Ace Combat: Assaut Horizon

7.5 Overall Score
Eye Candy: 8/10
Sound: 8/10
Fun Factor: 6/10

Great new Western take on the series

Less flying, more close in action

Written by on January 24, 2012 in [, , , , , ]

Show of hands. Who here has seen the 80’s action classic and much beloved, life-enhancing, cinematic experience, Top Gun? Chances are, gamers that recognize the callsigns Maverick and Goose have taken at least a passing glance at a classic in video game air combat titles, Ace Combat.  Since it first appeared in the arcades in 1992, Namco Bandai’s dogfighting franchise has tried to fulfill the fighter pilot fantasies of anyone that has ever felt the need… the need for speed.

Not only is it known for its flying arsenals and mid-air duels, Ace Combat is also (in)famous for being very Japanese. Even with real world aircraft, there has always been some anime-inspired character design or preachy soliloquies about the horrors or war. Whether it’s questionable translation or some type of cultural disconnect with the story, or a combination of all of the above, the Japan-centric quirks of the games have endeared the series to many of its fans.

To mix things up a bit, Namco Bandai took a departure from their air combat drama template. The story, for starters, is no longer in a fictional world with unrecognizable geography.  Ace Combat: Assault Horizon puts the player in the flight suits of three pilots. Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop flies the jets which is what most Ace Combat fans will identify with. Major Janice Rehl takes the yoke of Spooky01, her trusty AC-130U.  Captain Doug Robinson leads a squadron of attack choppers.  All are members of a UN task force whose mission is to stop a rogue Russian faction in locales such as Miami, Moscow, Washington D.C. and the Middle East.  Of course, what military thriller would be complete without the threat of a big, bad weapon of mass destruction? In this case, said WMD is a conventional super bomb called Trinity which has the power of a nuclear weapon.

Military fiction/non-fiction author, Jim DeFelice pens the tale and dialogue, setting the framework for the rest of the game. Granted, the plot is pretty standard as far as military thrillers are concerned.  But I found the story more coherent than previous Ace Combats and therefore more enjoyable.

Visually, the planes have enough detail to satisfy aircraft geeks that demand a certain level of plane porn. There’s a decent variety in aircraft which get unlocked as the story progresses.  Whether I’m in the mood for the tank busting A-10 Warthog or want an air superiority beauty like the F22 Raptor, the collection can be viewed in a hangar and flown in unlocked free missions.

Geography gets an upgrade compared to past Ace Combat games and even more contemporary air combat games like the H.A.W.X. series.   A big complaint that’s easy to level in the genre is that there’s never enough detail the closer you get to the ground.  At high altitude, the satellite imagery used to model the landscape looks awesome.  However, the magic wanes as the blurry textures and the scarcity of objects on the ground become glaringly apparent the closer you get to the terrain, especially in cities. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon seems to have addressed this making the ground dense with objects. Trees and shrubbery in the rural areas.  Logically spaced buildings and even cars in cities like Moscow and Miami.

I developed a greater appreciation for this while piloting the game’s low-flying helicopters, another change in the Ace Combat formula. Previous titles were limited mostly to jets. However, several missions place the player at the control stick of an attack helicopter. The controls are understandably different but the tutorial does a good job of easing the player into action.  However, flying low and relatively slow, especially compared to a jet, presents its own set of tension.  For one, you become an easier target for enemies on the ground.  Also, adversaries are not only tanks, anti-aircraft guns or surface-to-air missile batteries.  There are also individual soldiers manning machine gun nests and taking pot shots at you with rocket propelled grenades.  Although different, being able to circle strafe your way to clearing an area is satisfying and provides a welcome change of pace to break up the speed-of-sound action that most of the game is centered on.

“It’s Call of Duty in the sky.” That’s what some fans and critics have called Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. Whether the relationship between the two franchises came from the developers or the fans, trailers for the game clearly show an influence.  I couldn’t ignore the similarity to CoD when I manned the guns of an AC-130 or the mini-gun of a BlackHawk.  Were these intentional nods to the popular shooter? Yes or no, I was reminded nevertheless.

