Between big new releases and starting a new job a couple of months ago, I’ve not had a lot of time to continue working through my backlog of older games. Considering it’s now August and I’m writing about a game from ‘A’ still, it just goes to show how well I’m doing. I think I’ve already somewhat tired of just working down the list in alphabetical order though, so I think I’ll end up playing something that doesn’t begin with an A next. But that’s next time, today is Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.
While I’ve been aware of the series from a distance for quite some time, I’d never previously gotten around to playing an Ace Combat game. I’m not even sure why, really.. I enjoy arcade flight games in general and there aren’t all that many of them so I’d have expected to actually play one before now. Perhaps it was mostly down to them not being released on a platform I have while that was my dominant console, at least in the early days. I played almost exclusively on the Nintendo 64 and PC during the late 90s, and by the time I was playing on consoles concurrent with a game release it was already 4, 5 or 6 titles into the series and that always feels like something of a barrier to entry to me.
All this means that Assault Horizon is my first Ace Combat. Even before I started playing, I was aware that series purists weren’t exactly fans of this one so I went in with somewhat lowered expectations.
Most of the previous games in the Ace Combat series had been set in an alternate universe, known as Strangereal, on a version of Earth with different continents and countries but with (generally) real designs of fighter planes. Assault Horizon on the other hand, is set on what’s intended to be the real world so all of the missions are set in and featuring existing places and countries. I understand that, on release, many at the time felt that this was intended to be a reboot of the series (if that was the case, those plans are no more as next year’s Ace Combat 7 is back in Strangereal) into a more gritty realistic one which very likely will have contributed to the general dislike from the fandom.
None of this meant anything to me going in of course, and in a way I’m somewhat glad that it’s a break from previous games as it meant I wasn’t ever wondering if I was missing anything. Assault Horizon follows a joint NATO group of fighter squadrons led by Colonel William Bishop of Warwolf squadron. It’s honestly not all that memorable a story and mostly exists as a framework for making you go to different parts of the world – while playing it I felt very much that it was the Modern Warfare of flight sim games which I still feel is somewhat accurate. The plot isn’t really all that memorable to be honest, and has your these days standard Modern Warfare/Tom Clancy kind of thing with traitorous Russians and experimental superweapons and the like. It’s basically action movie level of plot engagement – I didn’t particularly care about the logic or details of what was going on, because the things going on let me fly shiny fighter planes and blow things up.
And what shiny planes they are. Assault Horizon features nearly 40 flyable aircraft, made up of mostly fighter planes but also a small selection of other types of craft such as helicopters and bombers. The majority of the craft are real world designs of planes past and present, as well as a few that are currently prototypes but there are also a couple of completely fictional aircraft from other games in the Ace Combat series. The vehicle models are incredibly detailed, and look exactly like you would expect them to with tons of moving parts like flaps and exhausts and so on. Each craft also has a number of selectable camouflage styles. These include a mixture of real life styles, ones based on previous games as well as promotional skins for other Namco games such as the very subtle Pac Man deco I flew a mission in that most definitely wouldn’t have made me an incredibly obvious target.
While the vehicle models look great, the characters that populate the cutscenes between missions don’t fare so well unfortunately. Even bearing in mind that Assault Horizon is an slightly older game, having been released in 2011, the characters are poorly animated and unrealistic and have this plastic look that was more common in the early Xbox 360 days circa 2005. I’ve seen far worse, but they’re astonishingly average. This isn’t a terrible problem, being as they’re only present in the cutscenes and never in any gameplay but it does feel a little jarring going from really pretty and detailed fighter planes to rubbish characters, and it probably didn’t help all that much with me paying attention to the story either.
Most of the game’s missions are based in fighter planes with you playing as Colonel Bishop. These missions are essentially the classic Ace Combat gameplay but with an extra feature that’s drawn most of the fire from some long time fans of the series, but I’ll get back to that in a moment. Despite the simulator level of detail on the planes, Ace Combat is an arcade style game so there isn’t excessive levels of detail to the controls. You accelerate with the right trigger and decelerate with the left, the bumpers roll the plane left or right and the face buttons are target selection and weapons. The controls are simple and easy to pick up, but really effective and I never found myself in any real difficulty maneuvering the plane around.
The controversial feature, at least as far as a lot of the fandom are concerned, is the Dog Fight Mode. When you’re attacking an enemy fighter and have it in a target lock at close range, a circle will appear around your targeting reticle. As you get closer this circle will shrink until it finally turns red and if you then press both the bumpers together you enter Dog Fight Mode. When you’re in DFM the camera shifts to the underside of the plane or to just over one of the wings and focuses on the weaponry there while giving a clear view of the target, as well as entering esssentially an auto pilot. You can move the reticle around on the screen to better target the enemy fighter and attack with greater accuracy to bring them down quicker. I personally quite liked DFM as it made some of the fights feel even more intense, but I can see how such as massive addition or change to a series’ established gameplay can draw some criticism.
The handful of missions where you’re not in a fighter have you playing as an airman from one of Warwolf’s various supporting squadrons. A couple of missions give you direct control over a helicopter which I found to be quite clunky, especially when compared to how well planes control, and instead use the triggers for attacks which felt somewhat counter-intuitive after hours of using the face buttons. There are also missions where you man the side guns on a helicopter gunship, fly a bomber to destroy some larger targets and finally the now-obligatory AC-130 gunner sequence that so many games in the post-Modern Warfare world have felt the need to include. None of these were particularly terrible, but they weren’t as fun as flying a fighter so in some ways feel somewhat pointless but I understand the logic of trying to give a bit of variety in gameplay.
I did feel that most of the missions were a little too long, many were paced into several acts or phases that I feel would have been better split into separate missions. Some later missions can take over half an hour to finish, and I think that’s too much for a single unbroken section of arcade gaming. The auto save in missions is quite generous though, and you can quit mid mission so on the odd occasion that I was playing during my break I didn’t have any real issues with just quitting and picking back up where I was.
One thing that stuck out to me almost immediately when I started the game up was the score, as it’s really really good. In particular the main theme that’s peppered through the score and comes up regularly during epic fights comes back to that feeling of being an action movie and really works well, but the rest of the tracks are almost as good and there’s tons of atmosphere from the music alone. The character voices, rather like the models themselves, are entirely unexceptional though at least are largely serviceable with the exception of a few dodgy accents. At least all the action noises such as the planes, weaponry, explosions and so on sound decent enough.
Despite the mission length, there aren’t all that many of them so it isn’t a terribly long game overall. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it never wore out it’s welcome and the 11 hours or so that I spent on it felt to me like a decent length for the game. The missions can all be replayed once you’ve completed them should you wish to try out other planes, go for any missing side objectives or achievements and the like, which can extend your play time somewhat too.
All in all, I rather enjoyed my first Ace Combat experience. I’m now very much looking forward to the release of Ace Combat 7 on PC next year, and will certainly consider going back some of the previous games in the series before then – the confusingly titled Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy on the 3DS (which is actually a remake of Ace Combat 2 with no story links to Assault Horizon) will probably be my next Ace Combat before 7 comes out.