Well that was unexpected. Before popping Ace Combat: Assault Horizon into the old Xbox, I was expecting yet another generic air combat sim/arcade hybrid that would appeal to a loyal yet dwindling niche audience. But what I got could almost be called a first person shooter in the skies. Is that a good thing? Surprisingly, yes — although it’s not an unqualified success.
This is the seventh (!) entry in the Ace Combat series, but you won’t see a number in the title. For whatever reason — dwindling sales, the success of Call of Duty — Namco opted to sex up this long-running franchise for the benefit of all those first person shooter lovers out there. The result is gameplay that feels much more visceral and arcade-y, but still leaves room for a healthy number of tactics.
The game signals its intentions right from the start, with the (actually quite impressive) tutorial taking place in the sky over Miami. After learning the basic controls, you’re quickly introduced to one of the standout features of Assault Horizon: dogfight mode, or DFM.
One of my major beefs with other games in the genre is how quickly the combat descends into hunt-the-pixel searches for enemy aircraft, before popping off a missile and hopefully seeing a tiny explosion hundreds of metres away. Here, however, you can press the top trigger buttons when close to an enemy to enter DFM, which causes your plane to semi-automatically follow your target. The camera zooms right in, and it’s up to you to wrestle with the thumbsticks and triggers to get a good lock on the enemy. Shoot him down and you’re treated to some gorgeous explosions and wrecked pieces of aircraft floating through the sky. It really helps to get you immersed in the mission.
Thankfully, things are a little more complicated than closing in on enemy aircraft and letting the game take over your flight path. Other enemies will always be looking to get on your tail, so you need to be smart about disengaging DFM in order to not get shot out of the sky. You can often get so involved in hunting down a plane that you ignore someone else behind you. At its best, this dynamic sets up some very tense situations, rewarding smart thinking and punishing single-mindedness.
With a machine gun and multiple missile options, along with responsive controls and a host of different base aircraft to pilot and customise, the core missions remain fun through most of the campaign. It’s an impressive feat — I was pretty wary of repetition, even with the fun mechanics on display here.
To mix things up, the developers have also stuck in a handful of on-rails segments that have you manning a machine gun in a helicopter and other situations. These don’t fare so well — they feel ripped straight out of any FPS you might care to name, and completely nullify the strong points of Assault Horizon. Actually flying a helicopter, however, is a bit more fun, although still rather plodding and methodical compared to the high-octane meat of the game.
Going hand in hand with the up-close-and-personal gameplay are the game’s graphics. Everything, from the terrain to the explosions, are pleasantly well made. If exploding airplanes are your thing, then you’re going to love this one. The audio, likewise, does a good job of keeping you immersed in the action, with a surprisingly stirring score underlining dramatic moments.
The campaign is meaty enough, and the story is — again, surprisingly — actually fairly engaging. While it was more understated (and obviously lower budget), I preferred it to the Modern Warfare pulp we’ve been seeing lately. The script is nothing to write home about, but then again, it’s not often gratingly bad — and in this genre, that’s a big plus.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is an interesting game. It attempts to combine an increasingly niche genre with one that couldn’t be more populist right now. The danger it faces is to alienate its hardcore fans without luring enough FPS players over. I can’t answer for the former group, but if you’re one of the latter, then definitely check out this game. It’s fast, tense, and fun, and actually a welcome break from yet another Call of Duty or one of its imitators.
Note: we were unable to find sufficient multiplayer games to gather decent impressions, so look for our thoughts on that side of the game at a later date.