Review: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
Action, Arcade, Arcade Shooter
Review copy provided by the publisher
The Ace Combat franchise is a storied one. I mean that literally as well as figuratively. The reason it is so beloved is twofold. The first is that the series has an almost perfect grasp of arcade flight combat. The second is because they are able to tell stories that often rival the best games and the best movies. Ask almost anyone who has completed an Ace Combat game, and you will find that they remember the story better than some of the actual missions. Luckily, the newest game in the series, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, keeps the basic formula while simultaneously making some very big changes to the franchise.
The biggest change, and the most obvious, is the transition from the cold war allegories using fake nations of previous games to the real world. It is still an arcade style game, but this time, the nations of the world, and organizations such as NATO are directly referenced. This is not as bad of a choice as I was expecting. The enemies this time start off as African “rebels,” but are soon revealed to be much more. The real world setting actually really adds to the atmosphere of the game, particularly in the major city battles. Dubai stands out early, as you speed by the Burj Khalifa, the biggest building in the world and other landmarks. Miami, Washington D.C. and Moscow also add to the global feel of the game. While this ostensibly should make the game feel more realistic, it feels instead like a proper military fiction thriller.
The feel of the game’s story is no accident. It was written by New York Times bestselling author Jim DeFelice. While this might seem to ground the usually fantastical series, it only does so in positive ways. While the story is nowhere near as incredible as the story in Ace Combat 5, very few games have a story that is. That said, the story is still enjoyable enough and feels like a good page turner does, though again, don’t go looking for the insane amount of depth in the older games. The story is well told, with well-done cut scenes that, while not perfect, are certainly better than the horribly cheesy ones from Ace Combat 6. Of course the in-game radio chatter is back, but again, not quite as well scripted as it has been in the past. It is a tough legacy to live up to though, and one that makes it almost unfair to compare Assault Horizon to.
For the first time in Ace Combat, your protagonist is not silent. This isn’t like Ace Combat 5 where you could select Yes or No, but rather your character appears in cinemas and talks. He isn’t a bad character, though the other pilots are generally more interesting, with your primary wingman, Guts, taking on the role of the wisecracking guy. Unfortunately the other two members of Warwolf, your squadron, are not fleshed out at all, and even these two pilots are never really explored all that deeply. This is a bit disappointing, especially following the squadrons and the deeper motivations found in the past games.
The next big change to the gameplay is that you do play as more than one pilot. So instead of singlehandedly winning the war with your squadron, there are three others you play as. These other missions do a great job of breaking up the pace of the game as you fly things that are not jets. The first is the unnamed door gunner of a UH-60 Blackhawk. These are some great distractions, if a bit easy, as you merely need to control the gunner in rail shooting segments. The other two pilots are more fleshed out than your nameless door gunner, but are not seen quite as much.
The first is a former bomber pilot-turned-AC-130 pilot. She actually has two of the best missions in the game. The first mission being an AC-130 mission not unlike the famous one from Call of Duty 4. This mission was a pleasant surprise, especially the fantastic conclusion, which I won’t spoil here. Her other mission was one where you take your pick of either a B-2 Stealth Bomber or a B-1B Lancer. I picked the Lancer and it turned into one of the most fun missions in the game. It was the closest the game really came to a throwback to the stealth missions of the older games, as you had to pilot your Bomber under and through radar fields in order to sneak up on an enemy encampment, and then bomb them. This mission was uniquely fun, as going on a legit low-altitude bombing run was a really nice change of pace.
The other big change of pace also marks the biggest departure from the past formula of the other Ace Combat games. I speak of course of the helicopter missions. In these few missions, you control an AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter and cover ground assaults. The helicopter missions were generally fun, though they could turn frustrating as you have to force yourself to remember you are not flying a jet, and as such lack a lot of the maneuverability. Even so, using the dodge system to barrel roll around missiles is incredibly cool and rewarding. Apparently the Apache can actually perform barrel rolls as well, so that was a surprising bit of realism.
