I’ve been writing about video games for years but it wasn’t until 2007 that I really got into it. My first test of what I could accomplish as a writer was Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. At the time I lamented the downfall of the flight sim genre on the home console scene and while it’s been four years since the last time I flew into combat the gaming space has yet to make up for this upsettingly barren landscape. Although there have been valiant attempts to breathe new life into the genre with a pair of Tom Clancy titles and an upcoming revival of the Janes Combat Simulations brand the genre has been relegated to either the standard World War II sim or the occasional realistic civilian aircraft title.
Four years is a long time to go for most game series but Ace Combat is thankfully back, albeit quite different from what we left it as. With a modern makeover fans can expect to see more new than old but is it enough to draw newcomers to the series?
Ace Combat Assault Horizon (XBox 360 and PS3)
Developer: Project Aces
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: October 11th, 2011 (NA)
The Wild Blue Yonder
The Ace Combat series has always been a fantastical one, trading our gigantic selection of modern weapons and vehicles for a world that is vastly different and yet familiar. For all the core titles released from the beginning of the series up until 2007’s sequel each one took place in what Project Aces, the series’ developer, called the “Strangereal,” an Earth that reflected our own while focusing on separate yet constant wars between various nations. Ace Combat 2, 3 and 4 told of conflicts on the continent of Usea while 5 and Zero detailed the Osea/Yuktobanian conflict and the events that lead to it fifteen years prior during the Belkan War. Ace Combat 6 was comprised of a small localized war between a pair of countries north of Yuktobania but given its isolated nature it didn’t really draw in the player nearly as much as 5 and Zero did.
Twenty years of war is quite a lot to take in and given that almost every country in Strangereal has taken part in one conflict or another it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Namco would want to give the series a bit of a refresher. Given the fictional state of the nations, weapons and so much more in the previous entries in the series one would expect a more sci-fi oriented effort like that seen in Ace Combat 3. Namco had other plans however as Assault Horizon takes place in our modern day world and, wouldn’t you know it, it sticks to modern settings as well.
Taking place in 2015, the story written by New York Times bestseller Jim DeFelice details the exploits of a NATO-organized unit called the 108th Task Force assigned initially to counter an insurgency that is sweeping throughout the African continent. Playing as one of four characters (the role of Lt. Col. William Bishop being your primary character) you’ll swap out between characters to tell various perspectives in the overall conflict that takes you all over the world. The cast does seem to have more character in them than in previous entries but for the nostalgic Ace Combat veteran like myself you’ll probably be drawn more to Ace Combat 5 and Zero’s cast and plot.
Let’s just get this out in the open: yes, just like you’ve probably guessed, the game involves evil Russians attempting to destroy the US just like in pretty much every modern war game released this generation. The entirety of the conflict revolves around a Russian-developed superweapon called Trinity that’s just south of a nuclear weapon without the after-the-fact problems of fallout and the like that come from them. Why this weapon is necessary to the plot is anyone’s guess since nuclear weapons make a lot more sense in a plot like this than an unstable, thermobaric one like Trinity but I guess DeFelice had to have some kind of sci-fi plot device so here you go.
For a game written by a NYT bestseller it is a wonder why DeFelice has crafted such a heavy-handed, generally unexciting story. Assault Horizon’s plot has all the shock and awe of a straight-to-paperback, single edition novel and the game’s characters really lack almost any depth save for a bit of introspective fear on the part of Bishop. The game’s training level, a nightmare sequence that makes Bishop wake up sweating from, comes back to haunt him later in the game and while this stage could have dealt with some psychological elements (it would have been cool to see a Dead Space-esque freak-out sequence during this) nothing is explored. Perhaps this can be attributed to the outsourcing of your storyline to another writer but I like to assign that blame to the application of a modern setting in our world.
I’ll put it straight: don’t come to Assault Horizon for the story. If you want an example of a fun, driven narrative then go find yourself a used copy of Ace Combat 5 and play that.
Too Close for Missiles
Four years is quite a bit of time for which innovative gameplay advances can be added and historically the Ace Combat franchise has taken advantage of every development time to introduce new, intriguing gameplay elements that complement the overall experience quite well. Ace Combat 5 had a wingman command system; Zero had a dynamically shifting story based on your actions and 6 allowed you to command allied units in combat. Assault Horizon has had plenty of time in development and it is safe to say that Project Aces has taken advantage of this long timeframe to add plenty to the game. What the veteran Ace Combat player will find remarkable however is just how unique a game it actually is in comparison to all the previous entries.
