Review by Xeero

"That was a cute experiment Namco Bandai, now please never do it again."

PS3 owners have been waiting a while for an Ace Combat game since the last title Ace Combat 6 went exclusively to the Xbox 360. At the time that it came out there were a number of fans who ripped on AC6 and it was met with varying responses.

However with the release of Assault Horizon, I find myself viewing AC6 in a kinder light than before. If nothing else it was at least an Ace Combat game, something that this...thing, is not.

Graphics: 9/10

Assault Horizon if nothing else is at least a pretty game. Project Aces's usual attention to detail is present in the aircraft models. The textures are crisp and detailed and all the little bits and pieces move as they should. From this angle the aircraft look very much a labour of love compared to the half-hearted modelling jobs done in the HAWX series.

Likewise the terrain modelling and texturing is also masterfully done and about as good as one could hope to see on a console release, really. Aces took to actually properly rendering trees and other clutter on the terrain making things feel a little more grounded.

Graphically the combat is a work of art. Planes burst into flame and belch smoke when damaged, oil spills from stricken aircraft and can at times splatter over your canopy making for what is at least visually a very visceral experience.

The real-time rendering for cut-scenes is a bit of a mixed bag with respectable animation for much of it, but the characters seem to lack any depth of emotion even when compared to something like Ace Combat 6 which also used real-time rendering. Granted this could be attributed more to the atrocious plot than anything else, but that will come later.

Sound: 7/10

In the gameplay environment, Assault Horizon is as strong as ever when it comes to sound. Jet engines roar throatily and as before there's even the occasional whir of the hydraulics for the exhaust nozzles on some engines. Missiles don't sound any better or worse than previous entries, but granted they've not needed much changing. As always, the guns also produce a satisfying rumble which they have since around about Ace Combat 5.

Explosions are done as viscerally in audio as they are graphically with bassy explosions and even the screeching sound of metal shearing apart, making for a very satisfying sound in this regard.

Music is a mixed bag sadly. Every AC game since 4 has had something of a main theme to it, a song that often gets used in a trailer to set the stage for the game. For 4 it was the Aegis Fleet, 5 was the Unsung War, and Zero was, unoriginally titled: Zero. There were variants of this song to keep an overarching theme to the game but the full bombastic songs never came out until mid way or near the end of the game. Assault Horizon blows it's musical wad at the worst time: the very first level which is nothing more than a glorified tutorial.

The trend keeps up with songs that at times are decent but many of which are forgettable, often settling for middle-eastern themed music even when dealing with instances that have nothing to do with the location such as introducing a Russian enemy or missions in locales well away from any trace of desert sand.

Gameplay 3/10

And now we come to where it all falls apart. All those pretty graphics and wonderful sounds spoiled on...this. Before even touching on core mechanics I'll mention one of the worse design choices for the game: Door Gunner scenes.

There are three levels within the game in which the player is, rather than flying an aircraft, is instead seated in the gunnery station of an aircraft while someone else flies it, twice in a helicopter and once in a C-130 that comes as a blatant rip-off of Modern Warfare. Simply put in a game called Ace Combat, a series which is about FLYING AN AIRCRAFT, these levels have no place. At best they're boring and at worst they're frustrating in their mechanic with having to shoot down interception fire and dump more lead into a Hind than the gun should even have before the thing finally goes down. These sequences mirror the folly of the games' "story" which is not to continue polishing what Project Aces has always done well but instead trying to emulate elements of other titles in some foolish attempt to "westernize" a title that needed nothing of the sort.

However I'm getting ahead of myself. Next up are the actual helicopter sequences, another first for Ace Combat, and as far as the core series is concerned, hopefully the last. Ace Combat has never been a simulation, this much is for certain, but there's always been just enough of a dash of physics to make the flying feel "real". With the helicopter sequences this is all thrown out the window. For lack of a better comparison the helicopter missions are essentially a three dimensional FPS. Terrain obstacles pose no threat to the player and the helicopter simply stops when it gets too close to them. No damage is taken, the aircraft doesn't even bump off, it simply stops and then slides along the wall until the player realizes they've been hugging a building for the past hundred feet.

Enemy health in these levels also takes a turn for the absurd with things like tricks taking an absurd amount of fire from your cannon, or using some of your preciously limited rockets to down them, and enemy aircraft like the Hind are simply absurd. Where in a jet only a single missile is needed to fell a helicopter, now suddenly it takes a full barrage of rockets at point blank to down one. Dealing with enemy fire is likely silly and can be summed up with the phrase "Do a barrel roll!" While it's technically possible for certain helicopters to do this it doesn't work how it's animated and just comes off as looking goof and absurd, giving the impression of one of the developers shouting in the player's ear "Oh my god! Did you see that!? This game is so EXTREEEEME!"

That said there is potential with the helicopter sections at least, however they need a substantial amount of polishing and to be relegated to their own game to really shine. Ace Combat has always been about jets, and suddenly trying to change up the action with helicopters, especially in such a tacked on manner does not really endear these sections, let alone the fact that there is only ever one helicopter to use in the story, two if you're using free mission.

