Review: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

Review: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

Nothing says ‘niche market’ like a good flight sim game, but surely more than just the dedicated enthusiast must be interested if a series such as Ace Combat is returning for its 12th installment. After all, this one is going to be the Call of Duty in the sky, right?

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I am an airplane fanatic, but I have been known to dabble in a variety of aviation based endeavors including aiding in an F-15 oil change, co-piloting a T-6 during a parade flyover, and going out drinking with the Blue Angels. To put it frankly, I like planes.
Ace Combat (or Air Combat as it was originally known) has always tickled my fancy and been a series I can turn to when I need a good fix. However, after the absurdly short (I beat it in under an hour of actual flight time) campaign of Ace Combat: Skies of Deception and the lackluster exclusive that was Fires of Liberation, I was in desperate need of a decent Ace Combat game. Assault Horizon looked for all intents and purposes like it was going to be the revival the series so desperately needed.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Ace Combat has blurred the line between arcade flight games and full on flight sims by incorporating the best aspects of each. For the past two decades, Ace Combat has seen gamers waging fictional wars in made up countries, but with an attention to detail and plot that would make Tom Clancy proud. Don’t just think of Ace Combat as a flight sim; think of it as a full on war experience where you become part of the solution.

Assault Horizon is shaking things up a bit by bringing the action to the real world for the first time ever. Rather than tear around the skies of some unfamiliar landscape, you will now find yourself soaring over Africa, Asia, and the United States while attempting to preserve such landmarks as the Dubai Tower, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and even the The White House.

Story has always been a driving force behind any of the Ace Combat games and Assault Horizon is no different. In fact, I would have to say that the story in this game is so immersive that at times it feels as though you have actually become the people you are in control of. The story flows seamlessly from the cutscenes to the cockpit as you command a squadron of pilots tasked with tracking down and destroying a weapon that could threaten the very existence of humanity itself.

A terrorist group based out of Eastern Africa has managed to develop and detonate a WMD referred to as Trinity. NATO has assigned your squadron, comprised of fighter pilots, helicopter pilots, and bomber pilots, the task of locating and destroying each of the Trinity missiles and those who are responsible for their creation. But tracking them down is going to require more effort than originally thought.

Told through a series of cutscenes that are truly immersive and exciting enough to watch without getting bored, the presentation in Assault Horizon is beyond anything the series has ever seen. The opening credits have you sitting in the side door of a Black Hawk chopper, laying waste to anything that moves as the names of the game’s produces and developers flash on by. It’s an exciting way to introduce the story and it certainly sets the tone for the rest of the game, as well as give you a taste of something entirely new to the series. If you do find them a bit stale, most of them have incorporated a nifty feature where you can turn your head around and look at what else is going on. Your chances of spotting something more interesting are pretty close to zero, but it gives you the sense of ownership over the person you are in control of that most other games lack.

Flight School 101

Presentation aside, we are playing a game after all, and games like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots really tested a gamer’s willingness to sit through loads of story laden cutscenes. Everything boils down to one thing with this game: the missions.
It’s really hard to include a wide variety of missions in a game that is built around fighter jets and dog fighting (not the Michel Vick kind), so if you find the basic ‘fly this jet into that group of enemies and shoot them down’ formula to be a bit repetitive, fear not. The traditional formula does still apply as you will be shooting down heaps of bogeys from around the globe, but it’s what compliments this formula that really causes this game to excel.
In past Ace Combat games the actual missions were filled with mindless banter from your co-pilots and enemies as they attempted to do something resembling beneficial. Thankfully your comrades actually appear to have brains this time and talk about intelligent, meaningful things that are pertinent to the mission at hand. You no longer have control over your co-pilots as you did in Fires of Liberation, but they do a decent enough job on their own.

As I mentioned before, you now assume the role of three different pilots: one fighter, one bomber, and one helicopter pilot. Each carries their own storyline, but they are ultimately part of the same squad and everything ties together quite nicely, so you can forget about having to figure who goes where and who did what. It’s the variation these pilots bring to the table that makes this game so much fun.
The fighter pilot is about as traditional as it gets. He’s basically your cleanup crew in the sky, often tasked with coming in after the ground work has been taken care of (generally done by the helicopter or bomber pilots).

