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.