Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is in a bit of a quandary. From the outside the game looks like a flight sim/aerial combat. However, the game's visual aesthetic is very similar to the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, and to call this a flight sim is selling Namco Bandai's latest release a bit short.
If this game took place on the ground and if the player assumed the role of a solider, it would probably play identically to a third person shooter - sans cover. Viewing Ace Combat: Assault Horizon this way, it becomes clear that this is an over-the-top modern warfare game with a multiplayer component that is aping on many of the mechanics set forth within other franchises. So does this bold gamble for Namco pay off within the context of their long running Ace Combat franchise?
As far as the narrative is concerned the answer is yes. In fact, in a strange way, the more Assault Horizon tries to emulate Modern Warfare, the more open the player becomes to the utterly crazy spectacle taking place. The main story campaign follows a group of American pilots who comprise Warwolf squadron, the sharp end of the stick that is a joint U.N. and NATO special forces group called the 108th Task Force (more commonly referred to as Task Force 108). The central focus of which is Colonel Bishop and his wingman Guts. After a rebel faction within the Russian army, calling itself the New Russian Federation, gets ahold of nuclear warheads codenamed "Trinity" they then proceed to launch a coup in Moscow - before beginning an all out war against the US and NATO forces while being lead by Russian ace pilot Andrei "Akula" Markov. The whole story is told through in-mission dialogue and some well produced cutscenes that feature some good voice acting.
Looking at the last paragraph its pretty clear from the start that Assault Horizon wears its influences on its sleeves. The name of the central antagonist is explicitly similar to Makarov, the central antagonist from Modern Warfare. Moreover, along the course of the 16 mission campaign (17 if you break the first one up into two), the player can expect to switch between characters and aircraft. In some missions, the player pilots an Apache or a bomber, but the vast majority of the game's missions take place in a fighter jet.
Regardless, responsive controls aid in chasing down enemy fighters. This is made even easier as better aircraft become unlocked later on. Each mission also allows for special weapons to be outfitted on an aircraft to aid in hitting ground targets, jamming enemy radar, or hitting multiple air targets simultaneously. Moreover, the game also features recharging health, again another feature taken from Modern Warfare.
Perhaps one of the coolest things in this latest Ace Combat iteration is the addition of Dog Fighting Mode (DFM). Simply put, once an enemy is in range and a radar lock has been established, DFM causes the player's aircraft to automatically follow and chase down a bogey. While in DFM the plane is placed on autopilot, and as long as one can keep the enemy in the cross-hairs the chase will continue. In fact, firing guns in this mode causes the camera to zoom in alongside the fuselage in order to assist in aiming. As mentioned, if this game took place on the ground this mechanic would be the equivalent to over-the-shoulder aiming.
The auto-piloting while in DFM allows for some great on-screen moments. One in particular takes place in an oilfield where the enemy, being chased, ducks under a falling tower or a moment in Dubai where a collapsing building causes the enemy being pursued to crash just seconds before the player's aircraft plows right through the flaming wreckage. Moments like these are great, but they unfortunately don't happen very often. Another version of DFM is also available for bombing missions where the objective changes to strikes against ground emplacements or achieving a specific bombing line to a target.
On the multiplayer side of things, the game features four different modes. Domination and Deathmatch are hold overs from Ace Combat 6. The newest mode is Capital Conquest, which is a team based mode where the objective is to destroy the rival team's HQ. The last multiplayer mode is mission co-op - in which players can choose one of eight campaign missions to romp through. Throughout the multiplayer, points are earned that can be used to unlock skills, up to six of which can be equipped to an aircraft for a given load out. Some of the skills upgrade weapons such as Enhanced Missiles, while other skills improve defense - such as Auto Countering or Enhanced Armor. Best of all these skills can be used in single player on repeat playthroughs.
While Ace Combat: Assault Horizon scrambles fast off the runway to tout itself as a no-holds-barred adrenaline filled thrill ride, there is some jet wash that causes the engines to flame out. In general, Ace Combat falls into the same trap that other aerial combat games fall into - repetition. Chasing down enemies and firing missiles is only fun for so long before becoming monotonous. This problem is further exacerbated since a few of the missions run pretty long.
Namco attempts to mitigate this by tightly scripting the entire experience but the downside to this approach is that the joy of freely flying around an area taking down bandits and barnstorming the level architecture is immediately lost - due to time constraints. These problems are compounded when the difficulty will inexplicably spike sending a player on a one way trip to the game over screen. Moments like these are especially frustrating, because the game gives no indication of what went wrong or how to improve. Meanwhile, ally AI is no help at all in providing cover to protect the player in moments where air-to-air combat is not possible - such as a few of the bombing missions.
Overall, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a huge leap forward for the longtime Namco franchise. The storytelling in the game is solid and provides for some genuinely tense moments - with the help of a veteran set of voice actors. Indeed, Namco has also perfected the sense of speed, and stomach churning velocity, of intense dog fighting over recognizable environments.
Unfortunately, the repetition within the missions is still prevelant within this release and is something that Namco will have to invest some more time in ironing out for future installments. Indeed, if Namco is able to overcome some of these problems the next entry into the Ace Combat canon could be a fantastic experience to behold. For now though, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a good start that, depending on player preferences, may be worth checking out.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is now available for the PS3 and Xbox 360.
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