Through three console generations, the internal team at Namco Bandai has carefully tuned its brand of flight combat into something that skirts the line between arcade and simulation. Big, sweeping story lines, real planes and online play have been added over time, but the act of dogfighting has always remained fast and engaging without having to worry about too many technical aspects, such as fuel consumption. It has been several years since the Project Aces team tinkered with the main series, and the games have all had the benefit of releasing only on one console at a time. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is the second franchise game on the Xbox 360, and it seems that the team has produced its boldest, most feature-packed game yet.
The plot serves as the first sign of some of the series' big changes. The series now takes place in real cities, just like the PSP game Ace Combat: Joint Assault. You mostly play the role of Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop, leader of the Warwolf Squadron of U.S. fighter pilots trying to stop an insurgent antigovernment movement from taking over Africa. While this may seem like a routine operation, things get complicated when it is discovered that the insurgents have something akin to a nuclear device at their disposal. On the way to stopping them, you encounter several plot twists that take you from Africa to the Europe, Middle East, Russia, and even Washington, D.C.
You won't always be in control of Bishop. As in the recent Call of Duty games and its ilk, you'll be taking control of a few more characters that have different roles based on the aircraft they pilot. In a way, it is meant to show off different aspects of the story to better flesh it out. While it is nice that the focus isn't squarely on the shoulders of one character, the disadvantage is that it doesn't allow any of the characters to break out of the two-dimensional mold. It's not as if a game like this needs that sort of depth to its characters, but aside from Bishop's recurring nightmares, everyone fills in their roles as expected. It's a small price to pay to get dialogue that feels more grounded in reality.
As expected, most of your sorties will use a variety of planes with weapon loadouts that differ depending on whether you want to target air or ground adversaries. You've got a limited supply of missiles per mission that's offset by both a machine gun with limitless ammo and a rather big payload. You can still control the speed of your craft and are limited to a certain area of engagement during every mission. In short, most of what you've seen or experienced in previous installments has carried over here.
In order to make battles more exciting and cinematic, the team has introduced a dogfighting mechanic called DFM. When you get in range with the right amount of speed, a green blinking circle will appear on the targeted enemy. By hitting two of the shoulder buttons, you can get behind the enemy and tail him, giving you a better chance at hitting him with missiles and machine gun fire. While the tailing will be automatic, you have to point your targeting reticle at the enemy to get the lock, and you can control your speed and escape the mode, if necessary. Aside from the increased hit ability, the mode gives you the chance to do some cinematic stunts during the chase. Flying under falling towers to skimming the ocean isn't uncommon during dogfights. You also get the benefit of following missiles to their target and seeing the affected craft burst into flames and break apart in slow motion.
With the exception of a few missions, use of the DFM is optional. If you want, you can still shoot at planes the old-fashioned way and score a good number of kills, especially against bombers. Keep in mind that the enemy AI has gotten much better this time around, so expect the enemy planes to use plenty of chaff if you choose to fight from a distance.
Depending on the mission in Assault Horizon, you can take control of a side gunner on a helicopter, a gunman on a bomber, or a helicopter pilot. Of the three, the side gunner is the most straightforward since you play the sequence on rails and shoot everything that moves. The bomber missions also follow that base design, though the challenge lies in the fact that your view is monochrome. You'll see the destruction you've caused in key scenes, but for the most part, you're simply looking for white dots to shoot. You have three different weapons to use, so there is some strategy in determining whether the enemy requires machine gun fire or larger, exploding projectiles. Playing with the helicopter is in contrast to the other vehicles and roles in the game. While it is fast, it isn't as maneuverable as the jet. Its ability to stay in one spot makes it better for air-to-ground combat, and that's exactly what you'll be doing for most of your missions. While it can dodge missiles, don't expect much chopper-to-chopper combat in the game or anything resembling DFM for helicopters.
The aircraft and gameplay variety is a welcome change for the series. Another is the flow from cut scene to gameplay. Previously, you had a rather Spartan mission briefing screen, but now, you transition easily from cut scene to vehicle and loadout selection without entering a screen in between. Though the game still has load screen between missions, they feel shorter, so the entry to action is rather quick. For a campaign that lasts 8-10 hours, any load benefits can only be good.
There are a few spots where the game stumbles. There's the idea of a regenerative health system, which would work well if these were futuristic vehicles. For events that aren't so far off into the future, though, it feels like a crutch that's only used to appeal to a wider audience. While the length of helicopter gunner and bomber missions feels right, the plane and helicopter missions feel drawn out. The presence of checkpoints eases the pain a bit, but it isn't good to have your missions feel long in a flight combat game.
