“Ace Combat: Assault Horizon” is an enjoyable title, but one that feels as if it could have been much better.
Project Aces, the development team behind previous Ace Combat titles,
achieved mixed results in their attempt to reinvent the Ace Combat series. At its best, Assault Horizon offers an arcade-style flight game with just enough simulator-esque touches to let aircraft enthusiasts imagine they are piloting one of several military jets.
At its worst, however, Assault Horizon suffers from an all-too-obvious attempt to abandon the franchise’s identity in order to imitate Michael Bay-style movie making. In other words, explosions, flashy visuals and loud noises take too much precedence over suspense, drama and personality.
The upshot is that Assault Horizon may please gamers who are hungry for a flight-themed title, but is unlikely to emerge as a must-have during a highly-competitive holiday release season.
Assault Horizon’s best feature is the wide variety of aircraft available to players. The game’s jets include air superiority fighters like the American F-22 Raptor and the Russian PAK-FA, fighter-bombers like the F-15C Strike Eagle and Su-24 Fencer, attackers like the A-10 Thunderbolt and Su-25 Frogfoot and two bombers, the B1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit.
Players can also participate in helicopter missions, either as machine
gunner aboard an MH-60 Black Hawk or AH-64D Apache Longbow. The
single-player campaign also features a mission aboard AC-130 Spooky
Flying a nimble and quick aircraft like the Raptor is nothing like piloting the slow and deadly Thunderbolt, and the variety should be sufficient to let all players choose an aircraft that fits their own style. In the previous Ace Combat title, “Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation,” players had to unlock advanced jets and weapons. Project Aces wisely abandoned that idea, and let players try several aircraft for each level, the choices depend upon whether the task at hand is to shoot down enemies or bomb a ground position into oblivion.
Switching between jet and helicopter mission helps the campaign feel fresh, but unfortunately, Assault Horizon’s story feels stale. The game’s producers boast that military fiction author Jim DeFelice penned the game’s story. I have not read his work, so I cannot say how much the game’s story compares with his other works, but too much of Assault Horizon simply feels like a replay of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s major plot points.
Want to fight against “rebels” in an unnamed country that resembles a real one? Much of CoD 4 took place while U.S. Marines invaded a fictional country somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula and Assault Horizon offers a location in East Africa that may as well be called “Not Mogadishu, Somalia.”
Want to kill Russians? Again? CoD4 and Assault Horizon both cast their respective rebel factions as being in league with renegade Russians who threaten both the Moscow government and the United States. (If I’ve learned nothing from games, Russians are scary and consume no food nor drink but vodka.)
Want to play a mission set aboard an AC-130 gunship and view targets through a black-and-white display? Yup.
Before Assault Horizon, Ace Combat was about pilots flying real-life jets for fictional air forces and eventually confronting giant super weapons. The conceit was somewhat cheesy at times, but it gave Ace Combat its own personality and an experience that combined modern consoles’ graphical abilities with a 1980s sensibility.
My experience with previous titles is limited to Ace Combat 6, but Assault Horizon’s attempt to be gritty makes me feel like the developers are trading the franchise’s identity to market the game to players who probably have not been Ace Combat fans to begin with. I guess I just wonder why the publishers, Namco Bandai, bothered to keep “Ace Combat” in the title if they are trying to reach a new target audience.
Assault Horizon’s story is a weak point, but the visuals and controls are very good. The game’s developers, Project Aces, deserve credit for again crafting an experience that blends arcade flying with touches of flight simulation. Players can choose between simple or complex controls, and the onscreen display is easy to read and use.
In terms of controls, Assault Horizon’s biggest change from its predecessor, Ace Combat 6, is the introduction of “Dogfight Mode.” This means that players can fly close to an enemy and change the camera view to follow their target more closely and fire away. I generally prefer dogfight mode to following enemies over long distances and firing many missiles, but I wish kills were not followed by so many cut scenes of fiery and bullet-riddled jets. I’d rather move on to the next target than break the immersion. Many missions require players to fight seemingly endless waves of enemies, so the cut scenes can frankly become a bit tiresome.
The flaws in the single-player campaign do not carry over to the multiplayer experience. Multiplayer modes include a basic deathmatch as well as Capital Conquest or Domination modes that challenge players to attack or defend strategic targets. Compared to the campaign, multiplayer is a more fast-paced experienced that gives players a chance to sample the game’s dozens of aircraft. Assault Horizon is one of the few games in which I prefer multiplayer to the single player experience.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon in some respects falls victim to “gritty reboot” disease. Longtime Ace Combat fans may miss the kind of gameplay that previously distinguished the franchise, but players who really, really want a new game featuring fighter jets will probably enjoy the game.
For most everyone else, however, Assault Horizon is probably a game to rent or wait to buy until the price comes down.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
Project Aces/Namco Bandai Games
PlayStation 3, XBox 360 (Reviewed on XBox 360)
Rated T for Teen