruition, with debris and oil splattering over your HUD to give you that extra re-assurance that you’re doing what’s needed.
Airstrike mode follows a similar formula, where reaching an appointed checkpoint allows you to lock yourself into a flight path as you try and lay waste to the defences below. As well as these moves to keep things interesting in your jets, some story missions also see you take control of some of other air crafts. Helicopter missions take on a similar feel to those in jets, and are just as – if not more – enjoyable, even if the idea of being able to barrel roll to evade a missile might be slightly ludicrous. Bomber missions are entirely different though, and see you looking down on the action below through a limited colour filter as you try and pick out targets with a variety of heavy-duty weaponry.
In general, missions are typically quite lengthy affairs, and whilst there will be plenty of plain old “take down this wave of fighters” objectives, there’s enough fun in doing just that that the added variation is something to really be applauded. Unfortunately the biggest frustration is that the game often seems over-scripted. Whilst flying is often seen as something without boundaries, your experience is almost at a polar opposite, being frequently shuffled from one objective to the next with no say in the matter. Enemy fighters often peter out just as your missile supply does the same, and with dogfighting especially, certain encounters feel very forced, with enemies simply refusing to die before you’ve let them lead you on a spectacular death-defying chase through some unlikely canyon or cityscape. This doesn’t stop you having fun, but does require some effort to overlook at times.
Although not a long campaign, things move along at a steady pace, and some missions are chaotic enough that a few tries to get them right are entirely forgivable. After a first playthrough you can then re-visit a number of stages in co-op, but undoubtedly where most people will be heading at this point is to the competitive multiplayer portion of the game. A number of modes are available here, ranging from straight-out battle royales, to more tactical templates such as ‘Capital Conquest’, where two teams square off until one has downed enough fighters to then begin an airstrike assault on the opponents HQ on the ground.
As well as the ability to choose your aircraft and customise your colours, the entire game is also built around a points system where certain actions will earn you points that can then be spent on advantages in multiplayer – more ammo, stronger machine guns – you get the idea. Between all of this there’s a decent range of ways to dabble online, although the rather open-air nature of it means that when games get busy you’re often in constant fear of being attacked, barrel-rolling and changing speeds like a paranoid lunatic as your computerised cockpit blares warnings at you. Needless to say this won’t be to everyone’s tastes – but if you can stomach it, there’s definitely some fun to be had.
Assault Horizon is a solid game that looks and plays well, and is certainly one that reaches out to a wider audience than a more traditional flight sim ever would; the up close and personal nature of multiplayer dogfights is one that’d sit well with any number of FPS fans in particular. Those looking to keep things offline are in for a treat too, and providing you don’t mind switching your brain to auto-pilot through the more scripted moments, you’re rewarded with a satisfying romp that’ll keep you engaged. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it is damn good fun.