Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
Developer: Project Aces
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Genre: Arcade/Flight Simulator
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Release Date: October 13, 2011
Price: $51.60 – Buy Now!
It’s been almost 2 decades since Ace Combat made it’s debut, combining realistic flight simulation with adrenaline-charged arcade action, and while the series has evolved with every title never before has the franchise reached the heights as it’s latest instalment Assault Horizon. With over 30 real-world vehicles, locations and a story written by best-selling author Jim Defelice, Ace Combat has never seemed more believable, and new additions to gameplay focusing on Close-Ranged Assault makes the action more furious than ever before. Ace Combat now no longer feels like a game engineered for a niche audience, but now as a more approachable, believable, engaging and more action-packed experience for any hardcore gamer. While Assault Horizon isn’t perfect, it’s filled with charm and easily the most entertaining addition to the series so far.
While the Ace Combat series has always had an emphasis on dramatic global plots in it’s storytelling, Assault Horizon is the first of which that puts the player in a theoretical real-world setting. Taking place in the not-so-distant future of 2015, Assault Horizon is about a NATO-led task force who includes UN troops as well as Russian support forces, and their mission is to stop an anti-government sergeancy sweeping throughout Africa with a super weapon known as ‘Trinity’. You play mostly as Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop, leader of the Warwolf squadron, but whenever your not playing a typical fighter-piolt mission as most Ace Combat fans are familiar with, you’ll be playing as either Captain Doug “D-ray” Robinson, who is the leader of the Nomad squadron and flies a AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter, and as Janice Rehl who pilots the AC-130 Spectre gunship Spooky 01. On top of this there are also levels that have you playing as the gunner of a MH-60L Blackhawk helicopter as well. The story also takes players into a variety of different and interesting locations including Africa, Russia, Dubai and the Middle East amongst many others so it’s pretty clear that the story provides much variety of interesting scenarios. However switching players from one character to another does provide little opportunity to build on character development and can occasionally get a little confusing and hard to follow, but the scenarios set up are executed nicely. Cut scenes are directed with excellence, swapping from first person to third person often to emphasize certain aspects. There is one scene early on in the game which shows Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop parachuting out of his plane and watching the battle continue all around him, and really conveys the emotions of letting his team down creating a powerful response. While the story is great, it isn’t always executed perfectly, but scenes like this one are wonderful highlights. The attention to detail throughout the plot really helps make each scenario feel more believable, proving the decision to include Jim Defelice for the script a really intelligent move, as it really appears to have benefited the game greatly.
Even though Assault Horizon is hyped to be a revolutionary change for the series, the core of the game does feel very familiar with a few extra features thrown in. This isn’t a bad thing however, as Ace Combat fans will most likely feel right at home, and most if not all would want to welcome these new features with open arms. Arguably the biggest problem with the franchise so far has been that shooting enemies from far away often felt like shooting tiny ants as they often just looked like tiny moving dots in the distance. Assault Horizon addresses this issue with full-force, and results in some of the most intense action yet in an Ace Combat game. This new gameplay feature is a system called “Close-Range Assault” which focuses on getting up close and personal with your enemies. During air combat, players will often be forced to enter “Dog Fight Mode” where they will have to chase their opposing pilot and have to gun them down. These moments feature a zoomed-in camera which really intensifies the action, and are easily some of the most entertaining parts of the entire game as you try and shoot them down as they attempt to out fly you. If an enemy begins to chase you and places you into “Dog Fight Mode”, it becomes your duty to escape their target, and if you take the risk of slowing down, you can attempt to fly over them and gun them down in return, when done successfully can feel really satisfying. When shooting at ground-based targets, players will enter “Air Strike Mode”, which also involves zooming-in the camera and machine guns are less likely to overheat, also making terrorizing and destroying the enemy a much more enjoyable experience. The planes control nicely for the most part, with the right amount of weight and rumble helps make you feel like your flying a real aircraft, and a very cinematic in-game cut scene is often shown when taking down an enemy plane, place a strong emphasis on big explosions. Aircrafts also take in-game damage with an impressive focus on detail, making every shot fired feel very rewarding.
