Developer: Project Aces / Publisher: Namco Bandai Games / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Teen [Alcohol Reference, Blood, Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence]
I’d always considered Ace Combat to be Dynasty Warriors in the sky, and that’s not intended as a compliment. You kill a lot of bad guys, the game is essentially the same experience from the moment you start stretched out over 20 hours, and sequels do little aside from look better than the last. That’s absolutely not the case with Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. In fact, incredible presentation, a great campaign, and substantive multiplayer make Assault Horizon the most innovative and enjoyable arcade flight shooter I’ve ever played.
Superficially speaking, Assault Horizon still has the Ace Combat trappings: you fly planes, carry 200 missiles at once, and take out upwards of 40 enemies every sortie. However, dogfight mode (on top of several other additions) change the game entirely for the better. Dogfight mode, or DSM, is the primary way you attack other planes, and is basically like Top Gun and Independence Day got together and did a bunch of speed. When you’re close enough to an enemy plane, you can trigger the mode, which locks you to their tail and also brings up a big circular reticule. The closer you are to the enemy plane, the larger the reticule grows, and keeping the enemy plane inside this reticule causes it to charge up. Once it’s fully charged, you can fire a missile that is far more accurate than regular missiles.
But the defender has options too. If an enemy engages DFM on you, you see their targeting reticule overlayed on your screen (which you will obviously want to stay out of). Aside from juking around like a madman to dodge missiles and guns, you can also pull off a counter-maneuver if you’re close enough to the attacker and leveled off in flight. This turns the tables instantly, putting the attacker on defense. On top of that, you can even counter a countermove if you see one coming, which slows down time and gives you a ton of free hits on your enemy. Basically, dogfight mode in Assault Horizon is a mental dogfight; you have to anticipate what your opponents will do and outmaneuver them at every turn. The cream on top here is that this mode also works perfectly in multiplayer with other human opponents, but more on that later.
DFM would be substantive enough to carry this game, but Assault Horizon has even more to offer. Attack helicopters premiere in this game and while they’re (understandably) much slower-paced to play than the fighters, they’re still fun and vary up the content. You also man a mounted gun in an attack chopper and even the big guns of an A-10 Warthog. Cutscenes between missions maintain interest thanks to an easy-to-follow story and semi-interactive segments where the camera switches to first-person mode and allows you to look around. When you get down to it, the most impressive aspect of Assault Horizon is that no two missions are similar in nature, which is awesome for any game much less one with Ace Combat in the title.
My only complaint is that the campaign is a tad on the short side. While I normally favor variety over length, playing the game was fun enough that I could’ve handled some more action to extend the five-to-six hour campaign. To be fair, the missions can be replayed to earn higher rankings and unlock multiplayer skills, but I always want more of a good thing.
Typically flight games, despite whatever systematic trickery they try to implement devolve into turning wars online. Ubisoft’s HAWX tried to remedy this with “Assistance OFF” but Assault Horizon really puts that snag to rest with DFM and a slight stall if you decelerate too heavily. In single player, engaging DSM is largely safe. In multiplayer, engaging DSM makes you a sitting duck. Since you’re locked to the flight path of your enemy while the mode is engaged, you have no capability to dodge missiles aside from your finite supply of countermeasures. This can even be used against your enemy–imagine being in voice chat with your team, exposing your tail to a group of enemies, having them engage DFM on you, then telling your team to swoop in and clean house.
Assault Horizon does a good job adapting the current fashionable modes to air combat. Deathmatch and Mission Co-op are self explanatory, but Domination and Capital Conquest require some explanation. Domination is Assault Horizon’s interpretation of Capture and Hold, where you must capture and hold points on the map to earn points. This is when helicopters become invaluable, because they can hover in place and capture points much more quickly than fighters which obviously can’t stop. Capital Conquest involves destroying an enemy base, which is first shielded by a radar dish in the middle of the map. In this mode, bombers are crucial because they’re the only planes that can deal significant damage to the capitals once they’re exposed to attack. All the modes work well, offering just enough depth for strategy and smart playing to prevail.
You also have the near-standard leveling system, which allows you to buy new pilot skills that tweak the damage, carrying capacity, and performance of your planes. The neat twist here is that every player has one skill slot that will distribute that skill to everyone on your team. By coordinating properly to avoid skill overlap in that slot, you can get significantly more bonuses than your enemies.
Assault Horizon drops all pretense of simulation and makes the arcade control template the default; left and right turn your plane left and right rather than roll. I briefly balked at this, but then realized the game plays much better this way. Handling the planes in DSM without this control scheme is extremely difficult, but you can still change it back to more traditional controls if you can’t live without them.
Aside from that quirk, I had basically no problem with the controls. The blinking arrow indicator for performing counter-maneuvers and counter-counter-maneuvers can be hard to see, but once you know what to look for, everything’s fine. The only other problem I had was reading the maps in multiplayer. At a certain player density, the minimap will just be a glowing mound of arrows and targets, making it difficult to identify exactly the targets of priority. These are very minor complaints though.
Visuals and Sound
If you’re a fan of MichaelBay(and who wouldn’t be), Assault Horizon’s presentation will blow you away. In DFM, the camera pulls really close to your plane and shakes more than a prostitute in detox. Shoot the guns, and the camera will even sling under the wing to show the guns spewing metal and casings spraying wildly. Better yet, when you down an opponent, it shows its metal carcass spinning slowly through the air, spraying oil while the wings shear off and rip apart. It’s destruction porn and goddamn is it sexy–sort of like 2007’s Heatseeker except way better.
The game also uses DFM as a tour guide through awesome set pieces. Since your flight path is locked to your enemy while DFM is engaged, those enemies will weave through buildings, skim the ocean surface, or dart in and out of canyons. This makes chases intense and cinematic–the exact sort of experience you always imagine with flight games but can never reliably recreate.
The game’s soundtrack is one of my favorites for this year, alternating between majestic strings that embrace the beauty of flying through the sky and thrashing drums and distorted guitar that embody how awesome it is to blow everything up. Purchases of the game come with a soundtrack (while supplies last and all that), which you will totally want if you’re in to symphonic metal.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon not only attempts something new in the arcade flight space but absolutely nails those goals and intentions. Dogfight mode is the first real substantive addition to the genre in about five years, which is doubly refreshing considering this is a series that seemed so set in its ways. This is a game that’s so approachable and entertaining that I can recommend it to anyone that enjoys explosions–which is damn near everyone on the planet. I’ll forego the obvious “under the radar” reference here and just tell you to buy it right now.