Review by PositronCannon
"I thought I was getting a game, not an interactive movie"
I will admit, for the most part, I liked this game quite a bit the first time I played through it. Yes, it was very different from the usual Ace Combat game, but that's not bad in itself.
However, everything came crashing down the second time I played it and I got the strongest feeling of deja-vu I've ever gotten from a videogame.
To put it simply, this game is not for you if you like your games to have a decent amount of replay value. To begin with, the expanded battlefields of Ace Combat 6, where you could choose how to tackle each mission, are no more. Every mission has a tightly scripted structure, with enemies that spawn in waves as you defeat them. You rarely if ever have to worry about more than one group of enemies at any given time.
This alone could be forgivable, and it's not the first time it happens in the Ace Combat series, but it doesn't stop there. A good amount of enemies pretty much force you to engage them in Dogfight Mode (DFM), one of the new big features of Assault Horizon. Simply pressing both triggers/bumpers at the same time while at the correct angle will place your aircraft directly behind and close to the enemy aircraft, with the game itself assisting you a great deal in following the enemy's movement, including limiting your speed (most of the time it feels like the plane flies itself, honestly). In this mode, your missiles are much more accurate and your machinegun is actually useful.
Ironically enough, this mode isn't necessarily a bad thing when it comes to engaging enemies that don't force you to use it. But against those who do require it... welcome to scripted gameplay heaven. These enemies (some of which are the plot-relevant aces you fight near the end of the game) fly through a pre-determined path that is the same every single time you play that mission, and no matter how much ammo you throw at them, will not get destroyed until a specific point in the chase. This makes a good portion of the game, sometimes even entire missions, completely pointless to replay.
As I mentioned, it's not too bad against regular enemies since their flight path isn't scripted, but DFM still gets repetitive rather fast in that case as well. It doesn't help that the game encourages you to use it by making your gun a peashooter outside of it. As someone who has used the gun to great effect in every other game in the series and finds it to be much more fun than using missiles all the time, it annoys me to no end that I have to give in to the game's gimmick in order to avoid getting frustrated. Another factor that adds to the repetition is the Counter Maneuver mechanic: when an enemy uses DFM on you, you can either turn hard for a few seconds until they disengage you, or execute a countermaneuver by braking to close the distance, then leveling your aircraft and pressing both triggers/bumpers when indicated. Your plane will then do a fancy (and usually highly implausible) maneuver that will put you directly behind the enemy, and automatically engage DFM on him. It gets annoying and old quite fast compared to good ol' maneuvering on your own to try and get behind an enemy.
DFM also doesn't come without its bugs. It's not the first time I see an enemy aircraft diving into the ground or sea, taking me with it, or engaging DFM to find myself slamming into a nearby building while the game automatically lines me up.
When it comes to the few ground attack missions, the game doesn't fare much better. The ground attack counterpart to DFM is Air Strike Mode (ASM), in which your weapons become more effective and reload more quickly. The mode itself isn't much different from attacking ground targets normally, but the issue here is how the targets are always in a nice line for you to follow, in order to accomodate for ASM. Again, it makes things extremely repetitive and takes away any need for strategy or possibility to do things differently.
In terms of mission variety, the game is much more focused on air battles than previous installments... as far as the fighter jet missions go, anyway. Assault Horizon introduces a couple of helicopter missions, a bomber mission, a couple of door gunner missions, and even an AC-130 gunner mission. I won't comment much on the last two beyond saying that they have absolutely no place in an Ace Combat game, and if the regular jet missions are scripted enough, those take it up to eleven. The AC-130 mission in particular is very shoddy due to barely being able to see your enemies a good deal of the time.
The helicopter missions are actually not too bad, but they get tedious easily, since most of the time you'll be destroying enemy tanks one by one with your machine gun (and they take quite the amount of punishment) or waiting for your more powerful rockets to reload. The bomber mission is interesting when it comes to flying it (I won't go into details to avoid possible spoilers), but the actual bombing part is pretty much a simple "point and click" minigame. Boring.
The aircraft line-up is better than Ace Combat 6's poor amount, but I feel there was much more of a difference between aircraft handling characteristics in that one. It also doesn't help that, due to DFM not being usable by attacker aircraft and ASM not being usable by fighter aircraft, your plane choice is limited per mission.
As for the controls, they're basically the same as in the rest of the series, with the usual option to choose between an arcade-like control setup where you can turn by simply moving the stick left or right, or a more realistic setup where roll and pitch are separate. My only gripe with the controls is that I often end up accidentally engaging DFM while following an enemy aircraft since it's easy to press both yaw buttons at the same time for a split second while adjusting.
So, with such lackluster gameplay, you'd think maybe the story would sorta make up for it. Well, if you're looking for an engaging story with interesting characters, you won't find it here. I've never been one to care much about story in non-RPG videogames, but even I can say this one is just laughable. The way the story is presented is awful - half the time you don't even know what the mission is about or why you are there even if you watch all the cutscenes.
The gist of it is that some African rebels somehow got their hands on Trinity, a kind of missile-based tactical nuke (or at least that's what it seems to be - I don't think it's actually referred to as a nuclear weapon at any time, though), with some Russians thrown into the mix, so the whole thing turns into yet another America & Allies VS Russia thing. The plot twists after that are all either predictable or just lack punch.
As far as characters go, the vast majority are simply forgettable. There's no place for any kind of character development and most of the interaction is standard pilot talk, in an attempt to do away with what was perceived as "anime crap" in previous Ace Combat games. The enemy ace, Akula, is also a joke in comparison to old aces such as Yellow 13 from Ace Combat 04, and while an attempt at characterization is made at one point in the story, he still comes off as a cliche villain.
There's also a side-effect of this being set in the real world and with such a reused plot, and although it doesn't really affect much of anything, it still annoys me: I miss the days when my enemies flew all kind of aircraft instead of just MiGs and Sukhois.
The technical aspects are certainly top notch, though. The aircraft models are wonderfully modeled, the ground textures look noticeably better than usual, and weather effects are amazing. However, not all is good about this since there is too much emphasis on the new destruction aspect of the graphics, with the camera often pointing to something blowing up and breaking into pieces in slow motion. You can skip these short scenes with the press of a button, but it's still annoying and hurts the immersion factor greatly. If I wanted to watch stuff blowing up, I'd go watch a movie.
The soundtrack is by far the best part of the game, it's just sad that it was used for this game. It's more generic-movie-music-like than previous games in the series, but still delivers and quite a few tracks are enjoyable both in and outside the game.
As an extra, a fun feature of the game is the paint scheme customization, a first for the series. You can take any of the (usually 3, specific planes have more, unlocked through multiplayer) base paints and change any of the colors. While you can't make your own patterns, the color palette is huge and there's generally something for everyone in terms of patterns - camo, stripes, etc. Again, it's just sad that this was finally included in this game and not previous ones.
This game was clearly intended to have online multiplayer as its main component. I will not comment on the multiplayer aspect much since opinions seem to vary greatly, with some loving it and having no issues with it, and others encountering many issues, mostly lag-related. I personally am in the latter group, and my opinion is that it's way too connection-based and random. Co-op mode doesn't have such issues, but since the campaign isn't that enjoyable to begin with...
In short, definitely don't get Assault Horizon for the single player if you want something that will last you a while. I'll just say that I've played Ace Combat 6's campaign for maybe 400 hours and it's still more entertaining than most of this game. It's a sad addition to the Ace Combat series, not because of the "rebirth" aspect, the changes they've made, but rather because it's an insult to players who want a game and not an interactive movie.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 10/25/11
Game Release: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (EU, 10/14/11)
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