Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is the latest game from Project Aces, and the latest entry into the much loved Ace Combat series. It arrived with relatively little fanfare, but has already sparked controversy amongst it’s fanbase. Why? Read on.
Making Metal Bleed
Let’s start with the game-play. The main feature of the game is the Close Range Assault (CRA), which you can trigger whenever your plane gets close enough to an enemy. Once activated, the game turns into almost a rail shooter, with you trying to keep your darting opponent in your sights as you fill the air with bullets whilst waiting for your missiles to charge. In a series were reality takes a backseat to the rule of cool, this feature is a welcome addition. Though it does put you into a rail shooter, it does allow for far more cinematic moments without breaking up game-play itself with cutscenes. And of course, it is largely optional, so for the purists amongst you, you can take down your opponents the old fashioned way.
The controls themselves are exactly like the other Ace Combat games – so very little time is wasted on having to learn to master them. Of course, for the newcomers, there is an easier control mode, much like HAWX had. Though previously limited to fighter-bombers and fighters, Assault Horizon introduces helicopters and dedicated bombers to the fray. Flying the Apache is a simple joy, skimming low to the ground and marveling at the detail which you’ll just zoom by in a fighter.
The change in gameplay occurs in the single player campaign at the right moments to break up the dogfighting action, so you’ll find yourself flying cloe ground support in an Apache, or acting as the door gunner of a Black Hawk several times, though these moments never become repetetive or too common. The same thing can be said for the SINGLE dedicated bombing mission in the game (in which you get to pilot a B52 no less!). Unfortunately, the dogfighting missions tend to be similar, with a change in local being all to set them apart (but there are a few standout moments, which I won’t spoil here!)
Graphics and Sound
As always in an Ace Combat game, the attention to detail lavished on the planes borders on eye candy – everything is exactly how it should be, and for once, this level of quality is extended to the ground itself! Probably due to players now being able to scrutinize it better whenever they jump in the cockpit of an Apache or HinD. Of course, the real showing off when it comes to visuals is whenever you down an enemy in CRA mode, as you’ll see bits of metal shearing off, wings flying off into the distance and the fuselage disintegrating as you pepper your unfortunate target with fire.
Keiki Kobayashi made the music for this installment of the series, and again, it’s what fans of the series have come to expect – excellence. Kobayashi knows his business, and it shows. The music lends itself brilliantly to the game, enhancing the action like any proper soundtrack should.
Story and Characters
And here is where the game falls flat on it’s face. Now, Jim DeFelice wanted to write a story set in Strangereal (the original setting of Ace Combat) but Project Aces wanted to show off all the shiny new planes America and Russia have. And so we have a storyline ripped from Modern Warfare. And it disappoints. Don’t get me wrong, stories which pitch America against Russia can be good, but this one isn’t.
The story starts off strong, with a rogue militant group called SRN having arisen in Africa and causing enough havoc to warrant UN intervention in the form of Task Force 108. Now, sure SRN is not particularily well equipped, but there are rumours of them being backed by Russian mercenaries. This could have led to some interesting missions, where the bulk of the enemy forces are pretty much cannon fodder, but hidden amongst them are some devilishly tricky aces. Instead, the SRN and Africa plot is quickly abandoned as the Russian elements of the Task Force go rogue, reveal themselves as part of a coup effort in Russia, calling itself the NRF, or New Russian Federation.
Here the story could have saved itself by crossing over with Vanquish but that sadly was not the case. So the Russian coup forces are soon kicked out of Moscow and deposed, but as a last act of spite lash out at the USA. This…makes no sense at all. I am sure if there were more cutscenes between missions to explain what the hell was going on, I wouldn’t be complaining so much, but the fact we get barely any exposition at all makes the whole story seem like just a loose piece of string tying together some missions. At one point I was saving the president of the Russian Federation, but I had no idea he was in any trouble in the first place, or why he was on a personal yacht surrounded by coup navy forces.
The characters throughout this story are also underdeveloped – we never learn much about them except what they like to pilot. And this is a shame as there was real potential to develop them – Bishop’s and Gutierrez’s friendship, the way Janice Rehl is almost a sister of sorts to the duo, and how Robinson fits into their group dynamic. The other two pilots in Warwolf flight are never given names or much of a role in the story. The same is true for the two characters who are the door gunners of the Black Hawks for two missions.
Your chief rival, Markov, gets some lightning exposition right at the end, and it’s weak. He’s no Yellow 13, or any of the infamous Belkan Aces. All these characters were chances to make the story more engaging and interesting. But these chances were wasted. I don’t think it’s quite down to bad writing – time and budget constraints supposedly were a real issue in development. But if that’s the case, why not take the time to polish off the story and make the whole game better for it?
The multiplayer aspect of the game is split into four categories, one of which is the coop campaign. One is the free-for-all deathmatch, and the other two are team based games: Domination and Capital Conquest. Domination is team based deathmatch, but Capital Conquest is where the most fun is to be had – both teams have a base, and the goal is to eliminate the opposing team’s base. You can pilot fighters, attackers, multirole planes, and helicopters. And once you get a kill streak of 8 players, you unlock the Trinity weapon which can one hit your opponents HQ, although it does pretty much paint a giant target over you…
Looking back over all I have written, I just realized – this game is more HAWX than Ace Combat. It lacks the Ace Combat spirit. Sure most of the elements of a good Ace Combat game are there, but they just don’t amount to what we fans recognize as an Ace Combat game. Not that this is a bad game – it’s fun, it’s full of action, it has a few really good cinematic moments, and the multiplayer means that it has a good lifetime if you’re a fan of flight games. Whilst fans of flight simulators will foam at the mouth at lack of realistic detail, the rest of us more casual fliers will enjoy the cinematic combat and high speed action, even if the story is sadly subpar.