Ever since I was fifteen years old - many (, many, many, many - Ed) moons ago - I’ve been trying to recreate a very specific feeling. Now if you can take your mind out of the gutter for a second, I’m talking about the first time I played After Burner at Ye Olde Arcade way back in 1987. Maybe it was my fascination with Top Gun released the previous year that made me want to reenact these heroic fantasies, but there was something about playing an ace pilot decimating waves of enemies with a user friendly interface (as opposed to a simulation) that was addictively appealing.
I’ve searched far and wide to recapture that feeling. Crimson Skies on Xbox was a worthy distraction - as was the supremely underrated Warhawk on PS3 - and the HAWX franchise had its moments, but nothing really satisfied that fifteen year old gamer screaming for a fighter pilot fix. Then a few months ago I took Ace Combat: Assault Horizon out for a spin for the first time.
I wasn’t familiar with the series, other than a recommendation from our esteemed editor, and even the brief play test rekindled that loving feeling that I’d thought long gone. While it does have some niggling issues, the teenage version of myself can finally rest easy after making the skies a little safer for all mankind.
Set a few years into the future, you play various pilots in NATO’s peacekeeping forces, pacifying violent outbreaks where needed. The fictional countries and locales, a staple of the franchise, have been replaced with real world settings which helps ground the tone to a point. After all, you are taking on a maniacal paramilitary group with a doomsday device known as Trinity as a final solution to the “never over” Cold War. Yep, the plot is from the uber-cliché handbook and fits the play style to perfection.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon makes aerial sorties user friendly with a variety of mission types at your disposal as well as a plethora of fighters to pilot. It’s not all about high altitudes and breakneck speeds. Developer Project Aces mixes it up with some palette cleansing Apache helicopter runs, several stints as a chopper door gunner and has you manning all manner of explosive awesomeness in an AC-130. Later in the piece there’s even some bombing runs, but I’ll get to those.
After a brief tutorial designed to get newbies up to speed with the combat system they turn the cheese up to Michael Bay settings as you light up half of Africa to an epic soundtrack while the opening credits roll. It’s Black Hawk Down meets Top Gun as you defend a downed Apache from incoming fire and RPGs. Was it stupid? Sure. Over the top? You betcha, and I was one hundred percent along for the ride.
The mission structure is fairly simple. Taking to the skies in high speed jets puts the focus on dog-fighting and intercepting missiles, all other missions have you playing support roles to ground troops during search and rescue missions or all out assaults, wiping out incoming enemy forces with precision bombing runs, air strikes or sinking a fleet of aircraft carriers and battleships with extreme prejudice.
As you’re battling the urge to do your best “Talk to me Goose” impersonation, you’ll notice that the dog-fighting is handled particularly well. Flight controls are very much arcade styled and responsive, with an on-rails cinematic twist for engaging at close range. When you’re snapping on the heels of an enemy pilot, you’ll be prompted to click both bumpers to enter Dog-Fight Mode (or DFM).
Once triggered, you’ll follow a set flight path as you angle a large reticle to lock on to your prey. The closer you get the bigger and easier it is, but you’ll still need to manage your speed and correct on the fly to stay on target. It makes for some extremely tense and satisfying chases, usually punctuated with a movie moment explosion once you’ve clipped their wings.
You’ll also need to be mindful of who’s on your tail, as your adversaries can initiate this mode as well. When they’ve got you in their sights a red and green arrow will appear in the centre of your HUD at different heights. Rapid deceleration will get these two arrows to line up allowing you to trigger a loop de loop counter-maneuver and turn the tables on them. Just hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by.
There’s also a healthy dose of air-to-ground missions, replete with Air Strike Mode (ASM) where you focus on ground targets along a specific route for maximum impact and to cover advancing ground forces. Apparently the advantage of entering this mode is to throw off enemy lock-on systems, but I didn’t notice any discernable difference one way or the other.
As much fun as I had through the majority of these missions, they were offset with several near controller snapping WTF? moments. The deceleration required to initiate a counter-maneuver was temperamental, particularly in the final missions when you want it to be spot on. I would hit the brakes for a solid three to four second block waiting for the prompt to no avail, and frustratingly get blown to smithereens as I cursed till the air turned blue.
The entry windows for the DFM and ASM sporadically wouldn’t register and would often fail to recognize a direct flight path, instead forcing a mid-air u-turn to start a bombing run, which makes no sense at all. What was worse were the bombing run missions in the latter stages that completely jettisoned the responsive controls and camera friendly rails that I’d come to know and love, with hard to visually lock-on targets for no apparent reason. Crazy!
The mission length also had a tendency to run way too long as well. Considering the limited ammunition you can carry, it often left me resorting to taking out dozens of ground vehicles and enemy Hinds with nothing more than a machine gun, unless I chose to restart the entire mission.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is an extremely fun action experience that is sure to induce Tourette’s to the most levelheaded gamers. It’s a blast for the most part, but on occasion it defies explanation by breaking its own conventions and using shoddy camera angles and unresponsive controls to artificially increase difficulty.