Ace Combat has a surprisingly long history, including its 1992 appearance in arcades where I was first introduced. Through its ten iterations, themed around combat aircraft, it has garnered a healthy fanbase. As a newcomer to the franchise, I can only imagine how that fanbase must now feel as their 20+ years of collective goodwill is frittered away on a mediocre mess of last-gen brown, stereotypical characterisations and banal gameplay. While not without its fun, this 6-hour long slugfest borrows heartily from the Book of CoD and mishandles just about everything in its downward-spiraling trajectory.
You’ll primarily play as the hero of the story, Bishop; a square-jawed, musclebound (but of course intelligent and empathic) Major whose crew includes a hot-headed Latino wingman and a blonde bomber pilot whose sole purpose is as a willing recipient of the Latino’s crude sexual harassment. There’s a fairly simple tale that starts in Africa, involves breakaway elements of the Russian army, a nuke that isn’t a nuke and a rivalry between Bishop and some guy named “Akula”. The player provides the missing story element, a crippling sense of deja vu.
Assault Horizon sets its waypoint firmly on becoming the Call of Duty of the skies and — to be honest — that’s kind of a disservice to the CoD games which are actually dramatic and fun. Assault Horizon is instead more about the military, gung-ho crap that dominates set-piece CoD-style games these days where callsigns like ‘Nomad’, ‘Kingmaster’ and ‘Shooter’ (yes, really) are uttered without any shred of self-awareness. I don’t know why some developers believe their core consumer base is made up of unnecessarily rich teenage males, but here’s the thing: the only realistic characters that I can connect to as a gamer and as a person in Ace Combat are the victims; the good guys who get hurt in battle and have a speaking voice that registers somewhere above my subwoofer’s output.
Each mission begins with what should be a mouth-watering selection of the world’s greatest fighter aircraft, but is instead a hangarful of craft that all handle almost exactly the same, so a quick spam of your keys will skip this step and get you straight into combat. If there should have been one visual highlight it would be highly-detailed aircaft models, but alas these too are merely serviceable and lack the high-resolution textures that a PC port could have afforded. The shape of each aircraft is, however, perfect — so at the very least you can drive a vague representation of your favourite combat aircraft.
Back in 1997, Peppy Hare first ordered gamers to ‘do a barrel roll’ — and while Ace Combat may have borrowed its textures from that same era, it couldn’t even manage to borrow the same handling that the games of that year were able to pull off. In Ace Combat you may rudder, you may yaw; but you will not invert your aircraft.
When it comes to the story, Ace Combat’s gameplay offers yet more reasons to question American foreign policy as you fly your massively overpowered chopper convoy above rusty Hyundai jeeps with mounted machine-guns, or thrust your bomber into the fray like it was the missile itself, spewing endless amount of high-impact, auto-locking bombs against barely-defended ground targets.
Given the current world political environment and the absence of a formidable foe, this goes beyond just lazy storytelling and verges onto actually being horrific. With that said, both the chopper-variant missions (door-gunner and pilot) are fun in a ‘raining endless death’ kind of way, but the bomber missions offer such simple combat that, barring a few inputs from the user, might as well have been cut-scenes.
Air-combat with other fighter planes is a mixed-bag but it is, by far and thankfully, the best part of the game. Targets are split into two groups inventively named Targets and Lead Targets. Targets can be easily engaged with your inexhaustible supply of Air-to-Air missiles while Lead Targets can only be engaged through ‘DFM’ or Dogfight Mode.
DFM is where you’ll spend most of your time in Ace Combat as you angle close enough to the tail of an enemy plane to engage it with a quick dual-button press — whereupon you’re pulled into a rear-view chase camera and then must keep the target inside your aiming reticule to secure a lock or fire your guns. While this is a simple mechanic, it’s complicated somewhat by the very occasional need to disengage to avoid a missile lock or deal with a counter-move by the pursued bandit.
Dogfight Mode is surprisingly fun given that it’s a simple mechanic that tests aiming reflexes over piloting skills. Panels rend under pressure from smoke and flame as the bandit disintegrates and you’re frequently rewarded with a slow-mo shot of its demise, when if you’re really lucky, you’ll see the tiny pilot’s body hurtle into the aether in a sweet, epic pull-away camera shot. Yet even in this, the pinnacle of Air Combat, the game goes horribly wrong with how frequently these pull-away shots occur, often during critical moments of a battle. You might be on a short path in which you need to destroy each piece of ground armour or you’ll fail the mission, when the camera is wrested from your control. It destroys the pacing, frustrates the player and ultimately serves only to lengthen the already depressingly long engagements.
Finally, the very last nails in the coffin (presuming that you already know it uses Games for Windows Live) are the QTE’s. Long the bane of my gaming existence, the inclusion of quick time events might here have been something amazing; the kill-shot, the lucky missile, the narrow miss. Instead, you’ll be asked to press the same single button exactly 29 times throughout the 15 levels on offer. Failing four of these will end your mission and take you back to the nearest checkpoint (which is the point immediately before you’re asked to press that single button). Fail the other 25 QTE’s and, well, see what happens.
Ace Combat Assault Horizon: Enhanced Edition is technically fun, in a mindless, repetitive kind of way and so long as you can ignore its many flaws. Not reviewed here are the co-op and multiplayer modes, that were unpopulated during my (late-night) gaming hours so there is the possibility of time spent dogfighting with friends — but ultimately there are far better ways to get your air combat fix.
- Solid array of modern combat aircraft
- DFM mode can be frantically fun
- Has Games for Windows LIVE
- Cookie-cutter CoD approach (even has the heli/nuke scene from CoD4!) that fails miserably
- Depressingly bro-fisted approach to characters
- Textures are last-gen in places
- Repetitive and uninspired air battles last way too long
- Has Games for Windows LIVE
- GIVE ME MY GODDAMN CAMERA BACK