Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Review
The wait is over. Ace Combat has finally returned to the PlayStation platform and this time, they bring flight fans a more visceral experience complete with attack helicopters and a decent storyline. It lacks the punch we’ve seen in teaser trailers and previews and the multiplayer is questionable at times, but it remains fun throughout. The thrill of taking down a target – especially the trickier ones – never diminishes, the control is sturdy and reliable, and you never really feel overmatched or frustrated. It lacks polish, but not entertainment.
Visually, the game excels in terms of the landscapes and explosive, in-your-face effects. Whether you’re nailing targets on the ground or dodging falling towers as you fly low in hot pursuit of your quarry, the captivating effects keep you coming back for more. Upon closer inspection, the planes and helicopters aren’t finely detailed, and we tend to see the same flaming wreck after nailing down a kill. The presentation just isn’t as rich and brilliant as I would’ve liked, but the effects and solid ground graphics definitely create an appealing palette.
If there’s one element that could’ve used more time in development, it’s the audio. The voices during flight are fine, the intense crash of missiles and general weapon fire is good, and the soundtrack – although repetitive – definitely fits the action. Unfortunately, much like the graphics, we’re just lacking that extra layer of crispness. The machine guns, for example, sound deadened and almost muted, and the original score really only kicks in during dogfights. Overall, the technical elements are fine, even excellent in some spots, but there’s a general lack of “oomph.”
If the gameplay didn’t step up to the plate and deliver something that’s endlessly entertaining, the aforementioned drawbacks would’ve stood out. In fact, without enticing, addictive flight fun, any shortcomings not associated with the gameplay become more irritating than they actually are. Thankfully, Assault Horizon utilizes a mix of variety, great control, and a totally bad-ass mechanic known simply as Dogfight Mode to keep us on the edge of our seats. You just can’t get enough of the good ol’ DFM.
But before I elaborate, let me make something perfectly clear: this is not a simulator. If it was, I really wouldn’t be able to play it as well as I do. Although it’s not a flat-out arcade style found in the likes of Warhawk, and we do control air speed, altitude, and even yaw, this one is completely accessible for all gamers. Believe it or not, they even made those extremely challenging helicopters challenging. Sure, none of it is realistic (especially when the copters perform evasive barrel rolls), but so what? It’s all about the fast-paced action.
You will have the chance to fly multiple types of jets, including a couple Falcons and a MiG, and although there are only a few helicopters, they’re obviously very different. You’ll even man the minigun in an attack helicopter a few times, and to add even more diversity, you follow a storyline on the ground. It’s an on-rails plot where the characters move and speak of their own accord, but you can look around with the right analog stick. The story and two very distinct types of flying keeps the game feeling fresh for a while, so that’s a plus.
There’s only one issue I have when switching back and forth between jets and copters: the commands are mapped to different buttons. For instance, R1 speeds up in a jet but it fires missiles with the helicopter. You use the left analog for everything with the helicopter – acceleration and deceleration as well as turning – but you only turn with the left analog in a jet. You can fiddle with the settings if you like, though. Besides, once you make the transition a couple times, you start to get used to it.
So the control and accessibility are huge bonuses, but the single biggest draw is definitely Dogfight Mode. When locked onto a target, if you can get close enough, a circle will appear around your eventual victim; hit R2 and L2 to enable DFM and prepare for a blast. Your jet swings into position behind it and you switch to something that’s half auto-pilot; you don’t have to worry about altitude, but you still control the speed and turning. So you chase this thing, keeping it centered in the red circle until it’s full, and then you unleash your missiles. The chase is always invigorating and the results are spectacular and very satisfying.
Furthermore, a target will often lead you on a scripted chase that takes you low through crumbling pieces of terrain (that includes buildings), and this is clearly the highlight of the game. Lastly, if an enemy has locked you into a dogfight and you’re the pursued, you can try something totally sweet: you hit the brakes, draw him in, and when the red triangle meets the green in the center of your screen, you hit R2 and L2 and perform a counter maneuver. You flip over the chaser and suddenly, you’re the chaser!
“…you’re slowing down.”
“I’m going to bring him in close.”
“You’re gonna do what?!”
“I’ll hit the brakes and he’ll fly right past.”
If you don’t know the movie, you’re almost disqualified to live. Anyway, that’s basically what this is like. And it’s nowhere near as challenging as it sounds. You can’t abuse the ability, either, as it only works if you’re in a dogfight; if a missile is simply fired in your direction, you just have to avoid it. You also have flares that can help in this capacity. Oh, and did I mention that the helicopter can avoid missiles by doing that crazy barrel roll I mentioned earlier? Yeah. You can also zoom in with a heavy machine gun with the copter.
All aircraft have an optional special weapon that you can switch to by pressing the Square button. For instance, the helicopter has a fantastic air-to-ground special that allows you to paint four targets on the ground, and then unleash four seeking missiles that effectively destroy with great precision. One of the jets has something similar. Before a mission starts, you know what to equip because it’ll tell you if it’s an air-to-air or air-to-ground mission, and that’s a huge benefit. Each plane has four stats, so you can make a selection suited to your style.
It’s wicked fun but there are a few problems. The story is okay and can be pretty interesting at times, but you lose the thread of it during gameplay. The pacing also feels a little stilted, as you never really know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and the objectives are a little bland. And like most flight games I’ve played, once you’ve gone through three or four hours, you feel like you’ve done everything there is to do and all you can look forward to is more targets to shoot. Yeah, there are copters and jets and even the minigun seat but still… Then there’s the lack of “oomph” I mentioned earlier.
Also, while the 16-player multiplayer can be awesome fun, you can already foresee that skilled players will just keep countering all day long. The only saving grace is that you can slow down when pursuing, so he can’t perform the counter, or you can break off entirely by hitting Triangle. I tried co-op as well, expecting it to be completely engrossing, but it too felt a tad underwhelming. I’m not really sure why; maybe it just doesn’t feel that different from the single-player experience.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon won’t amaze you with a crackling burst of energy generated by supreme polish and high production values. The graphics and sound aren’t of an elite quality, even if they’re plenty competent, and the pacing feels off. But the fun factor absolutely cannot be denied, as the Dogfight Mode will bring you hours of white-knuckle, ultimately rewarding entertainment. The control is tight and accessible to all, the variety of two distinct flight types adds plenty of flavor, and the challenge is just about right.
In short, the game would be average without DFM. That may not sound like good news, but man…what a super cool feature.
The Good: Great special effects. Jets and helicopters add variety. Tight, accessible, reliable control. Challenge is acceptable. Awesome Dogfight Mode that solidifies the gameplay. Intense, addictive atmosphere.
The Bad: Technical elements lack punch and power. Can be tough switching between plane and helicopter. Pacing seems erratic and objectives are cold and distant.
The Ugly: “Just a liiiitle more oomph and this one is a gem.”
10/11/2011 Ben Dutka