Namco's Ace Combat series may have started in the arcades, but it really thrived in the home console market, particularly on the PlayStation family of consoles. Every entry featured real planes duking it out with arcade physics and sensibilities in tow. Like most successful console games, the series eventually moved to the portable market, starting with Ace Combat Advance on the Game Boy Advance. It would continue to toy around with the portable console space in the form of Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception and Ace Combat: Joint Assault, both for the Sony PSP, as well as the mobile market with Ace Combat Xi: Skies of Incursion for the iPhone. Despite debuting on the GBA, the series skipped the Nintendo DS and would not be seen again on a Nintendo console until now. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy marks the return of the series to the Nintendo family, this time on the 3DS, and it does so with a brilliant showing.
Despite taking part of its name from the more recent game in the series, Assault Horizon Legacy takes the story back to a fictional location where rebel forces are trying to overthrow the government and take over the land for themselves. As the pilot with the call sign of Phoenix, your job is to wipe out the forces to bring peace back to the country. Unlike previous games, the story is pretty straightforward. There's no pontificating about war and its consequences, nor is there any double crossing between former allies. While that might make the plot uninteresting, it also saves you from experiencing long, drawn-out cut scenes.
The flow of the missions follows the same path as before. The mission briefing shows you the objectives along with a map of the area and scouted-out enemy locations. From there, you can select your aircraft, customize the look, modify the basics like engine and armor, select your extra payload, and then launch into combat. At the end of each mission, you earn money based on your performance, and you can use that to buy modifications and even new planes. Unlike the console version of Assault Horizon, you're restricted to airplane combat, and you won't see helicopter and mounted gun missions. You have some bombing missions, but you'll do them from a jet instead of standard bomber, and you won't use the special bomber cam, either.
The dogfights are the same as they've always been. Your plane is always equipped with an infinite supply of machine gun ammo and a limited but plentiful supply of missiles. Most enemy planes will go down with a few missile hits or a heavy dose of machine gun fire, while other goes can be affected by your optional secondary weapons. You're only given one shot at each mission before repeating it if you expire, and while you can armor up your plane to help it take less damage, you don't get a regenerating health system like in the console iteration.
The basic gameplay received one tweak, and that's the addition of a maneuver button. When in attacking range, a meter begins to fill up, and the longer you stay near the enemy, the faster it's filled. Once it's full, you can hit a button to loop around and get behind the enemy, giving you the chance to easily pick them off. It's similar to the dogfight button combo in the console version but a little less cinematic since you aren't pursuing the enemy near falling towers and between mountains. Later in the game, it goes from being a solely offensive tactic to also being a defensive tactic since you can use it to evade missile attacks and enemies on your tail. While veterans may lament that it takes away some of the challenge, it does speed up the action, so some players may feel that the trade-off is worth it.
With the gameplay aimed toward classic Ace Combat fans and it being implemented rather well, there's only one real complaint against the title, and that would be the overall length of the story. On average, one playthrough takes about five hours to complete, and while there are a few spots where you can branch off, going back to finish those off only adds one extra hour to the total play time. It isn't that bad for a portable title, and the extra modes add more to the game, but for those looking for something a bit meatier, this won't satisfy that hunger.
Beyond the story mode, there are a few other game types. Finishing off each mission in Story mode gives you the ability to play them in Free Play mode to get higher score grades and more spending cash for plane equipment. Finish a few more, and Challenge levels appear, and finishing the game gives you a higher difficulty level. Finally, there's a model viewer where you can see each of the unlocked planes from any angle you want.
One element that has been part of the series for some time is multiplayer. Online was a big deal for the series when it debuted on the Xbox 360, and the PSP entry Joint Assault stressed multiplayer as its core component. With that in mind, it's perplexing to see the 3DS version come out as a solely single-player experience. Unlike most of the big 3DS games nowadays, there's no use of Wi-Fi (local or online) for leaderboards, let alone direct versus play or even co-op play. This is a solitary experience, and while it is still a good one, it's a tad disappointing that you can't play this with others.
The controls handle quite well on the portable. The L and R buttons handle aircraft speed while the circle pad does a good job of emulating a traditional analog stick for plane movement. The B button operates the machine guns, the A button activates the missiles, and Y initiates maneuvers. The X button switches targets, and the d-pad handles both weapon switching and radar view switching. It might seem convoluted on paper, but once you get your hands on the game, the controls quickly become second nature. The extra controls afforded by the touch-screen might never get used since the physical buttons handle just about everything you need in the game.
It may not be pushing much on the system, but the graphics look good. The planes also look fine, even though they have some jagged edges and it is tough to see the finer details on the various paint jobs. Aircraft junkies will still be able to tell the difference between crafts by sight alone, so the team did a good job on the small screen. The particle effects, like the smoke and explosions, look great and the environments also look very good. The ground textures are fine from far away, and while they get blurry when you're close to the ground, you'll be too worried about crashing your plane to be annoyed by it. The frame rate holds up well enough, and it only seems to take a dip when too many planes and particles are on-screen at the same time. The lapse in frame rate consistency doesn't last very long, though, so it isn't much of an issue. About the only thing that doesn't seem to translate well on the small screen is a sense of speed. Accelerating at a normal speed and at top speed yields no difference at first, and the only time you'll notice it is if you're looking at your targeting icon and seeing it let larger faster.
Much like Ridge Racer 3D, the 3-D is good but too subtle. Turning it on gives a sense of depth to the menus and map in the briefing screen, but it isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. During gameplay, activating the 3-D isn't noticeable since you're so far off the ground and planes are far enough that the effect won't help you judge distances. Once you decide to change into cockpit view, though, the 3-D really stands out, as that view tends to have more "pop." Even if the instrumentation isn't active, the presence and depth as you fly with the 3-D effect on make it worthwhile to check out, especially since it doesn't affect frame rate at all.
The sound adopts more of the traits from the games that came before the console version of Assault Horizon. The effects are close to perfect when it comes to the standard things, like gunfire and explosions. Even though the system only sports basic stereo, it still impresses when you hear the roar of the engines if the throttle is pushed or a jet screams. You'll hear plenty of voices coming through from both allies and enemies alike, but you'll never hear yourself speak. The voices aren't exactly exceptional, and the dialogue can sometimes be unintentionally funny, but the quality is on par with other entries in the series. The score is quite varied, ranging from hip-hop to rock to instrumental pieces, but all of it comes through clearly with no signs of compression.
Despite the association with the new version, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy was made specifically for fans of prior games in the series. The combat is rather fast, and skilled pilots will like the new maneuver feature. The overall campaign may be on the short side, but the missions are fast paced and always full of action. The game controls well, and it looks and sounds amazing. The 3-D is a nice touch but not exactly necessary. Portable flight fans who are looking for something more realistic or are already fans of the series will be pleased with what Assault Horizon Legacy has to offer.
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