The combat flight sim genre is in a pretty good state these days. While PC owners can enjoy the IL-2 Sturmovik games for that excellent full sim experience, console owners have still seen a slow but steady flow of arcade air combat games in recent years.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (Xbox 360 [Reviewed], PlayStation 3)
Developer: Project Aces
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Released: October 11, 2011
The changes to the Ace Combat franchise are hard to miss when playing through the first half hour. Even though he game still has its trademark ridiculous story involving superweapons, it's told through the eyes of a range of characters you actually play as, as opposed to Fires of Liberations' overly dramatic narrative that was often told from the on-the-ground "warfare isn't very fun for civilians" perspective while you were just one anonymous person in an elite squad that saved the day.
This first half hour shoves you into the seat of the glorious F-22 as you play through one of the protagonists' nightmares, fighting in the wartorn skies above a beautiful Miami landscape and pulling off scripted but amazing-looking maneuvers. After some cutscenes that are aimed to make you identify with most of the characters, you'll suddenly find yourself in the gunner seat of a helicopter for a turret sequence. Yikes.
Progressing through the pretty lenghty missions in the campaign, you'll find yourself playing through proper jet combat missions followed by a helicopter missions, and even sitting in an AC-130. It might not sound like the Ace Combat you know and love, and at times it isn't.
Part of what makes Assault Horizon so different is the new "DFM" (Dog Fight Mode) system. If you approach an enemy and get close enough, a pulsing circle will indicate you can enter DFM. Doing so puts you in a close combat chase sequence, where all you can really do is try to keep the enemy plane under the reticule of your machine gun while firing missiles as they lock on. These sequences can occasionally take you through breathtaking chases between skyscrapers, through refineries, or simply through G-force ignoring aerial dances of death.
DFM is there to make the game look great, which is does well thanks to the cinematic style and heart-pounding action you'll find yourself irresistable to enjoy, but it also serves to remove the boring gameplay of eternally turning your plane to keep your target reticule slightly in front of an enemy at close range.
As a result, the game's design does tend to overly focus on close range combat. If you're a fan of turning on stealth, circling wide behind an enemy strike group, and letting loose a volley of AMRAAMs from miles away -- as you perhaps once did in F-22: Total Air War -- you can forget about that in Assault Horizon. It's hard enough to let a missile hit any of the more skilled AI fighters in any mission, let alone the aces that will use flares and fly all over the place. If you insist on not using DFM at all for simulation's sake, you might as well not play the game altogether.
Having said that, the system does do a great job at giving you the sense that you are balancing on the edge of control with your bird of prey. Everything moves so fast that anyone who is prone to motion sickness in games should be warned, and once you destroy a plane you'll get a nice Burnout-esque view of your opponent as pieces of his plane rip apart from it in mid-air. Sometimes you'll even see the pilot being flung out of the plane; it never gets old.
DFM does have its share of problems, however. An enemy can get ready to do a counter-maneuver that is indicated by a tiny indicator in the UI, which you're likely to miss every single time since so much is continuously going on on-screen. You can counter this counter-maneuver and ravage the enemy jet as it tries to loop over you in slow motion, but it's more a matter of luck than skill.
Likewise, you can do such a counter-maneuver yourself if an enemy is locking on to you from behind by decelerating and leveling out the plane to get two triangle indicators to overlap, which instantly puts you behind your foe if you're successful. But sometimes -- especially in multiplayer -- you won't have the time to do so before you get hit in the butt by a missile. It can be a bit frustrating to die just because one time the action works fine and looks fantastic, while at other times it just refuses to work because you didn't overlap the triangles well enough or didn't level out correctly. Furthermore, if you happen to drop out of DFM at the wrong moment because an enemy flies too far out of sight -- even though it's hard to tell what exactly governs the rules of staying in DFM -- you could find yourself flying into the terrain at Mach speed.
