So every once in a while I get a title and I think “Ahh….man…maybe I should send this to somebody else to handle.” and that thought went through my head with Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. The reason was simple – I didn’t particularly enjoy Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. The storyline was painfully stilted and the balancing on combat left a little to be desired. The “living battlefield” concept gave players a series of objectives to achieve, but the game never sucked me in. I just didn’t care what happened to the team, and the voice acting had me scrambling to turn down the sound. Graphically the game was also a mixed bag with poorly rendered human characters for the cutscenes bumped up against picture-perfect models for the aircraft in the title. As you can imagine, I was bracing myself for another painful experience with what is ostensibly Ace Combat 7. I’m glad I was wrong.
Project Aces has taken some big steps towards reinventing the series, not the least of which is a departure from the all-jets approach of the previous titles. An action-arcade sim at heart, the game now incorporates the chance to play a fighter pilot, a bomber, an AC-130 pilot, and even sit behind the stick of the Apache helicopter. While it is still you versus hundreds of enemy pilots, the game has worked some kinks out of the rudders and manages to stick the landing without burying itself into the runway like a lawn dart.
“The plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies room.”
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon kicks off in December of 2015 and immediately thrusts you into the action with an air assault over Miami, Florida. As Lt. Col. William Bishop, commander of the Warwolf Squadron, you engage and attempt to defeat an anti-government assault force. After turning the tide of battle, Lt. Col. Bishop joins the 108th Task Force – a group of pilots comprised of Russians, Israeli, and American soldiers bent on taking down the insurgent army. Their attempts to stop the enemy are soon thwarted by a new weapon dubbed “Trinity” which closely resembles a suitcase-nuke. It is a race against time to figure out where these weapons will be deployed and how to stop them.
The story, although a little cliché, is written by New York Times bestselling author Jim DeFelice. With enough character development to make you care a little bit about what happens to your team, Assault Horizon delivers a narrative that is at least worthy of following, as opposed to its predecessor.
As before, the planes (and in this case, choppers as well) are photo-realistic and perfectly rendered by the game. Thankfully, the character models in the game have also gotten an overhaul, correcting the weak cutscenes between missions. Assault Horizon also gets an environmental update with satellite-mapped arenas including Miami, East Africa, Russia, Washington D.C. and even Dubai. On some maps this works extraordinarily well, but on others the maps are still rather flat and lifeless. Dubai and Washington D.C. are probably the shining jewels of the map loadouts, featuring enough skyscrapers to keep you very busy should you engage in dogfighting near them.
“Do not fire until fired upon…”
One of the issues I had with Ace Combat 6 was that the combat, while frequent, never really felt all that engaging to me. The folks at Project Aces went back to the drawing board and have absolutely outdone themselves. Dogfighting has always been a lot of spinning around trying to line up behind your enemy to take your shot. In the new “Dogfight Mode” you can line up behind your target, awaiting a circle that rings your lock-on indicator. When you finally get it, tapping LB+RB simultaneously zooms you in and gives you the chance to line up your guns and missiles at much closer range. This mode is more cinematic, your airframe rattling while you execute crazy maneuvers. Since this mode is mostly controlled by the AI, you’ll get the opportunity to do some fancy flying you might otherwise not be able to achieve on your own. There is no indicator that these sequences will happen, but when they do it is pretty damned cool. As an example, while fighting in the Washington D.C. map I engaged a fighter from behind and he made a sudden dive directly towards the ground. Pulling up at the last second, the enemy pilot tried desperately to shake me by slicing through the dense building layout. Lining up my shots carefully, I downed the enemy plane only to watch in horror as the debris crashed weightily into a nearby skyscraper. Another sequence in Africa had me zigzagging through mountainous terrain at very low altitudes. This mode really shines when you get lined up behind several enemies, chaining from one to the next as you send their burning steel carcasses careening into the ground below. You’ll need it when you face off with the rogue pilot, Col. Andrew “Akula” Markov.
The Dogfight Mode isn’t the only new item though; you’ll be enjoying a new mode called “Air Strike Mode” for taking out ground targets. Air Strike Mode operates a little differently, giving you a strafing path with a triangle marking the entrance point. Moving within range, you’ll see the same circle lock around the triangle, allowing you to enter the pipe. While in this pipe your guns don’t overheat as quickly, you can move a little slower, and your missiles reload faster, giving you the ability to take out a ton of targets rather quickly. It enables strafing runs that have, up till this point, been a difficult proposition due to the speed at which you burn past targets.