Now all of this might, just might, be tolerable if the core mechanics of the game were solid. Sadly this is not the case. First and foremost unless playing on the Ace difficulty setting the player has a regenerating health bar. Even on hard this replenishes so quickly that missions are incredibly simple to complete and enemies pose little threat.

The previous Ace Combat titles were all about choice and rewarding excellence. Ranking well in missions unlocked new planes for purchase and higher rankings also gave more money for aircraft and weapons. This has all been done away with in favour of instead unlocking all aircraft base solely on story progression so that by the time the game is finished the player has all aircraft, regardless of performance or difficulty the game was played on, leaving little incentive to re-play save for unlocking superfluous colour schemes.

Likewise missions briefings have been removed. Instead after a cut-scene a mission start window comes up giving a brief blurb of "anti-air" or "anti-ground" mission and the player is expected to decide what plane with what loadout they want solely from this. After all who needs to know enemy counts or any of that stuff, right? Likewise within the story there is no mission rankings or debriefs as currency has been done away with, instead replaced with skill points to gain various effects that have little impact on the game though once again introduce a silly CoD-like setup to a series that has never needed it.

Player-choice in terms of aircraft has also become severely limited as where before a player could take any aircraft for any mission, now they are occasionally relegated to aircraft that specifically sport either the new "Dogfight Mode(DFM)" or "Air Strike Mode(ASM)". In at least one mission where ASM is required it only allows aircraft with specifically ASM and even the multi-role craft that have both DFM and ASM listed on them cannot be used.

So what's DFM and ASM? These are the wonderful new mechanics that have been introduced to make air combat more "visceral and personal" to quote Project Aces. In actuality it's just one of the ways that the game wrenches control from the player and turns the game into a rail shooter in regards to DFM.

DFM is initiated by slipping in behind an enemy and pressing the L1 and R1 buttons at the same time. This instantly glues you to your enemy's tail while they twist and roll about impressively and implausibly. The object is to use your guns to either kill or slow down your enemy and keep them within your "Assault Circle" until the ring fills up to let you lock on with missiles that had no trouble locking on mere moments before so that you can slowly pick one enemy apart before going onto the next. DFM is, as mentioned, a rail shooter, easy mode and cut-scene mode all rolled into one. DFM might be tolerable were it merely presented to the player as an option, however by the later portions of the game this is sadly not the case.

In many levels it is required of the player to enter DFM with specific enemies, designated as Target Leads. Some of these leads can be killed without using DFM though it takes an absurd amount of shooting. For others the player MUST enter DFM with them so it can trigger what amounts to a mildly interactive cut-scene with the player taken on a merry romp through a bunch of obstacles that don't kill the player even if they visibly strike the aircraft at times. Occasionally additional enemies will spawn during these and only once they've played out to a certain point can the player actually down the enemy. DFM is also forced in a couple instances where the player is forced to chase the enemy under the auspices of being able to stop said enemy only to find out that the target was invulnerable and no amount of missiles will stop them from destroying a target. Likewise all of the boss enemies can only be killed while in DFM, a prospect made that much more infuriating in that the enemies are capable of firing backwards at the player (as there were no other aircraft but the boss left at this point). With flares taking upwards of a minute to reload and only having 4 or 5 of them, the player is left with the choice of either trying to simply tank the damage from the boss in hopes that they'll manage to out damage the boss, or break DFM, evade (which is done via quick time event) and then start the sequence over again from the beginning.

Compared to DFM, ASM can be viewed in a lightly kinder light. ASM doesn't put the player on rails so much as it slows the stall speed of the aircraft and puts them on a path to clear out a swath of enemy targets. It still feels a little trite at times, but at the very least it still offers far more control of the aircraft over how DFM is handled.

In a similar vein the bomber missions are actually a welcome addition. Ace Combat has had moments in the past where players have controlled a special kind of jet for a specific mission, Ace Combat 3 standing out with it's space mission and also high-altitude intercept missions. The bombing runs carry something similar to this with the player having to fly the bomber as a normal aircraft into rage to initiate ASM at which point it goes to bombing mode. Unlike the gunship mission the bombing missions offer a much greater range of control and are substantially less infuriating. One of the few good additions to the game, but sadly not enough to make up for the laundry list that's been stated above.

Co-op play is somewhat interesting but also pointlessly messy. One of the few lessons from HAWX that Assault Horizon should have taken was the concept of always having enough AI aircraft with the player to be able to simply swap them in for other players. Certainly there's the need to keep story-based wingmen present given how Ace Combat works, but when co-op requires a player to setup a room, select a mission to host, bring in players and then repeat the entire process again for each mission, losing voice chat, etc. each time makes this none too satisfying.

Co-op also is not a 1:1 set of missions, only sporting about half the missions in the game and operating on a slightly different story, supposedly to not spoil the amazing, mind-blowing and not at all predicable ending of the game.

