Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Review
Written Wednesday, October 12, 2011 By Richard Walker
'MAKE METAL BLEED' screams the back of the box for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, and if nothing else, Project Aces' latest crack at ruling the skies with its action-packed flight franchise certainly delivers on that promise. Assault Horizon is quite possibly the most arcadey and accessible Ace Combat yet, dispensing with the hokey storytelling in favour of something far more grounded in reality and down with the Call of Duty kids. With a narrative penned by best-selling military author, Jim DeFelice, Assault Horizon is more po-faced than its forebears, but the same can't be said of the gameplay, which is wall-to-wall (or cloud-to-cloud) action and explosions.
While the story is moderately engaging military modern Cold War stuff involving a battle between American forces and the Russians, all building up to a final showdown above Washington DC, the game is thrill-a-minute dogfighting that sees much of the more stuffy flight sim stuff being ejected from out of the cockpit. Assault Horizon is a straight-up arcade romp then, tearing up the established Ace Combat rulebook to create something more instantly accessible and fun. Not that Ace Combat was every particularly inaccessible before, but Assault Horizon clearly has a much broader appeal with a grittier narrative more grounded in reality and proper satellite data mapping out the game's environments, complete with recognisable landmarks, lovely shiny water, fluffy clouds and all that jazz.
Assault Horizon looks great then, with sprawling vistas, a fantastic draw distance and an impressive level of detail evident on each of the game's maps, from the pretty skyboxes to the ground-level targets, buildings and scenery. This is especially important as you'll be spending a lot of time squinting at the screen as you line up targets for a lock-on, while zipping around the hostile skies. Some of the jet fighter missions can outstay their welcome, pouring on the targets unless you can shutdown the flight leaders first. This more often than not requires resorting to Dogfight Mode (DFM) to get up close and personal, feeling the heat of your target's afterburners in your face as you chase them with your machine guns and homing missiles blasting huge chunks out of their plane. Sometimes, these DFM moments feel scripted, like designated mini-boss battles, dragging you through toppling buildings, falling cranes, exploding naval frigates or exploding oil refineries, ensuring you're guaranteed some seat-of-the-pants action, even if the rival fighter manages to soak up countless missiles in the process.
There's a great deal of variation in Assault Horizon's missions though, with straightforward dogfights really only the tip of the iceberg. Later sorties have you venturing into warzones in an Apache AH-64D Longbow, first as a door-gunner over Africa and later in the game, as the pilot. In what could have easily been a clunky and frustrating experience, the Apache sections are actually refreshingly intuitive, with a short and simple tutorial introducing you to the basics before sending you into the heat of the battle to dispense with pesky ground targets like mobile SAMs, AA guns and infantry armed to the teeth with RPGs. At your disposal is your straight-shooting minigun, which helpfully locks-on to targets while zoomed, and a limited supply of missiles and mortars for dealing with larger areas, saturated with targets all conspiring to shoot you down as quickly as possible. You'll also have occasional air-to-air skirmishes with Russian Sikorsky choppers, which are almost brutally balletic, as you circle one another in an aerial duel.
You'll also have to deal with the modern military mainstay, the AC-130 gunship mission, watching the ground from afar through the usual dark, grainy camera, switching between your 25mm, 40mm and 100mm cannons, bombing the living crap out of tiny white heat signatures. Of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon's many missions, this is by far the weakest, with enemies seemingly popping into existence from out of nowhere and mission failure ostensibly occurring for no reason. In short, this mission is a bit shit compared to versions of the AC-130 section found in numerous other games, so the less said about it, the better. Thankfully, this statement certainly doesn't extend to the rest of Assault Horizon, which has a good range of objectives to complete, whether it's evading radar on suicidal bombing runs, battling insurmountable odds as a lone Apache pilot or whizzing around during a violent hurricane. It's all about Bishop's story though, and his rivalry with his Russian ace counterpart Markov 'The Shark'.
Assault Horizon's variety is also bolstered by a number of neat gameplay implementations that make airborne combat and dogfighting a joy, from the aforementioned DFM to the ability to turn the tables on a pursuing foe using the 'switching' manoeuvre. This is usually possible during a fraught chase, at which point a red circle on your tail indicates that you're locked-on for a missile sandwich from your chasing rival. A pair of red and green arrows then appear and if you slam the brakes on, line up the arrows and hit RB and LB simultaneously, you'll perform a dramatic loop-the-loop to get behind the enemy. And so, the hunter becomes the hunted, and you're free to blast them into their component parts, in shower of oil and debris. In other words, you can make metal bleed and it'll splatter all over the screen. Mmm... gooey. It's worth mentioning that the all-out action is complemented by a stunning orchestral soundtrack too, full of pomp and bombast that lends it the grandeur and bluster of a big Hollywood movie. It's simply fantastic.
Once you've dispensed with the single-player campaign, there's unlocked co-op missions to tackle and a riotous multiplayer component that takes the dogfighting online with a full hangar of planes and helicopters to choose from and several genuinely enjoyable modes to indulge in. Capital Conquest is a mode in which each team has to defend their base and reinforcements while raining down on the opposing team's HQ, Domination involves capturing bases by hovering over them to change them to your team's colour, embarking upon bombing runs to snatch them back when they're stolen. Deathmatch meanwhile is a self-explanatory every-man-for-himself affair, offering up simple head-to-head skirmishes, involving choppers or jets as you see fit. It's a well-rounded offering, covering all of the multiplayer bases you'd expect with unlockables, ranking and so forth.
There's a good list of achievements to take on in Assault Horizon too, although most are assigned to single-player progression and completing various tasks therein. There's also a liberal dose of multiplayer achievements, which are mercifully undemanding, but satisfying nonetheless. Overall, it's a decent list, with a nice bit of variation and plenty to do across all of the game's modes. That's about the long and short of it really.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a great game, that takes all of the starch out of the flight genre and injects it with a welcome dose of adrenaline. The multiplayer is great, the campaign is great, even if the AC-130 gunship bit is rubbish and some missions can get a little one-note with far too many bogies to shoot down. The co-op missions are great too. That's a lot of greatness right there. And we managed to get through this review without mentioning Top Gun! Oh, bugger...
All of the requisite whooshes, bangs and other loud noises are all present and correct, and the epic soundtrack is just that; all soaring strings and bellowing brass. Superb.
Dramatic skies, including a penultimate stage in the eye of a hurricane are spectacular, and the close-up destruction of enemy craft is thrilling as pieces of fuselage fly off and oil spatters all over the camera. Assault Horizon looks brilliant and there's a surprising amount of detail in the air and on the ground.
Intuitive, easy to pick up but filled with smart tricks like DFM, switching and other exciting manoeuvres, Assault Horizon is every arcade flight game aficionado's dream, and it plays like one too. There's also a first-person or cockpit view for the purists.
Single-player is a substantial chunk of military-grade action, with co-op missions bolstering the replayability factor alongside an excellent multiplayer package, and a veritable airfield packed full of winged beasts.
A well-balanced list with the majority devoted to single-player and co-op, with a small, but welcome dose of multiplayer achievements that won't make you roll your eyes. Obtaining the full 1000 should be pretty simple, but not too simple.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon has all of the lavish production values of a blockbuster movie, with a fantastic soundtrack and a story that just about manages to keep you engaged. As a package, Assault Horizon ticks all of the boxes and will have sky-jockeys weeping with joy. Go on, MAKE METAL BLEED! You know you want to.
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