The helicopter pilot is something entirely new to the series and being such his aircraft takes quite a long time to get used to. The controls, regardless of the setting, are bit unintuitive and clumsy, but once you have them mastered (or whatever you can pass as mastery) things fall into place and the action picks up. The first chopper mission took me a good 5 tries before I got into the swing of things and changed my battle style from fast and furious to slow and methodical. For some reason the external view is far more manageable than the cockpit view, which I generally prefer for these games.

The chopper missions usually find you hovering between and around buildings, avoiding SAM fire, and attempting to vanquish the ground forces. As you can imagine, your chopper cannot take much abuse, but you are able to do a fancy sideways flip similar to this, only loads faster and much closer to the ground. Needless to say, the chopper missions are beyond a welcome addition to the series, and after my bitter struggle with them during the demo, I came to love them and actually went back to play through them a few times.

Sadly, there is really only one true bombing mission where you pilot a stealth bomber like the B-2, but man is it a fun one. I’d hate to give away the contents of the mission, but peering through the bomb bay doors and laying waste to bunkers and caravans below is quite gratifying. I just wish they had incorporated more of these missions as they were tense, difficult, and extremely gratifying.

Finally, you get to control two other aspects of combat without directly flying an aircraft. I already mentioned the inclusion of a Call of Duty-style Chopper Door Gunner, but there is one entire mission dedicated to issuing ordinance from a high level AC-130 dubbed ‘Spooky’. Again, as one of the most exciting missions in the game, I’d hate to give away the ending, but it is oddly reminiscent of a particular scene in Hong Kong from the Dark Knight.

The Halfway Hump

The game really does start out quite slow and I began fighting the urge to skip things, but about half way through things really picked up. It’s disappointing that it takes so long for the game’s story to really kick in, but once you hit the missions where you’re pursuing ICBMs as they hurl toward the outer reaches of the atmosphere or dodging crumbling skyscrapers and chasing bombers as they approach D.C, things begin to heat up and the second half the game flies by.

My only complaint with the missions is that some of them really begin to drag on for ages. I understand war is a timeless task, but how many waves of the same fighter squadron do I really need to take down before I can land and have a beer? Several missions approach or exceed the one hour mark, especially the ones that have you carrying out multiple missions across your various pilots.

One of the largest changes to the mission layout is the removal of the airplane purchase system. Rather than owning a private hanger where you store your purchased aircraft, you are given a list of planes to choose from at the beginning of each mission. This streamlines the whole game a bit more and removes a generally meaningless function, leaving more time for combat.

Fixing Something That Isn’t Broken

Assault Horizon was initially on my ‘I’m skeptical about this game, but I’m going to give it a go’ list mostly due to the massive changes being made to the basic mechanics. Usually referred to as one of the most realistic flight sims available on consoles – save for the payload of 200+ missiles you can carry on a small F-16 – Ace Combat appeared to be taking a step in the wrong direction with the inclusion and standardization of the ‘Optimum’ control setting. No longer would a player have to treat their joystick as if it were really controlling an airplane with pitch, roll, and yaw as Assault Horizon is attempting to cater to the newcomers by incorporating a much more arcade style control scheme. If you played Blazing Angels or Crimson Skies you will understand. Rather than having to bother yourself with all the fancy maneuvers and mechanics of a real airplane, pressing left on the joystick automatically rolls your aircraft to the perfect angle and pitches the nose upwards to make the turn for you.

Anyone who has played a true flight sim will instantly rush to the menu system to turn this trash off as it does nothing but hinder the experience of the game. I tried for quite some time to play through a mission with these controls and found it nothing but cumbersome and damaging to the overall experience. The dog fighting was loads harder as I was used to making advanced maneuvers in order to get behind the enemy, but the ‘Optimum’ controls just didn’t allow for those fancy aerial tricks to be easily accomplished.
To counter this obvious frustration, Assault Horizon has included a bevy of new in-flight features that actually make the game far more exciting for newcomers and veterans alike.