Story: 3/10

This one is going to be difficult to get into without spoiling it. Sadly the plot is so predictable that it's hard to emphasize just how bad it is without citing specific examples. For a bit of perspective I'll briefly go over past iterations to better explain just how poor this was.

As of Ace Combat 3 and forwards there's been fairly in depth (some would argue hard to follow) plots for the ace combat series. AC3's western iteration lost much of what it had though the JP release is a good watermark for Assault Horizon as it was the first and only time where the player characters were not silent. However unlike AH, the AC3 case was diverse and emotive, sporting a wide array of emotional issues that played well against the backdrop they were in, and the sci-fi elements of that world were actually quite fun and made for some wonderful level and aircraft designs. To this day it's probably the most challenging of the AC games to fly in.

AC4 was the big return for the series and opted to go for a silent protagonist who's story only unfolded in mission chatter. The story oin the cut-scenes provided perspective on the enemy side and followed a boy during his time under occupation and went through some very interesting themes regarding war and why people fight.

AC5 meanwhile dealt with the conspiracy of a nation that once was foiled in a global domination gambit and is now trying to play the world against itself as an act of revenge.

AC Zero was the prequel to five and dealt heavily with the concepts of what it was to be a soldier and also the nature of a nations borders and if/why they should exist.

AC6 was something of a retread of AC4 dealing with people coping with their country being under occupation.

Ace Combat Joint Assault also bears mentioning as it was, like Assault Horizon, one of the first times that Project Aces set their game in the "real world", however Joint Assault retained certain familiar themes such as keeping the core mechanic of past iterations intact, as well as retaining some of the more outlandish enemies and a more in-depth plot (though arguably one of the weaker ones up until the release of AH).

As for Assault Horizon, gone are complex themes like corporate greed or dealing with the consequences of war. Certainly some attempt is made at this but it all falls flat. The twists are telegraphed from a mile and a half away and most of the characters are plain weak. Like AC3, Assault Horizon makes use of multiple characters to facilitate the different game types, but most of them, even the main character (who Canadians might be annoyed to discover Billy Bishop has been Americanized), are wooden and boring. There's no real setup for the nemesis between Bishop and Markov, the latter is simply named and Bishop scowls and declares him his nemesis. Especially compared to a game like Zero where it's your best friend and wingman who you have to duel by game's end this is just sadly weak.

Everything comes across as forced and ultimately soulless. This not even getting into the main super-weapon of the game, which unlike the previous titles where the threat was clearly defined this one is not. Oh it's capability is shown but there's no rhyme or reason to it. One minute it can level a city the next it's dangerous to maybe a few hundred meters.

Combined with the weird selections in the sound track and awkward setup the whole thing just feels like a jumbled, yet predictable mess. Unless someone is completely new to fiction much of what happens will be realized well before it happens. Sometimes this is acceptable but only when the execution is exceptional, which it is not in this case.

DLC: 3/10

No, no, and No. While AH's DLC is a step up over AC6's simple aircraft paint schemes AH isn't doing all that much better. New planes are being added sure, but the cost is absurd being up to 8 dollars for a single aircraft, and unlike the previous games the aircraft stats have much less impact on their performance due to the whole DFM setup and basically a high level plane's only real advantage is being able to hold DFM a bit longer.

Much of these aircraft shouldn't have been DLC and simply should have been on-disc at launch, especially when the game is taken in comparison to AC5 which had some 30-plus aircraft, roughly double of what is provided with AH. Worse yet is the DLC aircraft can only be used in Free mission, co-op or versus anyways with story mode being limited to whatever is deigned to be unlocked for that point in the game's progression.

Conclusion:

As a long standing player of the series I really wanted to like this game. When elements were first shown off I was concerned but still held out that after Joint Assault we could still get a proper AC title within the "real world", but sadly all that players got was a bland, uninteresting game.

AC: Assault Horizon can be likened to the cute blonde that just got hired at the office. She's got an amazing body and a voice that'll send chills down your spine, but the moment she opens her mouth and starts talking you find out quickly just how shallow she really is. This game is a slap in the face to any long standing fans of the series. It not only removes the choice of what to fly from the player but goes to great pains to keep the player from actually flying their aircraft, relying instead on rail-shooter mechanics and quick time events instead to try and spice up the action instead of making anything legitimately challenging to the player. Coupled with other departures like the gunner sequences and quick-time events not to mention the utterly wretched excuse for a story and the whole experience utterly falls flat.

That said, with the offerings for modern flight games being so sparse, this looks to be the best option for PS3 owners who only have HAWX and the upcoming Jane's game to fall back on. The former of which is likewise very weak in terms of gameplay and the latter not looking too promising. Still I can only suggest it as a rental or used purchase as Namco Bandai should not get any more money for this to better encourage them to put out a proper AC game. 360 owners should relegate themselves to Ace Combat 6 which is a far stronger entry than this.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 12/14/11

Game Release: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (US, 10/11/11)


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