Before I left for the City of Angels, I nominated Ace Combat: Assault Horizon as my most anticipated game of E3. As a huge fan of the franchise, I was excited to see what the next instalment has to offer... but more to the point, I was extremely worried about the new realistic and cinematic direction that the reboot is taking. I swore to grill any available members of the development team to find out exactly why Project Aces were taking this controversial new tack, and as luck would have it, I struck the motherlode.
Kazutoki Kono, the head of Project Aces and lead producer on the project, was on hand to greet me personally and offered me a full half hour of face time. After swapping some breathless fanboy gushing formalities, we got straight down to checking out a new demo that wasn't available on the show floor. This was an opportunity not to be missed.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon punches up the core flying experience by focusing on tight close combat and the new metal carnage dynamic (as merrily evidenced by recent trailers). The demo, however, showcased a very different set of mechanics as it puts players in the cockpit of a lumbering B-2 bomber. This enormous aircraft is much bigger than anything we've flown in Ace Combat games before, taking up a full half of the screen and handling with a sense of determined weight and heft. It doesn't pack a cannon or rockets, and has to rely on flares to shake pursuers along with tight support from wingmen. As the bomber inexorably droned towards a fortified enemy base, Kono revealed that the Assault Circle used for triggering cinematic in aerial engagements has been replaced by a devastating airstrike mode.
Pushing both bumpers switches the player's perspective into the aircraft's cavernous bomb bay, where a guided reticle allowed Kono to designate dozens of targets for a bombing run. These circles can be merrily spammed in real time, and upon liberally covering the entire area in ominous green , a simple button press of the Y button engaged a cinematic view of the bombs spilling out of the B-2 and carpeting the base in explosive death. It was beautiful, satisfying, wonderful carnage - and it took my breath away. Pulling out of the combat area, Kono demonstrated that the bomber was incredibly vulnerable against aerial assualt, but could use a surprising amount of mobility and flares to dodge incoming missiles. The addition of heavy aircraft is a fantastic new addition to the series, and one that I'll likely need to dig out a copy of Ride Of The Valkyries to enjoy fully.
With the demo ended, Kono was fully at my mercy, and I was keen to press the advantage. Why was Assault Horizon abandoning the Strangereal alternate universe? Why the new gritty change of direction? Since the interview was conducted through an interpreter, I'm going to have to paraphrase.
The decision, Kono explained, was two-fold. The Strangereal universe has become a nuanced and sprawling place that's impossible for newcomers to engage with (without having to research the lore or playing the previous games in the series). Rebooting the series in a modern setting will allow Ace Combat to be enjoyed by a new generation of gamers, who will also hopefully start to get more excited about flight sims in general.
However, the second reason was vastly more cynical. Kono admitted that flight sims, even of the arcade variety, represent a "small genre that keeps getting smaller"... and Project Aces feel that they need to draw inspiration from current triple-A titles that are enjoying mainstream success. Which means Call Of Duty, basically. The industry is leaning towards gritty, 'realistic' and cinematic experiences, and Namco Bandai desperately want a piece of the lucrative pie. Since it didn't work for HAWX, however, we're still not entirely sold on the idea.
In terms of features, Kono confirms that Assault Horizon will boast a staggering 40 playable planes and helicopters (in stark contrast with the measly dozen in Ace Combat 6) along with a huge selection of weapons. The implausible XLAA and XMAA multiple missiles will make a welcome return along with more realistic armaments, but sadly, the new focus on cinematic thrills will have to limit players' options by design. Wingmen planes and loadouts can't be edited for each mission (hiss), and players can only choose from aircraft that fit the remit of each operation. You can't take a bomber to a dogfight. The days of versatile sub-objectives and using different tactics within each mission are over, I'm afraid - which could drastically limit replayability. What's more, the on-rails Black Hawk section hinted at by the gameplay trailers isn't an optional view mode. It's a standalone mission, and players will have no choice but to sit back and fire away rather than piloting the damn thing. Hmm.
The more realistic focus also sadly rings the death knell for the Science Fiction floating fortresses and massive battles against enormous futuristic war machines. Kono explained that, as well as being completely out of character, these engagements simply don't gel with the new focus on close combat. Which is fair enough, to be honest.
Multiplayer, however, is set to provide us with a bevy of options that will last long after the visceral campaign is over. Project Aces are currently "testing" cooperative campaign missions (though it's "unlikely" to be implemented due to the tight focus on storytelling), but the competitive multiplayer will be an absolute blast thanks to the Capital Conquest mode. Two teams of players have to duke it out for control over real-world cities mapped from satellite photos (including Paris, Dubai and Miami), with each side controlling a headquarters and respawning selection of allied ground units. It will be up to each team to delegate combat roles and use the entire roster of planes to advantage. Bombers will thunder towards enemy headquarters and troop formations to deliver thunderous barrages, but will need to be carefully guarded by team mates in agile multirole fighters. Helicopters will slip under the radar; sneaking between skyscrapers and popping up for vicious surprise attacks. There'll almost certainly be a more traditional selection of deathmatches as well, but tight cooperation and teamwork should make Capital Conquest the main event.
Before anyone misunderstands me, Assault Horizon's new take on the franchise isn't somehow worse than its predecessors. It's just a "different aspect" of the core gameplay. The close combat is brutal, visceral and plain awesome; with the cinematic perspective providing the most exhilarating Ace Combat game to date. We'll be able to live with (and even encourage) the concessions and compromises if the full game resembles its jaw-dropping demos. Ace Combat firmly believes that Assault Horizon will be the "best Ace Combat game yet," and for now, I'm willing to take that on trust. Naturally I'll be locking onto any new information over the next few months.