Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Developer: Project Aces
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Aerial combat titles, at least those set after 1986, all have a benchmark test to pass. All that is required is the game in question, either a meaty speaker setup or some noise-cancelling headphones, and Kenny Loggins' 'Danger Zone' at full volume. If you then suddenly feeling like you have the need, the need for speed; or that the intense focus upon your metal-clad prey has meant you've lost that loving feeling; or that following a dogfight of epic proportions all you really want to do is get half-naked and play some mantastic volleyball, well then it's worked.
Combat flight sims in the past have often struggled to capture the adrenaline-fuelled exhilaration we can only imagine comes with flying by the seat of your pants and dancing through the skies, spewing bullets and missiles to finally be able to cry 'All bogeys have been neutralised!'. But Assault Horizon comes closer than most, channelling the explosive popcorn tendencies of Mssrs. Tony Scott and Michael Bay into a game that retains it's over the top sensibilities, even if it has traded Estovakia for Russia and the Middle East.
You take on the mantle of Colonel William Bishop, an ace pilot with the US Air Force, a man with assorted playable chums - Capt. Robinson (Apache pilot extraordinaire), Major Janice Rehl (crack bomber pilot) and the non-playable 'Guts', who serves as Bishop's wingman. There's a throwaway plot involving treacherous Russians, a rival ace pilot and a twist that literally gets spelled out in dialogue with about as much finesse as an elephant ballerina, just don't go in expecting to be fighting off huge flying fortresses in this Ace Combat title, though. The big bad in Assault Horizon is a highly dangerous cruise missile called 'Trinity', which seems a little like downgrading to us.
The story is something of a sticking point, you see while others may have found themselves left cold by the melodrama of Ace Combat VI, we absolutely loved it.vWatching a battle unfold from the perspectives of those indirectly involved - the civilians - brought a more personal touch to proceedings. Moreover, having to hear yourself only referred to in that game as Garuda 1 meant that it wasn't just another thirtysomething, Caucasian Yank with brown hair making things happen - it was you. You were the scourge of the enemy. You were the maverick hero of the hour. Perhaps the most heartbreaking thing about Assault Horizon is that it so nearly gets it right. Three quarters of the cutscenes in between missions are filmed from a POV perspective, with a level of interaction that makes you feel as if you are Bishop. Indeed, Bishop only gets referred to by his name a handful of times, most of the time going by his utterly badass callsign 'Warwolf 1' or just 'Colonel'. There are moments where the immersion is nearly total, when the game almost lets you become Bishop, but then the camera zooms out and snaps you out of it once more.
Of course, in the cockpit, everything's fine, it's all callsigns, banter and battlefield chatter. There are three views to choose from, an unobstructed view of the skies, a pilot's POV cockpit perspective, and one looking right up the backend of your aircraft. The controls are simple and easy to get used to for the newcomer, the in-game tutorials making this the most accessible game in the series to date, The controls are adjustable though, so before old timers start getting their knickers in a twist, you can opt for a more classic button layout.
DFM, or Dogfighting Mode, is the big new addition. Sort out your flight path and close in on an enemy and a circle will appear around them. Hammer the bumpers at once and after a bass-heavy 'swoosh' noise, you'll zoom in on their tail, the game switching to a semi-scripted sequence that takes over basic navigation, leaving you to concentrate on taking down your opponent. The ring widens as you draw closer, your job being to keep it trained on your foe. Do so and the targeting computer will start locking on, allowing you to deploy short-range missiles. Your opponents will duck and weave, shifting up and down through the gears, and it's your job to match them, slowing down for tight turns and making sure that you have the afterburners ready if they try to make quick their escape. You'll have watch out as enemy planes will try to do the same to you, and you'll have to make a choice between trying to simply outmanoeuvre them or riskily slowing down until they're in range before pushing the bumpers again to do a backflip or barrel roll and turn the tables as they shoot past. Executing your first bait and switch is very satisfying indeed, especially as the oil splatters across your screen and you watch your foe's plane's carcass explode into a thousand pieces.