Again, the non-jet missions were nice distractions, but the core of Assault Horizon is still the jet-fighter missions. Early on, each jet does feel similar, with the exception of the specified ground attackers like the A-10 and the Stealth Fighter. Later in the game, the higher end planes, such as the F-22 Raptor really show their worth as you speed through some impressive scenery, such as a battle over a category five hurricane.
Ace Combat Assault Horizon is a very accessible game. If people are worried about being unable to get into a “flying sim,” they shouldn’t. This game is probably the most accessible to new players. The default controls are particularly relaxed, preventing full rolls and the like and auto leveling you if you end up upside-down. This was something I actually fought with until I changed my controls over to the “Original” settings. New pilots can also choose from a variety of flight assists, including an option to help prevent them from flying into the ground.
Further, the game adds the new Dog Fight Mode (DFM). In this mode, a flashing circle will appear over an enemy when you follow them, and your plane goes on a pseudo-autopilot course as you tail them. In this mode, your gun and missiles become more effective, and this mode is particularly necessary for taking down some of the tougher enemies in the game. The mode doesn’t detract from the game as much as I expected it to, as some of my fondest memories of Ace Combat 6 was spending upwards of 10 minutes trying to take down one elite pilot. It certainly streamlines the game. At the same time, DFM comes with its own frustrations, such as occasionally dying as disengaging is counter-intuitive and enemies can still lock on to you. The other problem with DFM is that occasionally you will come across a fight or two that feel very scripted, where no matter how many rockets or direct machine gun hits you pump into your enemy, they keep flying until after you reach a cinematic end to the fight. It is a little disappointing, but at the same time does lead to some very cool visuals. Thankfully, DFM, performing counter-maneuvers and high speed turns are all really easy to do, and it does add a bit of visceral combat to a game that is usually distanced from such things.
The planes and helicopters all look beautiful, and the larger building look great, though you can still seem plenty of lower resolution textures on the ground or on smaller buildings. Though this is almost forgivable as the planes really do look incredible, and each plane and helicopter (save the bombers), have full modeled cockpits. It was rather jarring after selecting an F-14 and having a large part of my view cut off due to the design of the cockpit and the HUD. As usual, the music also stands out. The music is suitably epic and also knows when to pick up, adding yet more depth to a game with an already surprising amount of it.
There are also some very cool multi-player modes. Deathmatch is still there, and is a personal favorite. However, the new mode, Capitol Conquest, seems like a true winner. At the time of writing, I have not seen a full game of this mode, however, on paper, it seems awesome. In this mode, two teams of eight go against each other, with one side attacking and the other side defending a capitol city’s various objectives in everything from fighters to bombers to attack choppers. This sounds like it has the ability to be that perfect sort of chaotic, where you, playing as a bomber end up screaming in panic to your teammates as you see a small squad of enemy jets appear on your radar behind you just as you start your bombing run. Each mission is also available co-op too. There are plenty of unlockables as well from the multiplayer, including new aircraft colors and perks such as stronger missiles and quicker targeting.
All in all, Ace Combat Assault Horizon is a fully fleshed out game, with a great singleplayer and some awesome multiplayer modes. I’m already itching to give the single player another run and cannot wait for some populated multiplayer games. While the game can certainly be frustrating at times (especially if you forget to use your flares), it is also accessible and pretty forgiving. It is a true arcade-style flight game and one that is a lot of fun to play through. It is not quite as epic as some of the older Ace Combat games (and excuse the clichéd phrase, but those who have played Ace Combat 4, 5 and even 6 understand the more fantastical elements such as flying aircraft carriers and zooming through underground bunkers qualify as epic), but at the same time still has some moments where I was actually wowed by what I was seeing or, even better, actually doing. Assault Horizon is not the best Ace Combat game, but it certainly stands on its own alongside its brethren. With a good story, enjoyable gameplay and some very awesome cinematic moments, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is another game in the series that is easy to recommend.