Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Preview (& Demo Impressions)

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Preview (& Demo Impressions)

Aside from making a return to its native PlayStation, the Ace Combat series is changing gears this fall. After a lengthy absence on any console, Ace Combat:  Assault Horizon is due out next month, but due to the relatively unpopular nature of the genre, Namco Bandai has dropped a demo for everyone to take for spin. We did just that, but this demo tells a lot about the game and where the series is potentially headed.

For starters, flight simulators appeal to a very niche market. You don’t hear leagues of teenage boys talking about their latest F-16 exploits over the lunch table or how many Aces they shot down. Unfortunately, a genre that has so much potential is often shoved to the back burner. Ace Combat has desperately tried to change the disinterest in the genre and has meet relative success over the past decade.

Wanting to provide a wildly accurate simulation of fighter jets, Ace Combat has established itself as a game with a very steep learning curve and as a result, perhaps driving people towards more arcade style flight games. Therein may lie the overall downfall of the series.

People may write off flight sims simply because flying a plane doesn’t interest them or perhaps because the mechanics behind such a task are beyond what someone would typically pick up off the street. Thus, Ace Combat has always remained a rather unknown title with a very dedicated fan base, ever looking for the next title to come down the chute. Well, the wait is over and a playable demo of the title is available for all to try.

It appears as though Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is attempting to change the overall feel of the game in order to reach a larger base. I only had to spend a few minutes with the new title to realize that what was new and exciting about the game was also the exact opposite of what makes the series so much fun.

Flight School 101

In past Ace Combat games you were stuck learning how to fly a plane using real flight controls; meaning that the left stick controlled the pitch and roll of the plane. If you wanted to turn left you had to roll 90 degrees to the left and then pull back on the stick to pitch your nose upwards and bring the plane around… just like a real airplane. Since mastering such a basic maneuver understandably proved to be too difficult for a lot of people, just imagine trying to master complex dog fighting moves like the corkscrew and Immelmann loop. The first few missions may have been possible with basic skills, but the series always ratcheted up the difficulty rather quickly, requiring lengthy dog fight chases through the clouds with 100’s of other planes.

Well, worry not because Ace Combat: Assault Horizon has foregone those wonky controls in favor of the friendlier “Optimum” control scheme. This means that tilting left on the joystick will automatically bank your airplane to the proper angle and pitch the nose up to where it needs to be in order to execute the corner. It truly is as simple as that.

Fortunately, the game does allow you to fly using the original, authentic controls. The downside? They aren’t default. Sadly you are going to have to take the time to enter the menu and manually change that. I do understand, however, where the developers are coming from by making the “Optimum” control scheme the default one. They are trying to reach a broader audience and to do so they need the first impression of the game to be enjoyable without having to adjust anything.

If you are 100% new to flight sims and don’t want to have to worry about the intricacies of air combat, the new Flight Assistance option is available for you. This option provides players with auto-leveling, automatic collision prevention, automatic stall prevention, sight assist, and automatic forward target selection.

 Autopilot on Steroids

As if tearing the heart and soul out of the control scheme wasn’t enough, a new feature called Dog Fight Mode (DFM) has been implemented to make taking down other aircraft just that much easier. Once you approach an airplane from behind and get within range, a small green circle will inform you that you are able to activate DFM. A quick press of the two triggers will lock your fighter on to the enemy, making it nearly impossible for you to NOT take the thing down. The view will zoom in drastically while the plane flies itself to keep up with the often wild aerial maneuvers of the one you are chasing. You can still make minor adjustments to your plane in an attempt to get a better lock on the target. Another green circle will quickly fill up and turn red, indicating that your missiles are locked on and will hit if you fire.

Aside from essentially crippling the difficulty level of the game, Dog Fight Mode is quite inventive and is a unique addition to the series. You don’t have to use DFM on every single plane you come in contact with if you prefer the challenge of pursuit and the sweet taste of victory through hard fought air prowess. However, there are select targets that are tagged as TGT_LEADER and generally require DFM to defeat. These targets will take you on a wild ride through close quarters under bridges and through crumbling skylines. I have to admit that each of these targets available in the demo was an absolute joy to experience and instills a bit of hope in me for the DFM.

You aren’t the only one who can utilize the DFM, though. Enemies also have access to this feature and will certainly use it against you at every available opportunity. Once they enter DFM and are behind you, you will receive a notification telling you to do everything in your power to evade. Generally a well-timed, violent U-turn does the trick.

Equally as cool is the ability to engage an enemy with DFM while they are coming at you head on. In past titles it was hard to discern the direction of plane until you were on top of it and that generally meant that you had to spend a few minutes trying to get yourself turned around and into position before you could even begin the fight. Now, as an enemy approaches, you can activate DFM at the right moment and instantly flip around and into an optimal attack position. It certainly saves a bit of time and hassle.

A Story That Hits Home

The missions still seem to be pretty straight forward and usually consist of massive air to air or air to ground battles. This part of the series never really changes and is in fact quite well established. What does change, and impressively so with each new game, is the story. One would think that it would be hard to create an engaging storyline for a flight sim due to the simple nature of the game and there really isn’t much variation from mission to mission, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Ace Combat has truly proven itself in the past as an incredibly strong storytelling vehicle, being one of the first titles to really engage me in a political war setting outside of Metal Gear Solid. Previous titles took place in a fictional world with fictional countries waging war on each other, but for the first time, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is going to bring the story to a real-world setting.

