Review: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

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Assault Horizon is not your average Ace Combat game. It goes way beyond evolutionary; it is Ace Combat completely reinvented with an entirely new in-your-face attitude. Purists are likely to disown it for that very reason, but to me the series has been getting staler by the game (except for Joint Assault on PSP — I really liked that one!), so I welcome the developer’s clean-the-slate-and-start-anew approach.

Fortunately, Assault Horizon makes the change of direction work fairly well. Well enough to warrant a test flight at least.

A fictional conflict between NATO and an East African rebel faction bolstered by Russian air force defectors over a weapon of mass destruction known as Trinity (no, it’s not a Creole bomb that explodes into a mirepoix of onions, bell peppers, and celery) sets the stage for Assault Horizon‘s airborne war drama, which has you engaged in intense sorties across the globe, from Moscow and Egypt to Miami, Florida and Washington D.C. But don’t expect to gain anything more from the plot than that. The story’s only purpose here is to give you an excuse to blow the hell out of the commie bastards flying between you and a mission accomplished.

Ace Combat has always slanted towards arcade accessibility versus sim realism, but this game pushes that slant even further away from simulation. So don’t bother pulling out your favorite flight stick controller – you won’t need it. Against average enemy pilots, you can soar in pursuit from behind and pelt them with machine gun fire and lock-on missiles in traditional fashion. In general, the fundamental controls and snappy flight physics should feel familiar to anyone who’s played an Ace Combat game before. But that’s where all familiarities end.

Fueled by a new close-range assault mentality, Assault Horizon takes flight combat in a bold new direction. Now, when you’re hot on the trail of a target, close enough for a circle indicator to begin flashing, a double-fingered pull of your controller’s shoulder triggers activates DFM (Dogfighting Mode). In DFM, the perspective zooms in tight and locks down to focus on the current target, and from there the gameplay vaguely mimics a rail shooter as actual flight control becomes largely automated, allowing you to concentrate solely on keeping the bogie in your sights long enough for the ‘Assault Circle’ to turn red while the target evasively dips and darts through the sky.

Bombing ground targets is handled similarly. An indicator hovering above the battlefield marks off an area primed for a bombing run, and once activated your aircraft is pulled into a narrow air corridor and you get one fly-over to purge the terrain below. Any stragglers must be eliminated the old fashioned way.

This sense of being on auto pilot does put greater emphasis on the spectacle of combat and less on full flight control — and less skill is demanded from the player as a result. In a drastic shift for the series, new helicopter (both on-rails door gunner missions and in-the-cockpit missions) and top-down stealth bomber missions have been introduced. These are often more challenging and offer a much-needed change of pace to the traditional jet fighter action. (I’d love to see Namco Bandai branch out and do a dedicated helicopter action game based on this engine, as the chopper missions were my favorite part.) Bombing runs and escort missions provide slight changes, but most of the time you are dogfighting with little variation. Collectively, the chopper and bomber missions account for less than half the game, though, so towards the end of the 16-mission campaign a certain level of been-there-done-that monotony does sink in. Especially in levels that drag on beyond 30 minutes, which is the norm.

However, the thrill of the aerial dogfight is something that never fades. You may not always feel in complete control of the action and you may not always feel like you are being challenged to any great extent, but you will always be entertained by the audiovisual spectacle this game puts on. Engaging DFM and trailing after a target, camera shaking and smoke tracks blowing in your face, is downright exhilarating. Then, once you’ve locked in and fired off the killing rocket, oil, sparks and debris left behind by the downed craft splash the screen, showering you in the glory of a successful hunt. The way the camera so deftly zooms in for DFM and zooms back out after a kill — sometimes with a slo-mo cutaway shot in between — keeps you connected to what’s happening on screen. The music also effectively sets a dramatic mood that builds as missions progress, and then once the action begins the score boosts into hyper-drive to really get the adrenaline flowing.

Beyond the campaign (and free play mode), Assault Horizon’s up-close-and-personal dogfighting spills over into the multiplayer arena. Like the rest of the game, the multiplayer isn’t all that deep, offering eight co-op stages for teams of two to three players, three basic competitive modes for up to 16 ace pilots at a time, and a basic rank and unlock system based around a currency of points to be used for purchasing new skills (increased missile capacity, faster cooldown rates, boosted firepower, etc.). Capital Conquest and Domination are flight combat versions of typical attack/defend and base capture FPS matches, and of course there’s standard Deathmatch for free-for-all sorties.

Multiplayer is as fast and bombastic as the solo content, and so far performance has been reliable…when I’ve been able to find competition. Unfortunately, right now the online community (on PS3 at least) is dead. Trying at all different times of day, I have still yet to see more than 3-4 active matches in any single lobby at one time, and for some reason no one seems to be playing co-op. In the past week I’ve found one person to play co-op with – and they quit out on me a few minutes into the mission. I don’t believe in knocking a game for a lack of player support, but if you’re looking into purchasing a flight combat game for multiplayer you should know that you may not find the consistent competition you crave.

Ultimately, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is like a trick pilot who only knows how to perform one trick. The one trick is spectacular, but before long it loses some of its pizzazz. Similarly, Assault Horizon blazes across the virtual skies with a sense of close-quarters aerial action unmatched by any other game in the genre. However, the uninspired mission objectives and heavy-handed zoom lock-on usage result in an extremely straightforward, one-note action experience that doesn’t quite reach the sky-high potential it appears to be destined for after the first few adrenaline-pumping hours. It’s a tremendously fun ride that’s well worth taking, but once it’s over I’m not sure if there’s enough here to make you want to ride it again.

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Pros:
+ Intense close-range flight combat
+ New helicopter missions are worthy of expanding into a standalone game
+ Graphical and aural assault on the senses

Cons:
– Not enough mission variety
– DFM doesn’t require much skill
– Bomber and door gunner missions drag on a bit too long

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Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3; also available for Xbox 360
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Project Aces
Release Date: 10/11/2011
Genre: Flight Combat
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-16 (2-3 co-op, 2-16 competitive)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!