The most striking thing about getting hands-on with Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (the latest in the divisive console flight combat series) is the atmosphere. My time playing previous Ace Combat instalments is largely defined by flying between distant aircraft (dots in the sky), or different waypoints, with little variation or excitement in between. A shame, really, considering the high-tech pair of wings you’re put in command of.
Much more emphasis seems to be being placed on upping the frequency of action, diversifying and ‘excitey-fying’ the camera angles and generally making things feel more cinematic and engaging. The most obvious example of this comes in form of ‘close range assault’, a kind of lock-on mechanic that makes it easier to keep an enemy between your crosshairs. With close range assault engaged the camera lurches forward and comes to rest beside the cockpit… it might just be that Assault Horizon is the first third-person over-the-shoulder flight combat sim. Now there’s a sub-genre with a stupider than normal nametag.
Close ranged assault can be initiated at any time when you’re close enough to an enemy – indicated by a green circle around their aircraft – by pressing LB + RB on the 360 pad (presumably L1 + R1 on a PS3 pad). Videos of it in action make it look as though you’re playing on rails but, while there is certainly some flight assistance going on, you still need to fine tune the direction of your jet yourself; my first couple of attempts ending quickly with my prey escaping without much difficulty whatsoever.
While it may not completely on-rails, the mechanic certainly makes things many times easier than what I remember from previous games and purists are likely going to abhor its inclusion. I suppose it’s possible to play without it but to do so would mean missing out on the intimate, up-close-and-personal viewpoint. Isn’t it so often that case that a cinematic style results in easier gameplay?
Close range assault is available only when piloting a fighter jet, our demo level taking place over downtown Miami versus the Russians; it’s always the Russians, I’d feel cheated if it wasn’t anymore. Satellite imagery has been used to provide a true to life imagining of the city but, as an ignorant Brit, I’d be lying if I said I could pick out landmarks or vouch for its realism. I’ll just trust that Namco Bandai is telling the truth.
After killing a set number of enemies the game transitioned seamlessly into a cut-scene (seriously, I thought I was still playing for a second or two) which sees us being shot down by an enemy. In one of the more bizarre moments I’ve experienced in an air-combat game, our hero (Commander Bishop) ejects out of the smouldering plane and straight into the flight path of a nearby enemy. Yes, the plane hits you square in the face. Cue static and… fade to black.
One shock leads into another as, for the first time in an Ace Combat title, you can commandeer helicopters. The chopper demo level involves you harnessing the power of an Apache as you attempt to rescue one of your own from a group of rebels holed up in an African town.
As you would expect/hope, the chopper is very much a different beast from the fighter jet. Movement is slower and more deliberate (you’re able hover over an area and use buildings as cover from incoming gunfire/RPGs), combat is, at least in the demo level, primarily air-to-ground based and it’s much easier to get yourself killed.
This particular mission sees you fighting mainly against AA guns, enemies hiding on roofs with rocket launchers and mini-guns strapped on the back of pick-up trucks. In comparison to the fighter jet section this is a long, lengthy slog that forces you to keep your wits about you for a good 40 minutes or so. In addition to the standard machine gun you’ve got rockets and a special weapon system which launches homing missiles at multiple targets at once (the jet has a similar system).
The chopper doesn’t have the close ranged assault ability of the jets but it can barrel roll on the spot to avoid missile fire at the last minute, an ability that comes in particularly handy when taking on the enemy Hinds that appear during the finale of the demo. Like the other mission, the Apache stage ends with a bang; you find the guy you’re supposed to rescue as all hell breaks loose and a bridge is ripped to shreds by a dirty bomb.
Supposedly the overall storyline features less melodrama than Ace Combat has become known for, in the words of the Namco Bandai rep on hand during our demo: “there are fewer kids holding teddy bears in the foreground while stuff explodes in the background.” The script has been penned by Jim DiFleece, the New York Times best-selling writer behind numerous thrillers who has worked with SAS-man-turned-author Andy McNab.
The true test for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is whether or not it can link together its separate elements into a worthwhile whole. Fighter jet missions feature various different jets, chopper missions involve different choppers and there are also chopper gunner missions that we haven’t seen yet, so there’s a lot to get right… not least the (still under wraps) multiplayer.
It’s nice to see that the series is at least trying something new though. While I enjoyed Ace Combat 6 to an extent, it suffered from the same problems of staleness and lack of personality that have plagued the series as a whole. Perhaps it’s also telling that the helicopter section was a lot more fun that the jet demo… maybe they’ve been barking up the wrong tree this entire time.