It seems that Namco Bandai is trying to bring the action closer to the cockpit. One of the ways Assault Horizon does this is their most notable addition to the flight mechanics: Dogfight Mode.  If I get close enough, the press of a button has my aircraft automatically tail a targeted enemy’s plane, allowing close up missile locks or engagement with guns. “Piloting” is reduced to keeping my foe’s plane within a target circle while AI follows along even when the bad guy bobs and weaves in between buildings and under falling debris.  While dramatic at first, the appeal is lost when I realize that much of the control is stripped from my hands.  This my biggest complaint of the game.

As a fan of air combat games, part of the fun is the joy of flying and out-maneuvering my opponent. Remember the scene in Top Gun when Maverick says, “I’ll hit the breaks and he’ll fly right by.” Well, you get to do that….alot.  In fact, you’ll be doing that several times in most missions. Basically, the gratification of shaking an enemy plane is replaced with a LB+RB button combo.

Similarly, following close and steady enough to attain missile lock gets simplified, dare I say “dumbed down”, by Dogfight Mode.  For its attempts to make Ace Combat more action packed to give the player more immediate gratification, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon loses some of the magic that defines the genre in general.

I don’t make any pretense that Ace Combat has ever tried to be a simulation. There is no way a fighter jet can carry upwards of 100 missiles and fly for long stretches with no consideration for fuel. But what Ace Combat always did right was provide me a tiny hint of wild blue yonder. In my eyes, flying should evoke a sense of gravity defying, open air freedom that infantry-based games like Modern Warfare can’t replicate. When much of the game becomes a forced string of close encounter after close encounter, the joy of flying gets neutered.

These criticisms are even more pronounced in multiplayer. And what Call of Duty comparison would be complete without a mention of the multiplayer?  Death match is the typical free-for-all-kill-everyone type of gameplay on remixed maps found in the campaign. Although there are multiple spawn points, packing up to 16 players on these maps reduces down to one or two chaotic clusters.  With other players engaged in Dogfight Mode and everyone trying to attain missile locks, everything becomes much too schizophrenic and much too random.  The biggest problem with this game type is that there’s nowhere to hide on a radar screen.  There is no cover.  There is no camping or tactical assessment of the environment.  The notion of learning a map becomes pointless.  I would even go so far as to say that removing all the terrain and leaving a featureless box to play in wouldn’t affect the gameplay at all.

The same can be said of the other multiplayer game types.  Capitol Conquest has one team defending their HQ while the other team tries to destroy it. Domination has teams occupying specific bases on a map. Points are earned if a team can keep the vicinity clear. The enemy team can return the base to neutral status by destroying all the targets of a base.  Despite having different objectives, the pacing of the gameplay is subject to the same chaos found in death match. Maybe this is why it’s difficult to find anyone playing these game modes online.

The most sensible use of multiplayer seems to be co-op which can have players team up on eight single player missions that have been optimized for up to three players against enemy AI.  A variety of objectives include standard dogfights, escort missions and ground attacks.  Working out different roles and appropriate aircraft, and eventually executing a plan of attack is exhilarating when playing with friends.  With randoms, gameplay quickly devolves into an unorchestrated mess.

Show of hands.  How many of you have heard of Call of Duty? Modern Warfare? I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, of you have.  And I think that’s the point of Namco Bandai’s shift with Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. I mean, who wouldn’t want the type of sales, attention and rabid following that Call of Duty generates? But at what cost? At the end of the day, the game leaves me a bit torn.  While I really enjoy the Western treatment of the story and the adrenaline pumping excitement of auto-chasing an enemy, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon flies significantly farther into arcade territory. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will eventually be up to the fans if the next Ace Combat game follows a similar blueprint.

A copy of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was provided to The Married Gamers for review.


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Author: John Catuira View all posts by

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