Its not often that we get to take to the skies, blasting through the highway to the danger zone in the latest aviation achievement that an engineer can dream of. It’s a niche genre, with few studios willing to take the risk, as most games end up being too similar too one another, making use of the same old tired gameplay physics and dressing it up in a coat of glossy visuals, expecting the fans to not notice.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon marks a new turn for the venerable franchise, as it boldly implements some daring new creative ideas and features, gleaned from other successful games and transitioned into a different genre. But does this transplant of new gameplay mechanics bond well with the genre, or is it one step away from total rejection?
Democracy is under attack in the latest Ace Combat game, and its up to America, and maybe a few other international allies, to put a stop to these free world threats, with as many air-to-air missiles as possible.
Amidst all the hyper-machismo and stereotypical villains and doomsday plots, there’s not much of a story that we haven’t heard of before, but then again, no one is here to hear why our characters joined up, as personal reflection takes a backseat to combat.
It’s here where AC:AH has drastically redesigned itself, with a gritty, more contemporary approach that works beautifully. While the opening gameplay sections will feel somewhat familiar to anyone who has played an air combat game before, its the parts where you get up close and personal with an enemy ace that really stands out.
Dogfight Mode, or DFM, allows for a player to close in and switch tactics, as the jet goes on auto-pilot while you position the aiming reticule on the enemy. Lock it on, and fire off a missile or close in and wreck his jet with some well-placed mini-gun firing, while flying under and around obstacles, as all hell breaks loose in your dogfight.
Its a well-executed and performed gameplay feature, that is easy to use but still has depth to it, as DFM doesn’t promise you an easy victory. Enemies can still escape, and some enemies are downright difficult to lock on to, as they dash in every single direction possible to escape your lock-on.
DFM may sometimes smack of scripted events, but its performed so well, most people won’t even notice. The camera position adds to the atmosphere for this mechanic, boiling all the action down to a single chase-cam view that amplifies the intense nature of DFM, while successful destruction of an enemy aircraft will result in the occasional slow-mo video of him being destroyed, with your plane racing through his mechanical guts and oily blood.
Its solid combat, and while it may fall prey to certain genre-trapping ideas such as infinite turns, the DFM helps to balance this tedium out tremendously. The health bar or status of your jet has also been gutted, with a more modern regenerative health system, as your plane magically repairs itself, even after a missile has gone straight up your after-burner.
To compensate for that however, AC:AH is actually quite a difficult game, with enemy AI being surprisingly sophisticated, and making use of the same moves you would in mid-air combat in order to shake you off their tails.
Escaping a missile lock is no easy task, but performing a quick Immelman turn in the middle of a chase can quickly change the odds in your favour, giving you just enough to time to save yourself and fire off some retribution in the process.
Its not all jets and high altitude bombers however, as Ace Combat also drops in a few helicopter and chopper missions. With a completely different set of controls however, the game also changes considerably. In fact, it feels like a high octane version of classic chopper games like Urban Strike, only with lovelier visuals and more angry terrorists driving around in old Ford pickup trucks.
Despite a lacklustre first chopper mission, that seemed to drag on for too long and left me ill-equipped to handle any enemy air-support, the rest of the helicopter campaign scenarios were much better, showcasing the strengths of this sub-genre. Different models of attack choppers handled differently, and the change in tactics needed for this kind of combat set it miles apart from its more high altitude jet fighter brethren.
There’s no DFM for the choppers understandably, but they still have their own cinematic flair, with your co-pilot warning you of incoming RPG and missile attacks which result in players performing a quick, stomach-turning manoeuvre to avoid those deadly projectiles.
So, game of the year material then? Not quite, as despite the manner in which AC:AH manages to make aerial dog-fighting more visceral again, there are a few issues preventing the title from a perfect landing.
For starters, the mission structure is horribly arranged for the first half of the game, only finding its way once you’re through about 60% of the main campaign. Missions tend to drag, pitting you against wave after wave of repetitive enemies, offering very little variety in the interim. Its only after you’ve finished yet another wave of militant Tom Cruise Top Guns, that AC:AH will start throwing some interesting mission objectives your way.
Some missions will have you reigning down high calibre hell from a gunship that’s high above in the sky, while other objectives will concentrate on you attacking military warships while trying to evade being turned into a pile of scrap by enemy forces.
Its these varying gameplay scenarios that make the title fun and exciting, but they’re either spread too far apart or pop in too late during the main campaign, that AC:AH can’t help but feel a tad repetitive.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag if impressive and confusion. The jets look great, and the weather effects are phenomenal, while the ground below looks realistic, from a distance. Up close, the textures are blurry and flat, and when playing a chopper mission, the amount of info being displayed on a screen can be overwhelming, resulting in hard to see enemy forces, meaning that several restarts will be in order.
When you’re not in the air, you’re taking part in several scripted cut-scenes that help further the story along. Characters look a little dead to be honest, but then again, AC:AH is more about dynamic F22 Raptor Jets and Apache Choppers than it is about presenting a story that uses the same expensive facial tech as LA Noire.
Multiplayer however, is where the real strength of AC:AH may actually lie. Dog-fighting against your friends is fun, but actually teaming up with them to tackle missions and team-based matches is actually a fun experience. Having an extra, intelligent hand at an extra joystick is welcome, and teaming up in DFM against one particularly challenging foe should be an experience everyone should share.
On the audio front things sound great. The roar of an engine is beauty to listen to, while the skies are alive with the sound of missiles. The soundtrack features some decent orchestral sounds, but for some reason, AC:AH only uses on particular theme at a time, meaning that some of the longer missions will loop the same tune over a dozen times, killing any appeal that it might potentially have.
Reinvigorating the franchise with a more visceral method to fight in the air, this is how combat was meant to be. Some fans will bemoan the obvious Call of Duty and shoot ‘em up influences here, claiming that it dumbs down the franchise, but AC:AH has a surprisingly deep and challenging gameplay format, asking for different tactics to suit the occasion.
Repetitive missions do damper things significantly, only allowing for the game to really pick up during the last half.
Design and Presentation: 7/10
It still falls prey to certain gaming cliches though, but this is more a trapping of its genre than a bad design decision. Aircraft looks fantastic, and the screen never slows down, not even a single frame, during the most heated of battles. Up close, the ground does look kind of ugly, and it can be hard to see your objectives clearly during chopper missions, making you an easy target for the enemy.
This is a title for fans of the genre. While your regular player may become quickly bored, dismissing the multiplayer aspect is a crime, and its worthwhile to have your own team with you in some of the harder levels. On the offline front, the single-player campaign is a lengthy one, and some missions are worth a few replays.
If Michael Bay had directed Top Gun, this would be the end result. Its a faster, more intense aerial game, with some arcade elements thrown in. Its fun as hell, despite some baffling design decisions, and has a capable online component to go with it. Anyone looking for a game to play with friends that has some heart, won’t go wrong here, but purists may be gnashing their teeth at this new take on air combat.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was reviewed by Darryn Bonthuys