Autopilot on Crack

The newest addition is that of DFM or Dog Fight Mode. Trailing another aircraft at 700mph with an almost limitless supply of sky around can be a daunting task and has generally been one of the most difficult aspects of the series up until now. If you manage to squeeze in close enough to someone you can activate DFM by pressing both of the triggers. Once activated, you no longer need to worry about the large scale movements of your aircraft as you will be guided by the plane you are tailing. You can still make minor adjustments to your angle and speed, but this time is meant for you to focus on blowing that bastard out of the sky.

DFM can be activated on any target, but it’s really only necessary for the harder Target Leaders. These ace pilots extreme skill to take down outside of DFM, but it is possible. However, I don’t recommend it as the flights they take you on during DFM are some of the most intense, adrenaline pumping rollercoaster rides you’ll ever experience. Screaming through and under crumbling buildings all while trying to get the perfect bead on the enemy is quite an exciting challenge and one that occurs quite regularly.

Conversely, enemies can use DFM mode on you and throw a whole wrench into your day. However, if you are skilled, or lucky, enough to pull it off you can combat this by slowing way down and activating a counter maneuver in where you do a tight, fast breaking roll and fall in behind them. This move is exceptionally hard to pull off as it requires you to slow to an almost dead stop so pulling it off from a 700mph chase is going to be tough. Master it though as it will save your life time and time again.

Looking Fresh at 900mph

I’ve always been blown away with the sheer attention to detail this series offers and Assault Horizon is no different. Each plane and its subsequent cockpit are as intricately detailed as they have always been, but what really blew away this time around was the overall graphical tone and presentation. The third person view would shift from directly behind to an action-packed over the wing view as you entered DFM and oil, parts, and even pilots explode over your cockpit window as you take down each enemy.

Come to think of, the enemy take downs are done in a fashion similar to the Burnout series in where time slows down a bit and you get a close up view of the death and destruction as it happens. My only complaint with this is that things continue around you as this happens and when you return to your plane you are perfectly level and heading in a direction you potentially weren’t intending to head. This can really throw off your groove if you are pursuing a series of enemies in a tight corner or climbing through the clouds.

Various weather systems also move through and blur your screen with rain and water streaks dropping visibility to dangerously low levels, so your radar quickly becomes your best friend.

Even more impressive is the fact that you can now approach the ground and actually see what is going on. Rather than a massive blob of anamorphous shapes ambling about below, you can see individual cars, tanks, buildings, and even soldiers. Yes, if you want to take the time to mow down a few legions of troops on the ground you are more than welcome to. Feel free to hit the ground a bit too as it appears to cause minimal damage to your aircraft. At first I thought it was a goof, so I intentionally belly flopped my F-22 Raptor into the ground at 900mph and just bounced off back into the sky with critical damage warnings blaring all about. Minimal damage considering the squad of troops I managed to take out in my wake. This trick even works on water, so feel free to give a go. There may be a trophy or something related to it and if not, there should be!
There is plenty to unlock including new aircraft and a variety of livery for each craft, but these can only be used in the single mission mode or during the game’s relatively exciting multiplayer co-op campaign. Grab a pal or a random wingman and plow through the campaign together, or duke it out in some competitive online modes including death match and other objective based games. I found these to be more exciting than previous online installments of the series, but they really failed to hold my attention as the sky becomes filled with NPC computer pilots if the room doesn’t fill with real people , so more often than not I was battling AI and that just didn’t seem like much fun.

Debreifing

Whether you’re looking for a solid flight sim to satiate your aviation urges or a game to break you into the genre without completely alienating you, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon may just be that title. Despite the slow start, the story was one of the better war stories I’ve experienced in a long time and I actually found myself actively engaged with what was going on at the end – something that doesn’t happen very often with titles like this.
The cinematics and presentation of the game’s story really immerse you into the role of a fighter pilot and show that a so called ‘simple flight sim’ can roll with the big boys. I was asked if this game lived up to the claim of being the Call of Duty in the sky, but I hate to compare these two titles as they are truly different. What I will say is that the presentation of the story is of the same caliber as many of the popular shooter franchises on the market, just seen through the eyes of the men in the sky and that everyone, flight sim fan or not, should be able to find something they like here.

Score: 8.0/10

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