Since there are both bombers and the AC-130 in this game, you’ll find that there are new modes for them as well. The bombers engage their target from the bomb-bay door view, carpet bombing their objectives while launching flares to avoid enemy fire. While not as involved or cinematic as the Dogfighting Mode, there are plenty of moments where the game flips to an outtake to watch your ordinance decimate the designated target. The AC-130 mission allows you to prosecute air interdiction via your 120mm (this is a change as current AC-130s are equipped with 105mm M102 Howitzers), 40mm L60 Bofors cannons, and 25mm GAU-12/U Gatling gun rounds. The view comes courtesy of the black and white “TV Cam”. The Apache is far slower and more maneuverable than any of the jets or bombers in the game, so it is still able to strafe, descend, and unleash Hellfire missiles on your enemies without a special mode. There are a few times where you’ll spend time hanging from the ‘fun’ side of a Blackhawk manning the door gun as well, just to break things up.
“Yeehaw, Jester’s dead!”
There is one aspect of the Ace Combat series that is absolutely ridiculous, but also a staple of the series – damned near infinite enemies. Larger battles like the Battle of Kursk during World War II involved over 5000 planes in the air between 4th of July to the 23rd of August of 1943, so large-scale air battles are not unprecedented, though they are not the norm. Each battle, starting with the very first one, features dozens of planes in the air at any given time. Later battles escalate this heavily with waves of enemies pouring at you and your squadron at all times. Sub-objectives ask the player to take out bombers before they reach their target, leaders that can only be taken down with Dogfight Mode, and even shaking down a missile before it reaches orbit. The battlefield may not change as rapidly as the previous title, but the missions are certainly more engaging.
Another added aspect is the ability to dodge a bit better than just weaving back and forth. When fully engaged by an enemy you’ll see two small arrows; one red and one green. Slowing down and leveling your plane lines these arrows up, allowing you to tap the LB+RB buttons to either roll, flip, or air-brake to turn the tables on your enemy by giving you immediate lock on and entering Dogfighting mode.
There is an aspect of these battles that does get tiresome – doing all the work. You are in the 108th Multinational Task Force, but you’d hardly know it from the amount of killing required on your part. By the end of the game you’ll have crushed nearly 1000 enemy planes and three times that amount in ground targets. Put simply, the rest of your squadron is pretty useless in a dogfight. They’ll shout in your comms that they’ve “got your back” and they are “lining up the shot” and such, but don’t ever hold your breath for them to save your bacon. This means that the missions where you have several objectives to complete and only a limited time to do it get unnecessarily difficult as you’ll have to zip between the hot spots on your map to ensure victory. This makes for more than a few re-attempts as you fail objectives your squadron mates should be handling. There is a checkpoint system that saves mid-mission, but they are spaced rather oddly, sometimes giving you frequent saves and other times placing them very far apart.
Another odd point for the game, given the number of missiles your aircraft can carry (over 200?!) is the lack of flares. Many of the planes can only carry 5 flares, which you can accidentally use by clicking in the thumbstick. It means that most of the time you’ll be struggling to dodge missiles without the necessary equipment to properly decoy them.
Ace Combat 6 gave us our first taste of online combat on Xbox Live and PSN, and Ace Combat: Assault Horizon brings that mode back, as well as a new mode called “Capital Conquest”. This mode is an 8 on 8 dogfight mode asking one side to attack and another to defend. The awesome part is that you can mix and match your own squadron, allowing each person to choose their roles according to the needs of the battlefield. I will admit that I had very little exposure to this mode with only a few press members available to play with, but it looks promising and should shore up the single player game nicely.
“I’ll hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by.”
There are some issues with Assasult Horizon that do mar and otherwise solid title – one is semi-cosmetic, and the other affects gameplay. While the new Dogfighting Mode adds some much-needed cinematic and engaging action, taking out an enemy leaves you facing whatever you were flying towards before. This means if you were zipping through buildings with the AI at the helm as I mentioned earlier, when that enemy is crushed you’ll find yourself back behind the stick with almost no chance to recover from your terminal course. This happened several times during combat, leaving me pointing straight at the ground like an arrow. It means that you may delay taking out an enemy you’d otherwise grind into dust just to escape the more dangerous terrain.
The other issue is semi-cosmetic but does prevent the player from fully engaging the storyline – there are no subtitles. Much of the story and interaction occurs with pilot oxygen masks in place over their mouths. This muffles much of the conversation, making it hard to consume the storyline in a meaningful way. Simply adding a bit of text would have greatly enhanced the story immersion.
“That’s right! Ice… man. I am dangerous.”
As I said before, there are times when I am very pleased to say that I was completely wrong. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is certainly one of them. While there are some rough edges, Project Aces has done a fantastic job overhauling the series, breathing new life into what had otherwise become a ‘fish in a barrel’ simulator. The action is still pretty over the top, but the addition of new combat modes makes for a much better experience overall. Dropping in the other aircraft types adds to the fun, and a more cohesive storyline helps tie it together. It’s pretty rare for a series to reach the number 7, but for Project Aces and Namco, it seems like lucky number 7 is the charm.