Introduced in Ace Combat 6, online multiplayer felt natural to the series, and it comes with a few improvements this time around. The general improvements follow a Call of Duty-style ranking system where the more you play, the more you level up and gain access to things like weapon perks and new plane colors. As far as modes are concerned, you have standard deathmatch and domination modes, which have you trying to hold as many territories on the map for as long as possible to ensure victory. Co-op consists of regular campaign missions modified to allow for 2-3 extra players, though the accessible missions are all tied to your progress in the single-player campaign. Unless you've completed the game, there isn't much you can do in this mode.
New to the game is Capital Conquest, where you have to take out your enemy's antiaircraft guns to clear the way for your bomber to blow up the capitol building. The mode is fun, especially if you can get together a coordinated team with a mix of helicopters and jets. Best of all, every multiplayer mode not only has a pretty active community at the moment but also no lag. If there is one complaint, it would be with the chatter that happens during the matches. There is a radioman who confirms all of the kills in the game but refers to the kills via call signs, which are randomly assigned to players. It's difficult to see who's doing well in the match until it's all over.
Free Mission mode lets you replay all of your completed missions in any order you wish. The hook is that all of the skills and perks you've earned in multiplayer can be applied here and vice versa. In essence, you can either make the single-player missions easier on yourself through your online exploits or make yourself a more formidable opponent. Each mission gives you a grade based on your score, and while that's good, it's disappointing that you have no idea what your score will be until the mission ends. It's rough if you spend time on a long mission only to find that you received a less-than-average score.
Graphically, Assault Horizon looks better than before, which is a tough task since the previous games already looked quite good. The planes had a good amount of detail, but when the camera is placed so close to them in dogfighting mode, you can really see the meticulous details, right down to decal placement. They also look much better when they're destroyed and disintegrate under missile and machine gun fire. You see character models often enough that it's worth noting their texture work. The skin is much rougher looking and less perfect than what you'd see on other human skin textures. Their faces look like what you'd expect from Western developers more so than Eastern ones, but they are done well and animate nicely.
The environments look different because of the muted color scheme, which gives everything a gritty look. It isn't a return to the overabundance of browns and grays most game seem to embrace, but it isn't a brightly colored landscape, either. Like before, large structures give the places some depth, and seeing your plane chase another while avoiding falling oil towers or barely missing a football stadium just adds to the cinematic experience. Unfortunately, the rest of the city grounds look flat and have textures that are only meant to be appreciated from afar. It won't bother most since the objective is to avoid getting close to the ground, but it is worth nothing.
In carrying on with the tradition set by its predecessors, the sound in Assault Horizon is nothing short of brilliant. The performances aren't exactly Oscar caliber, but the delivery is much better than what's expected from most video games. Furthermore, the lines sound more like realistic dialogue, so you won't hear outlandish insults such as, "Go fly with the angels." The effects are loud but distinct, so while explosions sound the same, gunfire from different aircraft is easily discernible.
The controls for the planes are exactly the same as before. Jets get two different control schemes, so newcomers can handle simple steering with one analog stick on one control scheme while veterans can deal with the intricacies of rolling the plane. Both the bomber and helicopter gunner positions are pretty straightforward since you just have to take care of a cursor. The helicopter missions initially seem difficult, but once you think of it as a first- or third-person shooter, piloting the Apache is a piece of cake since you don't have to worry much about altitude. The only gripe is that the owners of the flight sticks that were released around the time of Ace Combat 6 won't be able to use them in this title. It's unknown whether this is the result of the helicopter missions, but it is a shame that Xbox 360 owners won't be able to reuse their flight sticks for this sequel.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon proves that the franchise still delivers quality after all these years. The series adopts even more of an arcade stance this time around, but the dogfights consequently feel much more engaging. The variety of planes and plane types adds something new to the series, and most of it fits rather well. Multiplayer is engaging enough and has very vibrant online communities, so it shouldn't be difficult to find a game. The controls are accommodating for both rookies and veterans, the sound holds up to the standards set by the game several versions ago, and the graphics have improved significantly. It may play a tad differently from the older titles, but once you accept the changes, you'll find that the gameplay is more exciting. If you fancy more arcade-style flight combat games than simulation ones, don't hesitate to pick up Assault Horizon.
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