The biggest and perhaps the most drastic new element is Dog Fight Mode otherwise called DFM. Throughout the game you’ll come across a variety of tough opponents that cannot be taken down in the traditional manner of “get behind, lock and fire a missile.” Instead what you usually have to do is get close in behind them and engage Dog Fight Mode which causes the game to enter a semi-scripted sequence where you chase your opponent as they do almost everything they can to shake you off. During these sequences the enemy will turn wildly and fly low amongst the terrain through and around whatever they can. For the most part DFM can be quite entertaining but the problem lies in the game’s over-reliance on this mechanic. Traditional combat is quite a bit harder in Assault Horizon and many of the game’s enemy’s demand DFM in order to get a kill. These fast-paced moments do draw you toward the detail in the world and make you feel like you’re actually chasing an enemy fighter through the skies but once you’ve flown by the same exploding skyscraper for the eighth time it starts to drain on you.
Along with DFM comes the Air Strike Mode (ASM) which functions similarly to DFM. In combat you’ll be shown entry points to engage in an air strike that has you flying within a corridor area filled to the brim with enemies. Your weapons during an air strike reload and lock on much faster than they normally would but you cannot reenter them in the event of a navigation error or not killing all the enemies on your pass. It actually plays out better than a dog fight as they are less frequent and actually make sense at times during the campaign (the amount of destruction you can dole out in seconds doesn’t hurt either).
Other than DFM the largest change in Assault Horizon is the amount of the game that doesn’t have you zipping through the skies in a fighter jet. Separating fighter missions from one another you’ll find an assortment of helicopter and bomber-based missions to be had. The helicopter sequences, one putting you in the seat of a Blackhawk’s door turret and the other in control of an Apache Longbow, bring you close to the ground and give a sense of greater conflict that can only be surmised when flying at Mach 2 20,000ft in the air. Only two bomber missions are included in the game with one recreating the infamous Death From Above level from Call of Duty 4 in an AC-130 while the other challenges you to pilot an enormous bomber under a radar net before wiping out hundreds of enemies. The variety to be had is a welcome distraction from the DFM-heavy moments when flying a fighter but each one could have played through a bit better.
Perhaps the biggest detraction from the overall experience is the last of mystique and fantasy. As the game takes place in a modern setting you won’t find anything that really wows you and gives Assault Horzion a grand sense of scale. Gone are the amazing flying wings that launch protective fighters, the stunningly huge fortresses and the cool superweapons that you have to fly INTO in order to destroy them. You won’t be dogfighting against fictional planes nor will you be racing to the deck to get under a 500ft altitude limit as enemy aerial weapons wipe out anything in the air above you. With the sci-fi element gone from the game you’ll get the feeling that this really isn’t a proper Ace Combat title. Perhaps we’ll see a return to its roots someday but for now you’ll have to be content with shooting down cruise missiles and Russian bombers that take eight missiles to down.
Tally on the Bandit
Assault Horizon may falter in the gameplay department but it is clear that they know how to deliver with the game’s presentation. The latest title in the series benefits from a revamped engine and it clearly shows at times as the planes are wonderfully detailed and the cityscapes look simply gorgeous, albeit at a distance. Textures up close can look a bit muddled up close (especially so when flying through outlying areas of a map) but given the fact that this is always a problem with all flight sims and that you should be more concerned with the fighter chasing you it is quite forgivable.
The audio part of the game’s presentation is by far the best part of the game. The Ace Combat series has always been known for a sweeping, exciting rock/symphonic medley that’s complimented by an occasional orchestrated piece with a sand script choir but Assault Horizon is probably the best one to date. Horizon takes the rock elements seen in the PS1 entries in the series and brings them back in a big way, driving you forward and squealing in glee as you soar through the skies after your next target. It feels and sounds epic and you can’t help but love it.
One final note of appreciation I have for Assault Horizon is just how proud it is of its legacy. The Strangereal games may be a thing of the past but Project Aces isn’t about to let those characters fade into memory as, amongst the game’s large amount of unlockables you can get various skins for each plane. These were present in Ace Combat 6 in the form of some ludicrously overpriced DLC but now you can wear the colors and skins of the Scarface, Mobius, Razgriz, Yellow squadrons and more by completing in-game requirements. Furthermore veterans will be pleased to hear that an new fantasy plane will be coming to the game soon designed by none other than the legendary Shouji Kawamori, the man responsible for a little anime series you may have heard of called Macross. Futher DLC down the line promises new locales and more to extend the game’s experience but just being able to dawn the colors of a Demon of Razgriz is enough to get me excited.
The Ace Combat series has always been one that has had one primary, overall goal: put you behind the stick of a fighter jet and wipe the floor with anything that gets in your way. For the most part the series has succeeded in this regard but with Assault Horizon it simply doesn’t really feel like the game series many have loved over the past fifteen years. It is clear that Namco and Project Aces want to remain competitive in a market that is dominated by only a handful of titles every year and they are making good strides in this direction by drawing the player into combat closer than the series has ever been before. The thing is though that it just hasn’t done a well enough job.
Finding the balance between traditional Ace Combat gameplay and modern war title aesthetics is going to be a heck of a job for Project Aces to try and accomplish going forward but give that this is the first game in the series out of eight titles that didn’t have me coming back through for a fifth playthrough I’ll forgive them. Better luck next time guys.
(70-79%: Solid - A solid title that has a few major issues)