For the first time in console history, the "Ace Combat" series has left behind its usual fictional-world setting in order to tell a modern, real-world anti-terrorism story, reminiscent of what one sees in such games as "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" and "Battlefield 3."
The result is mostly solid, even though "Ace Combat: Assault Horizon" abandons the franchise's single-minded focus on jet-based combat. This time around, in addition to dog-fighting in the skies and bombing targets on the ground, the player also gets to act as a helicopter's door gunner, a helicopter pilot and a C-130 fire control officer.
And contrary to my original expectations, this hodge-podge doesn't detract from the experience.
Sure, the missions as a gunner and C-130 officer barely connect on an emotional level and are largely incidental to the overall storyline, but they are inoffensive and dealt with quickly. I have a feeling both were included solely to give players a more well-rounded "modern" experience, though that seems hardly necessary.
The other game-play addition, however, offers something the franchise has been sorely lacking: a tangible tie to the boots on the ground.
Barreling across the sky in a jet going hundreds of miles per hour might be thrilling, but it's also an insulated experience. The cockpit acts as a cocoon, sheltering the pilot from the horrors of war. Planes, not men, fall in combat. Bombs explode in the far-off distance, the screams of the dying unheard and unheeded. Radio chatter is the only tether to the triumphs and tragedies of the moment, yet even it conveys a sense of distance.
Riding the stick in an Apache helicopter brings the player back to a semblance of reality. It's there, swooping low to the ground, that the immediacy of war comes into scope. A squeeze of the trigger ends the lives of men, not machines. The player hovers protectively near his allies, guarding their lives carefully as they dare the streets of a hostile city, intent on a rescue or a conquest.
Of course, even that sort of in-your-face blood-and-guts would be meaningless if there wasn't some decent storytelling driving the experience forward.
"Assault Horizon" tells a somewhat conventional tale: NATO is pursuing a terrorist group in Africa — a terrorist group that seems to have gotten its hands on more than a few Russian MiGs, as well as an incredibly dangerous non-nuclear explosive. The player — hopping between roles, though usually in the shoes of ace pilot Col. Bishop — will battle across the globe in an effort to defeat the terrorists and their backers.
I'm simplifying things, of course. But I have to say, I found the story to be to remarkably well told, better by far than the confused messes we've seen in several high-profile first-person shooters. The narrative keeps trucking along; the villains have believable motivations; the government and military types act appropriately to their station and the overall situation. It even becomes clear exactly how the bad guys can afford to field so much conventional military strength.
Color me impressed.
As a point of personal preference, I wish the flying experience had more of a simulator feel to it, instead of being so unapologetically arcade-style, but that's probably because I grew up consuming a steady diet of "Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer" and "Chuck Yeager's Air Combat." I just don't feel right if I'm not having to constantly adjust elevators, flaps and the throttle.
In point of fact, it's really easy to fly a jet in "Ace Combat: Assault Horizon," as the controls are very basic. Players steer with the left stick, accelerate and brake with the triggers, fire weapons by hitting buttons and activate the dogfighting mode — when it is available — by hitting the two bumpers simultaneously. Missile locks are automatically acquired if you can keep your target on the screen.
Yet despite how simple it is to control the plane and not slam into the ground, surviving aerial combat isn't so easy. Many enemies are canny, able to easily evade assaults while lining the player up in their sights — at least until the player masters the nuances of both ranged and close-in combat. And the situation is further complicated by the fact that one can't always brawl to one's heart's content. Sometimes the player must ignore the horde of fighters chasing his tail in order to keep a pack of bombers from getting within range of a major metropolis. If so much as a single bomb drops, it's game over.
The player gets a few wingmen who try to lend a hand, but they're, uh, well, useless. As in most video games, they'll probably down one enemy plane for every ten the player kills.
Flying a helicopter operates on similar control principles. The left stick moves the Apache laterally; the right controls rotation. Elevation is controlled by two buttons, and weapons are fired using the right trigger and right bumper.
The helicopter missions aren't cake-walks by any means. Survival requires constant movement to avoid enemy fire while simultaneously bringing the pain on their positions. And the dodge-roll needed to escape a missile's wrath can break the player's concentration, because it will force him to reorient himself before re-engaging in battle.
"Assault Horizon" isn't all beer and skittles, however. Two glaring flaws — one forgivable, one not — mar the game experience.
The problem I can live with is something that would be a death knell if this was a first-person shooter. Waves of enemies will often spawn from nowhere. The player will have just managed to shoot down a patrol's worth of MiGs when suddenly he's surrounded again by new foes. They don't fly there — or at least don't show up on radar while in transit. They just magically appear. It's a jarring bit of fantasy in a game where the emphasis is on mimicking reality, with almost photorealistic graphics and deeply simulated aircraft performance.
But while it certainly is annoying, I don't find it to be unforgivable.
However, I can't similarly excuse the developer's insistence on scripting events during certain boss battles. It's an obvious attempt to make "Assault Horizon" feel more cinematic, but it just doesn't work. One minute, the player will be engaged in battle against mortal enemies, the next he'll be struggling to survive an assault by an immortal ace.
It won't matter if the player is skilled enough to strike that ace with enough missiles to level a third-world country. The enemy boss can't be killed until a series of scripted scenes has been successfully triggered. And, sure, it's kind of cool to chase that ace through a maze of closely packed buildings, past easily recognizable landmarks — once. But it gets old quickly if you don't manage to trigger one of the next sequences and have to repeat everything five or six more times.
I'd rather forget the cinematics and face an intelligently tough yet mortal opponent. That way, I'd feel like I achieved something by beating him; I don't get that feeling when I'm forced to follow a path etched in stone by the developer.
Thankfully, the scripted moments don't come along too often. Otherwise, I'd have a much worse opinion about this game.
Of course, "Assault Horizon" isn't limited to a single-player campaign. Several multiplayer modes exist, some more approachable than others.
The easiest mode to grasp is Mission Co-op. The player can fly alongside one or two friends in a series of campaign-style missions, including at least one helicopter sortie.
The other easily comprehensible mode is Deathmatch, for two to 16 players. It's the player against everyone else in a duel in the sky. The winner is the person who scores the most kills (or points, depending on how the match is set up.)
The other two game types — Capital Conquest and Domination — aren't quite so quickly grasped, because they involve fighting over territory, which isn't so easily done in a high-speed aircraft.
In Capital Conquest, players are split into two teams (with AI pilots added to keep things balanced). Each team is trying to destroy the other's headquarters, which involves clearing out anti-air defenses before going on what is essentially a bombing run. From what I've witnessed, matches tend to end quickly, because it doesn't seem to take much effort to destroy a headquarters. One game I was in from the start finished in about three minutes, and it seemed like a single player on my team was responsible for the victory. That's not terribly balanced.
Domination is a game of king of the hill, where players are once again split into teams, either four-on-four or eight-on-eight. The teams attempt to claim territory by flying around in marked Occupation zones. If the team claims a zone, the other team has to try to drive them out and destroy the AI-controlled ground forces that automatically spawn. It's an easy concept to understand, but it's really complicated in practice.
I don't really have much else to say. "Ace Combat: Assault Horizon": It's a decent, modern aerial combat game.
"Ace Combat: Assault Horizon"
Publisher: Namco Bandai.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. Reviewed on Xbox 360 using a copy sent by the publisher.
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: A good rental or acceptable purchase for players into arcade-style aerial combat.
Images courtesy of Namco Bandai.