The Ace Combat series has long been known for its heavy action bent and disregard for the more accurate side of flight sim territory, and the latest instalment, Assault Horizon, is no different, and once more discards any pretence at real flight mechanics in favour of total arcade thrills.
In the story, penned by New York Times bestseller, Jim DeFelice, you mainly take on the role of Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop, ace fighter pilot, who becomes embroiled in a situation involving fanatic rebels, weapons of mass destruction and, plenty of opportunities to blow people out of the sky. Along the way you’ll also take on other roles, such as Blackhawk door gunner, Apache attack chopper pilot and AC-130 gunner (CoD anyone?).
To be honest though, this is all irrelevant. The story is pretty thin on the ground, and isn’t all that interesting. All you’ll care about is getting into the sky and blowing stuff up. The characters are all dull and trite, and the strange, interactive cut-scenes just drag on, doing very little to enhance the experience. Simply put, this type of game needs very little in the way of story.
That out of the way though, and we come to the meat of the game, the air combat itself. After so many instalments you’d expect the combat to be spot on, and it is. Not only does the game look great and run smoothly, it controls well and the arcade handling of the aircraft is perfectly intuitive.
Whites of their eyes
There’s a brief tutorial before the game lets you lose, and one of the first things this demonstrates is the game’s new, standout feature, the DFM (Dogfight Mode) system. In an effort to rid the genre of the usual tedium of trying to attack tiny enemies in the distance, this system allows you to lock on to and pursue enemies in a frantic, yet highly controllable manner.
Once locked on, the camera moves in to a closer view and partly auto tracks your target. You still have partial control, but you don’t have to worry about hitting the ground or buildings, and can concentrate on your foe.
This makes for some exciting moments, as you pursue an enemy through skyscrapers or along a valley floor, and it brings a different, and unique feel to the game that sets it apart from other, similar titles.
While locked on you have a greater chance to hit your foes with missiles and your guns, and using the lock-on system is an easier way to take out your opposition, especially elite wing leaders.
The enemy can also attempt to do the same to you though, and you’ll have to learn to use the counter system to turn the tables on them should they try. This counter system, which is easy enough to use thanks to generous onscreen prompts, also lets you shake of enemy missile attacks, and so is a very useful tool.
This DFM works very well and helps break up the inherent repetition of this kind of game, and along with a couple of other features, Assault Horizon tries it’s best to stay fresh and absorbing.
Get to the chopper
These additional modes include several on rails shooting sections, like the aforementioned door gunner sections and a flit with the AC-130 support plane. These are enjoyable enough, but due to some very poorly defined visuals, in quite a few situations you’ll find it really difficult to locate enemies.
I even ran into what I can only describe as a bug during an AC-130 outing whilst attacking an airfield. Missiles were streaming in from the ground, but even when at maximum magnification there were no enemies there. Only randomly firing guns and mortars got me through this invisible gauntlet, which isn‘t exactly fair.
Perhaps more enjoyable are the other diversions, including the AH-64 Apache. Although the controls here are far less well-defined than the rest of the game, this slower paced and more tactical elements really helps break up proceedings.
Reminding me of the classic Strike series of games (come on EA, when are you going to bring those back?), strafing around the target area raining bullets and missiles down on your foes is a blast, and having to protect ground troops against waves of enemy attackers prompts you to priorities targets and think tactically in order to get the job done.
You’ll also get the chance to fly a bomber, which puts another spin on the game’s series of military hardware. Still, even with all of these elements, if the main air combat that takes centre stage.
High octane hardware
You get the chance to fly a wide assortment of aircraft, which are chosen before each mission. F-16s, Mig 29 Fulcrums, Super Tomcats, Mirages and more are all present and look superb. Sadly, despite the statistics claiming to the contrary, each plane feels pretty much the same though, so other than appearance, I found no real reason to pick one over the other.
Once in the air, it’s pretty straightforward stuff. Take down all enemy targets before they get you, protect allies or stop bombers from reaching their drop points. It’s nothing original, and it’s very, very repetitive. In fact, some missions drag on for far too long, as wave after wave of the same fighters attack.
You also feel like a one man army, and despite Namco putting in various AI wingmen and allies to make battles feel more intense and involved, your team mates never shoot down a single enemy, or at least I didn’t notice them do so. Instead, each and every enemy, be it in the air or on the ground when you’re in control of the chopper, are your responsibility.
It’s not a major issue, and keeps the game action-packed, but it just makes all of the radio chatter and allied partners into mere window dressing. The ability to order your allies to help or attack a specific target would have greatly improved matters.
Thanks to some excellent visuals and solid controls, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is an enjoyable game to a point. Few arcade-style air combat titles are as polished and accessible, and the extra sections help to keep things fresh. Still, even with these aids and the quality presentation, the game can’t shake off a remarkable repetitive streak. After a while it all just becomes so mind-numbingly dull.
In short blasts, this is a decent game to have around, and the DFM mode eliminates often tedious, long range air combat. It’ll certainly satisfy that Top Gun craving, but unless you’re a big dogfight fan, or a regular to the series, you’ll probably tire of the title fairly quickly.