It's also in this mode, with everything so up-close and personal, that the game's tagline - 'Make Metal Bleed' - comes into focus, as you pepper aircraft with machine gun fire and cackle as it rips through metal, sending chunks, oil and. eventually, the pilot flying. It's here that sometimes the game's cameraman get s a bit cocky, gifting you framing shots for decisive kills, slow-mo captures of your finest takedowns. I loved it, the cinematic feel actually really adding something, making you feel as if every hit counted. Cranking up the Loggins, Assault Horizon passed the 'Danger Zone' test with flying colours.
The cinematography extends to ground assaults as well, flipping the angle round to the underside of the plane, helping you line up targets for air-to-ground missiles and, alter on, letting you paint bombing targets. The game even charts out the optimal trajectory and flight path for ground missions, with you activating the starting waypoint in the same way as you trigger DFM.
Helicopters make an appearance this time around too, with barrel-rolling Apaches proving rather useful in close-surface escort missions. The controls take a little bit of getting used to initially, and battling other choppers can be a bit tedious as you circle-strafe one another, but it provides a welcome addition to provide a bit of variety. We were rather less keen on the AC-130 mission, though, which went on far too long and made us a long for a 'Skip' option. We didn't like them in H.A.W.X. 2 and we still don't like them here.
As a longtime Ace Combat fan, it's hard not to feel a little shortchanged by the singleplayer. True, the dogfighting feels much more personal, and the occasional time limits and ample damage/distance warnings add a bit of urgent drama to the story and your actions, but there's nothing to rival taking down a massive flying fortress or gunning it full throttle down the barrel of a giant laser in the hope of destroying it from the inside. Although the game does a relatively good job of building up rival ace pilot Markov, or 'the Shark Bastard' as Guts calls him, the final showdown is little more than an extended DFM sequence. It's only really by ramping the difficulty up or firing up the online chunk of the game that you'll really find yourself tested and, even then, there's not really a grand battle as such. The finale sees a city-wide offensive, but it's broken up significantly.
Online, though, the game really comes to life. True, here too it borrows from Activision's global FPS behemoth, but we like experience points, unlockable perks and ranking systems. We like the fact that you can customise you planes, customise your callsign and pit your wits against fellow humans. Capital Conquest sees flight squadrons of 8 squaring off against one another, with one team tasked to defend a capital city - there's Washington DC and Paris, but shamefully no London! - and one going on the offensive. There are specific objectives and landmarks to target in attack, with the defenders trying to hold out as long as possible.
Deathmatch - two teams, one objective, shoot the opposition down - is where the fun is really at. It's excellent combining the new gameplay additions with human control, and the added closeness that DFM brings just fuels online rivalries even more. The Apache matches can be a great laugh, although we'll be honest and say we just didn't really want to leave our pimped Eurofighter Typhoon.We've had a few matchmaking issues this week, but hopefully post-launch these will be ironed out in the next few days. We'd have liked to have seen a few more options, perhaps, some multiteam action where you're working in teams of two. One for the DLC perhaps.
It would be easy to write off Ace Combat: Assault Horizon as a pointless entry into the series, seeing it as pandering to a crowd reared on Call of Duty. But the thrill is still there, even if the ambition and scope isn't. The rush of leaping into a virtual cockpit and tussling with fellow aces is just as pulse-pumping as before, if not more so. The cinematic camerawork is likely to prove divisive, but we found that most of the time, in-flight at least, it offered a sense of drama to proceedings, that every kill counted. Make no mistake, this is still very much an Ace Combat game, with variable flight assistance and manual controls for the more hardcore among us. It's never been a serious simulation series and, actually, I suppose that's where I feel this latest entry maybe slips up. There's a lot of fun to be had here, but we do rather miss the grand epic battles, the slightly ludicrous scenarios and weaving melodrama of before. The new OTT additions would have matched up perfectly.
- DFM is excellent and makes one-on-one battles much more personal
- Helicopter missions provide some nice variety
- Online matches are hugely enjoyable
- Minigun/AC-130 missions are tedious
- Camera angles and cutaways can feel restrictive - likely to have a Marmite effect
- We miss the Gleipnir
The Short Version: As an arcade combat flight sim, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does a number of things right. It crucially makes dogfighting and air-to-air combat more thrilling than ever before, particularly online, and the apache missions prove an interesting diversion to shake up the gameplay. Still room for improvement, mind.