If Forza Motorsport 4 can be described as “ ”, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is undoubtedly the buxom blonde of the sky. It’s a game that takes the most destructive flying machines in the world, wraps them up in simple context, and tells you to utilise their full power against hordes of baddies. Namco Bandai have run with the tagline “MAKE METAL BLEED” on the back of the retail box, and it’s a notion that’s hard to dismiss after spending time in their lovingly recreated aircrafts.
There’s little doubt the campaign has been penned with maximum action in mind. You hardly have time to breathe before being thrown into a close-quarters dogfight, a mode of attack that plays at breakneck speed. In order to eliminate your opponents you need to get their machine within your cross hairs. When you’re close enough, a target appears around their aircraft. A quick tap of the shoulder buttons and you’ll be chomping down on their vapour trails.
Once ground has been made up, a larger target area appears. If you keep them within this zone for long enough, it’ll turn red, providing the perfect moment to unleash a missile attack. While a constant barrage of machine gun fire will soften their armour, the easiest way to send them spiralling towards the ground is by packing an explosive punch.
These moments are completely bonkers, too. Most enemies can be taken out with a well-timed attack, but the occasional few put up stern resistance. When the tables are turned, and you’re trying to outrun an onslaught from behind, it’s revealed that speed isn’t the best defence.
In fact, quite the opposite. Decelerating when under pressure will allow you to regain control with a well-timed flip. Get it right, and your chaser is in huge trouble. Get it wrong and it’s likely the city below will become your oversized graveyard. This dogfight system provides some truly enthralling action, forcing you to fly in and out of skyscrapers, through industrial works, and over stadiums as if they posed no physical threat at all.
It’s worth noting that this formula is saved for fighter planes only. The campaign also thrusts you into Apache helicopters, but a different flying style is needed to be successful here. Predictably, controlling a chopper is far more cumbersome as it struggles to deal with anything other than destroying ground patrols. Both the cockpit and third-person view are extremely tricky to master properly, as the camera and lack of sight ramps up the difficulty. Swapping agility for sheer power, the helicopters provide a welcome break from the constant twisting and turning of the jets.
Potential repetitiveness is also broken up through the inclusion of stealth bombers and stints as a chopper gunner. Neither do anything original, but in a game that puts an emphasis on blowing things up, they are well placed. Single-player highlights come when real-world locations are used; forcing you to defend key locations such as Dubai, Moscow, Miami and Washington DC. Each are recreated admirably, with landmarks and other defining features easily recognisable.
The view of Dubai is astounding and highlights the game’s impressively sharp looks. Certain missions have you flying through dangerous weather such as heavy rain and snow storms, providing a torrid beauty that echoes the ballet of war taking place in the sky.
Although Assault Horizon is crammed full of excitement, missions are a tad long. Most of the time enemies spew in from all corners of the map, forcing you to yo-yo back and forth. It’s not unusual for outings to last at least half an hour (depending on your skill). The story itself is remarkably cheesy and pushes patriotism so far down your throat you’ll be spewing up red, white and blue. Characters aren’t developed too deeply, but the constant radio chatter is a huge plus during missions. Not only helpful, the chatter it provides a sense of comradeship when amongst the clouds. Cut-scenes are cinematic and engaging for the most part, although the finale is unintentionally hilarious.
For those looking to extend their time in the air, 3-player co-op and 16-player online multiplayer are included. Whether you’re teaming up with friends or taking part in an 8 vs. 8 fire-fight, adding the element of total human control makes each contest hugely unpredictable. Expect to see players crashing into the ground following a mistimed flip and concocting in-depth plans to eliminate your crew.
That, or witness them fail completely. In the online arena, it’s very much a team affair, as you’re likely to lose if your peers are too busy trying to shoot down the nearest pigeon. Plus, there’s more to come – expect to see DLC based in locations such as Hawaii and Tokyo soon.
In the four years since the last Ace Combat, the series has done an awful lot of growing up. The upgraded close-quarter battles evolve dogfights significantly, providing a sense of velocity and energy that stacks up against the power of the aircraft. Online battles flesh the short campaign out, and with a few friends this is one hell of a blast. Cheesiness aside, Assault Horizon is an endlessly thrilling and mature addition to a franchise that continues to soar above its competitors.
Xbox 360 version reviewed. Also available on PlayStation 3.