A side-effect of basically being required to use DFM is that you have no sense of place on any of the maps where you control a jet. One minute you can be here, the next you can exit DFM at an entirely different location. One of the things that makes arcade air combat games so fun is that you feel in control of a ridiculously expensive aircraft and that you can claim the skies for your own without requiring a brain wired for simulation games. It's hard to do that when you never really know where you are nor have a sense of the aerial theater overview, so you end up just going after the closest enemy until the mission is over. It fits the live-in-the-moment style of the game, but essentially you'll be hopping from one chase event to the next.
Similar to DFM, ASM (Air Strike Mode) lets you enter a ground assault path where your machine gun will overheat less quickly, and where the camera will make it more cinematic and easier to annihilate everything on the ground. It's a bit like a more assault-oriented version of that radar-evation mode you had in Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X., clenching your controller as you try to make quick decisions to get through it successfully without crashing your plane. You can even do a bit of ASM as a stealth bomber to carpet bomb the hell out of bases, which is of course is what mankind was born to do in the first place.
To further spruce up the variety, Assault Horizon throws a bunch of missions at you that don't necessarily belong in a game like this. Being neither novel nor necessary, the turret gunner sections are seemingly only there to draw in the Call of Duty crowd and despite being fun enough to play (how can you mess up a turret sequence anyway?) they feels a bit forced.
The helicopter missions are simply a throwaway way to add variety. Only one camera mode actually lets you see what you are shooting at, and even though the jet controls let you switch between a super arcade "Optimum" mode -- in which you can't even rotate your plane -- and an Original mode that is more like Ace Combat, the choppers are stuck to one arcade control scheme. Players who put effort into learning the more sim controls of Apache: Air Assault can basically forget what they learned as they work their way through some drab helicopter action. Thankfully, there is always the AC-130 to save the day and make you forget about most of the game's failed attempts at forced variety as you rain down death from above.
While the campaign is a nice distraction on its own, with a good old Elite difficulty and different aircraft selections to make it worth replaying it a couple of times, multiplayer adds a whole other layer of life-enhancement. Eight co-op missions are there to enjoy, Deathmatch can be a bit hard on the rookie player as you're thrust into the skies with more skilled players, while nobody appears to be playing the "capture the base" Domination mode at all. Capital Conquest, however, is the online mode of choice.
This mode puts players into two teams who have to protect their HQ buildings while simultaneously attacking the opponent teams' buildings, supporting bomber and multirole fighters as they do so. If you have a bunch of friends who like Ace Combat, it will be a while before you get tired of playing this mode and destroying random online people who don't communicate at all.
Earning points in multiplayer also lets you unlock skills to put in "skill sets" (i.e., Class layouts) that provide bonuses to yourself and your team. It provides a good enough reason to keep playing the game after you finish the campaign and the Capital Conquest games only take 10 to 30 minutes -- with the option to fully customize any of the modes -- so it's easy enough to pick up and play without having to spend hours on the multiplayer.
Although the introduction of the DFM in Assault Horizon does change the feel of Ace Combat dramatically, it is a beautiful and heart-pounding addition to the air combat genre. As long as it works well and you have an idea what is going on, that is. When everything falls in place and works, further stimulated by the trademark Ace Combat soundtrack, there's nothing out there that can give you an experience anything like it.
Assault Horizon looks beautiful to boot, provided you can get over the fact that it is not Ace Combat 5, nor Ace Combat 6, etc. The cinematic style might put off some old fans, but once you accept Assault Horizon for what it is you can enjoy it immensely; there's really no arguing that the new style makes you feel more engaged with the action whether you care for Call of Duty or not. You do have to accept that this is a departure for the series, as evidenced by the way the Original control scheme is the more intuitive option for veterans while at the same time it makes you feel like the game wasn't designed to really support it.
It might not be the perfect console arcade combat flight sim experience, but Ace Combat: Assault Horizon remains a treat for any fan of the genre or fans of stupidly awesome looking air combat action. Where it breaks with tradition, it injects a shot of epinephrine straight into your heart and keeps it pumping until a mission is over. The changes have turned it into a rollercoaster version of Ace Combat, for better or worse depending on what you wanted from the franchise's latest, resulting in one of the finest examples of how to turn graceful air ballet into a mosh pit of fighter jets.
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