War is fought on many different levels. Though, the work that is done in the air seems to get the least amount of congratulations or thanks. It’s a tough and dangerous job, being out in the open, with the chance for a surprise attack against at any moment. This sense of enemy awareness is just one of the themes present in Ace Combat: Assault Horizon from Namco Bandai Games and its internal series development team, Project Aces.
It’s the latest entry in the high-flying, aerial combat series, which brings arcade elements into the fast-paced skyway. This time around, things are just as action-packed, though there’s an added sense of creativity and gameplay variety added in. The result is a very solid aerial combat game; one which any genre fan should add to his or her to play list.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon weaves a tale full of political turbulence, deception and morality. This storyline, which is written by New York Times best-seller Jim DeFelice, follows a group of American pilots who are working with NATO and the Russians to stop a terrorist cell in Africa. It’s during a mission that a new, nuke-style bomb is discovered, referred to as the Trinity.
An explosion erupts and things escalate from there, as the last Trinity warhead is stolen amidst betrayal and the armed occupation of Russia. Once things pick up, the action rarely ever takes a breather, as the NATO team uses different planes and tactics to stop the use of the last remaining Trinity Warhead. In the hands of a crazed former hero, its planned application could mean utter disaster on our team’s home soil.
As a whole, the crafted storyline found within this game is quite good. There’s a good amount of intrigue, plus a lot of interesting cause for arms. It’s strong enough to keep players interested throughout, though things could have been fleshed out a bit more at times to make it all flow a bit better. A lot of important dialogue is delivered while players are up in the skies over many different real-life cities (Dubai, Russia, Miami, to name some). However, there are also some pretty detailed and informative cutscenes showing a more personal side of the fight to stop terrorism.
Most of the time spent on the ground is relegated to discussion and briefings regarding where to attack next, but the personality shown is what allows this story to become somewhat endearing. A love triangle of sorts is created and personal issues are confronted once or twice. Once again however, things tend to be kept a bit too simple without enough fleshed-out content to really make the personal relationships sell.
It’s nice that the personal side was shown with ace pilots shown joking around and delivering addresses to superiors on a friendly basis. There just isn’t enough of it and, what is there, lacks overall evolution and creativity. While this certainly is not a game breaker, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity to have made the story much more pointed and motivating.
Throughout Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and its relatively lengthy career, players will take control of a few different pilots and their specialty planes. Your main hero, Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop, is a very classy man who will stop at nothing to save his friends or the world at large. He’s flanked by his best friend (and non-playable character) Jose Gutierrez and a pretty, humorous woman known as Janice Rehl.
The latter character is who you’ll take control of during high-stakes bombing raids and their need for swift maneuvers in avoiding detection and on-coming attacks. Conversely, your third digital pilot is a veteran helicopter pilot who has spent his life in the military. All three play pivotal roles in telling the game’s arching storyline, allowing for the introduction of new vehicles such as armoured helicopters.
As players progress through Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, they’ll predominantly see action in fighter jets piloted by Colonel Bishop. He’s almost always in the forefront, even if it’s just to provide secondary air prowess in support of an ally. Though, the other two characters’ odd missions do a good job of creating variety within the game’s seven or so hour long campaign.
I enjoyed zooming through the skies as a jet fighter, using high-speed maneuvers and powerful weaponry. Though, the support turret sequences, ground protection orders and included bombing runs were also quite fun. Those aforementioned turret sequences involve an unnamed character and take place in a Call of Duty-esque design. He’s generally used for high-stakes attacks on rooftop-embedded foes or those who are untrustworthy during hostile negotiations.
The team at Project Aces deserves credit for thinking outside of the box, in an attempt to add a needed infusion of extra content into a series which has predominantly focused on fighter jets in the past. The crafted side missions are just as interesting and fun as the main character’s episodes, which is something you don’t normally see in any type of game.
They’re much more focused whereas Bishop’s missions tend to occasionally become a bit repetitive, due to the fact that the same mechanics are employed quite often. Most fighter-based scenarios force you to take out a set amount of foes, which is where an ending sigh of relief is breathed before an unsuspected new set of foes attempts to launch an attack. It’s fun and fast-paced, but more jet level variety is needed within for the series’ next flight.
What keeps the main missions somewhat fresh is the fun new dogfighting mechanic that can be called upon when you’re in close range of a high-flying baddie. Once a circle begins to radiate outward, instigation can be completed by pressing two shoulder buttons in unison. Then, it’s a computer-assisted flight with tons of twists and turns.