However despite all these new additions, many problems players may of experienced with previous titles still exist at the heart of the game. While destroying enemies is fun, and now even more fun thanks to “Close-Ranged Assault”, sometimes finding an opposing pilot can sometimes be an issue. Because your often placed in wide open-spaced areas and enemy pilots flying around so quickly, there are often moments where you are forced to break and take awkward slow-paced turns to look for an opponent. The radar switches from helpful to useless quite a lot, so it’s not always reliable and the distance between you and other pilots is often so great that it’s hard to tell which ones are on your team and which ones are not. While many situations this is easily forgivable, there are some sections of the game where this is hard to ignore and can really make for frustrating gameplay. Also for newer players, the learning curve can be a challenge, so expect to die a lot in your first few plays. Some objectives aren’t always explained well, so in a couple of one-off situations you might find yourself receiving a mission failure without knowing why. If players can overcome these flaws, they will find one heck of an amazing game, but for those who get frustrated easily, this may not be the ideal game for them.
Other than it’s setting and story, the biggest new additions to the Ace Combat franchise are some completely new modes of play. Throughout the campaign, players will find themselves in various other vehicles rather than just the typical fighter plane. The greatest addition is the AH-64D Apache helicopter. Upon hearing this I personally had tragically average memories of Apache: Air Assault but thankfully resulted in being a much more entertaining experience. Controls are much more simplified, and arguably more enjoyable in some cases than some of the fighter plane levels. While the action is more slower-paced, these moments are as equally intense and still retain that same arcade-styled action that Ace Combat fans will be familiar with although the controls are much different. Sadly however, these levels are quite seldom seen which is a shame as they are quite exciting. On the downside however there are also levels where you control the AC-130 Spectre gunship Spooky 01, which feel more like mini-games rather than actual levels. Another new addition is the ability to play as a gunner of a MH-60L Blackhawk helicopter, which work as on-rail shooter levels which are nice additions that switch up the gameplay. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check out the multiplayer, but from the looks of things there are plenty of options and modes for players and looks to be quite entertaining.
Graphics and Audio
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a game that is really well polished. If the gameplay won’t captivate you, chances are you’ll stick around anyways as the graphics and audio will hook you in. The attention to detail is outstanding, the vehicle models look wonderful and when taking damage even the tiniest little scraps of metal will fly off making not just every successful shot feel more satisfying, but also more believable. As for the pilots and humans during the cut scenes, they also are modeled quite nicely, even ground troops which you see from afar are nicely done with some decent animation, so it’s nice to see some extra effort went to even the smaller aspects of the game. The elements also look terrific in Assault Horizon, particularly the many oceans you’ll find yourself flying over throughout the game. What truly compliments these graphics is the audio of Assault Horizon, which really helps engage the gamer. The music actually took me by surprise with this title, as I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by it in a flight simulation game. Rather than typical patriotic music seen in many average military-based games these days, the soundtrack is composed with a more cinematic approach, and really pays off making each moment more entertaining. While most of it isn’t exactly all that memorable, it does leave a successful and strong impact on the player without them directly noticing it, amplifying the action. Where the audio shines it’s brightest however is with it’s sound effects. Every bullet, every shot fired and explosion feels powerful, and when accompanied with the detailed damage animation on your aircraft and destruction going on all around you, you really feel like you’ve stepped into a warzone. When accompanied by a cast of decent voice actors with good dialogue and well directed cut scenes, this can make for a really enjoyable experience. Overall the combination of great graphics and audio builds to a really intense atmosphere that amplifies the game itself, making Ace Combat: Assault Horizon even more fun to play.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a strong step forward for the series. The focus on close-ranged-combat is a massive improvement and really makes the combat in Ace Combat a lot more fun. The addition of the AH-64D Apache Longbow makes for a refreshing change of pace and the gunner missions are also entertaining. However the AC-130 Spectre gunship does feel a bit shallow and less exciting. The real-world setting and great storytelling really makes for a more entertaining adventure and is also a welcome addition to the franchise, and this is only complimented by the impressive graphics and sound. However what holds Ace Combat: Assault Horizon back is when it’s big, open, aren’t so crowded and contains smaller amounts of enemies, finding an enemy plane can occasionally be a nuisance, and the radar isn’t always as helpful as it should be. Objectives aren’t always clear and the learning curve can be steep for newer players. Regardless, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon on the most part is a blast to play and is a monumental stepping stone for genre, and in my opinion is the best Ace Combat to date, and is easily the best flight-simulation released in a long time.