The year is 2015 and an insurgent group known as the SRN has come to power in Eastern Africa. The surrounding nations quickly lose control of the SRN and request help from the United Nations and NATO. The SRN is far more powerful than NATO anticipates and they must commission the 108th Task Force, a military unit comprised of pilots and commanders from multiple countries including the USA, Russia, and France. Before the 108th can take action against the SRN, NATO learns that the rebel insurgents are in control of a weapon of mass destruction called “Trinity”. The 108th must defuse the situation before the SRN is able to launch the weapon and cause destruction on a global scale.

Often told through intricate and well-timed cut scenes, the story of any Ace Combat game is instantly engaging and is really the main driving force behind finishing the game.

 What’s In The Sky?

Another new and certainly welcome addition to the game is the inclusion of multiple styles of aircraft. Plenty of real-world and experimental airplanes have been available throughout the series, but never before has the player been able to take control of any other than an airplane.

Assault horizon is going to feature new gaming segments where players are removed from the cockpit and dropped into the gunner seat of an attack helicopter or focus their attention on high level, stealth bombing runs.  The demo features a rather challenging mission where you are given control of an attack helicopter and tasked with rescuing a group of POWs.

Shifting gears from an all-out, afterburner, adrenlaline pumping fighter jet cockpit to a rather slow, low altitude, hair raising chopper takes a bit of getting used to. The controls, regardless of the settings, take quite a long time to get used to and instantly show you just how complicated flying a chopper is. Now add scores of people hurling RPGs your way and try to remember what to do. I failed this mission multiple times over before getting the hang of it.

This shift in focus is a nice change of pace for the series and I am especially curious to see how the chopper gunner missions play out. From the media and trailers revealed, it looks to be a lot like Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 where you assisted a partner from the air in Spec Ops mode; or even the Huey from Black Ops. Either one would be an absolute blast.

Assault Horizon will feature by far the largest and most diverse list of aircraft in the history of the series.

[toggle title=”Fighter Aircraft”]

F-22A Raptor

F-15C Eagle

F-16C Fighting Falcon

F-14D Super Tomcat

MiG-21bis Fishbed

MiG-29A Fulcrum

Sukhoi PAK FA

Su-24MP Fencer

Su-33 Flanker-D

Su-35S

Su-47 Berkut

Typhoon

[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Multirole”]

F-15E Strike Eagle

F/A-18F Super Hornet

F-16F Fighting Falcon

F-35B Lightning II

JAS-39C Gripen

Rafale M

Mirage 2000-5

F-4E Phantom II (pre-order exclusive)

[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Attackers”]

A-10A Thunderbolt II

F-117A Nighthawk

F-2A

Su-34 Fullback

Su-25TM Frogfoot

[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Helicopters”]

AH-64D Apache Longbow

Mi-24 Hind

MH-60 Blackhawk

[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Bombers”]

B-1B Lancer

B-2 Spirit

Tu-160 Blackjack (NPC)

Tu-95 Bear (NPC)

[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Gunships”]

AC-130U Spooky

[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Large Aircraft”]

Il-76 Candid

KC-10 Extender

[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Downloadable”]

F-X

[/toggle]

Thanks to Acepedia for the comprehensive list

Somebody’s Guts Are All Over the Window!

One thing you can always count Ace Combat to do right is visuals. The series really prides itself on top-notch visuals with stunningly detailed airplanes and environments. Assault Horizon is continuing the trend with some of the most incredible looking aircraft I’ve ever seen in a video game and that’s just from a demo! Everything from the thrust vectoring engine chutes and ailerons to the inside of the cockpit and digital HUD are all very well done. What you are sure to notice and hopefully never get sick of is the sheer destructibility of the airplanes. Grazing an enemy’s wing with your machine gun will more than likely snap it off and send it flying, oil and all, directly towards you. Explosions are graced with bolts, engine parts, and even a flailing pilot. I tried my hardest throughout several playthroughs of the demo to hit the pilot as he either ejected or was blown from his plane, but could never get my aim quite right. Either way, the level of detail is insane and really goes a long way towards making you feel like you truly are part of something as intense as air combat.

Who are Your Wingmen?

Ace Combat 6 attempted to introduce the concept of online multiplayer to the series, but it never really caught on. Assault Horizon has been confirmed to feature multiplayer, but the details surrounding it are still scarce. Capital Conquest is the only mode revealed thus far and has players divided into both the SRN and NATO. One side is tasked with defending various cities such as Washington and Paris while the others must defend it.

Players can now utilize the “Skill Shot” system to customize their aircraft’s stealth, mobility, and weapons. The “Friendly Assist System” (FAS) will be available online and be similar in nature to the single player DFM.

Don’t Write it Off Just Yet

Flight simulators fall into a very niche market. People either obsessively love them or have utterly no interest; there’s often no in between. Over the years the Ace Combat series has come to represent those obsessive flight sim fans that prefer to use a controller and play on a TV, but the series has seen its fair share of struggles over past few years. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is fast approaching  and introducing a wide array of new features that could either launch the series, and potentially the genre, into the mainstream or spell the end for the series altogether. I’m hesitant to start singing the game’s praises at the moment simply because of the massive left turn the series is taking, but if done well enough, these new additions could the start of something new for the series and for the genre.

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