A circular targeting icon is shown though its best asset is for showing how close you are to a chance for a lock-on missile attack. Once you’ve held the reticule over the enemy for a long enough time, with a great amount of followed accuracy, a red lock-on target will appear to note that your rocket will hit. Sometimes, one missile is needed, though two are quite often required to do the trick.
Coming at no surprise whatsoever is the fact that enemies can instigate dogfights as well. Missiles are repeatedly shot towards you, which requires the need for quick thought and advanced maneuverability. After dodging their attacks, foes will sometimes trail you in dogfight manner. A similar red circle shows up to give players a hint of where attacks may be coming from, letting you know where to dodge to.
These high-stakes attacks from behind can be quickly stopped and turned on their head by levelling your craft and initiating counter measures (flipping around and taking on the offensive role). It’s a fun way to generate fear, chaos and immersion, through visceral combat. You’ll be doing this a lot, so it’s important to get good at it in order to get far. Despite its fun and excitement, this mechanic may be a bit over-used.
Bombing runs and land-swooping attacks are also a large part of the experience, coming in past the half-way point. Virtual pilots are tasked with flying into a triangular icon, which will flash with a radiating circle. This becomes a similar launching scenario, where you press the shoulder buttons once again to instigate your attack.
The camera then changes to a much closer angle, allowing for laser-guided locating, bomb dropping and strafing runs. For the most part, this works pretty well. Though, the laser-guidance sections tend to have some control and camera issues. Viewpoint issues also pop up occasionally during jet sequences, where high-speed dogfights can become a bit disorienting when twists and turns through ground level canyons and building developments are introduced.
Throughout its entire single player run, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does a good job of delivering fun and frenetic aerial combat with a solid amount of variety added in through side missions. Its crafts are quite easy to maneuver, though it takes a little while to get used to the fact that each one has its own completely different control scheme. When you think of things from a development perspective, that would have been a necessary evil, considering how different each type of controlled aircraft is. A perfectly level plane is required to instigate counter measures, which can also become a bit annoying due to how unforgiving the mechanic can be. Plus, bombing run instigation icons don’t always react to you when you’re close-by, requiring a prolonged turn for another run.
Completed missions can be replayed in a score-based free mission mode, with full online leaderboard stat-tracking. Plus, most can be played with friends in online co-operative action. These are nice additions which some gamers will want to take advantage of – especially those who like to play with pals or have their runs graded by points and letters.
Though, most will navigate more towards the competitive online offerings which include team death matches, control point securing and an attack the base mode. It’s a pretty fun added option, which brings forth the dogfight mechanics from single player. Different, class-based planes are also on offer with their own skills and abilities. Prowess in combat (dogfights or normal, lock-on tactics) is awarded with points that can be used to better your craft with extra weapons or abilities.
Aesthetically speaking, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is quite impressive. The presented action is an incredibly visceral take on the war in the skies. You’re constantly being shown the explosive remains of fallen foes, just before you fly through the resulting orange cloud. The spectacle really kicks in when high-speed dogfights are instigated, taking the player’s craft below toppling cranes and other destroyed creations. The planes and their overseen world look quite good, with a lot of nice detail, apart from some noticeable jagged edges. Those are easy to overlook when you’re in the fight for your pilot’s life, however. Plus, I’d say those issues are offset by the neat amount of destruction found within specific environments.
During these flights, it’s safe to expect a lack of passenger chatter and in-flight commentary. For the most part, explosions and bullet-fire will dot your auditory horizons while playing through Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. Those are the predominant sound effects which complement its plane sounds quite well.
Though, what stood out the most to me was the game’s original soundtrack which is composed by producer, Keiki Kobayashi. A strange and eclectic mix of music is presented, containing hints of rap, classical and metal. Every mission had an interesting new track to listen to; one which always fit the crafted mood quite well. I don’t really have any complaints regarding this portion of the game, though it should be said that in-game pilot-to-pilot chatter is sometimes harder to hear than it should be.
After having played through Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and spent time with its additional modes, I find it easy to recommend this game with relatively high praise. Although there is some mechanical turbulence, fans of the series will be quite impressed with the explosive new additions that have found their way into this fast-paced flight series. Despite its occasional hiccups, Assault Horizon is the best flight combat game I’ve ever played, providing a solid bang for your gaming buck. If the team at Project Aces can fine tune the noted areas during the development of their next digital outing, this series will be a force to reckon with.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was released on October 11, 2011. This review is based on a copy of the game which we received for review purposes.