I like Ace Combat: Assault Horizon – Enhanced Edition, I really do (and no, I’m never calling it that again). The problem is I suspect I’m going to damn it with faint praise and then complain about a lot of things while constantly adding “but it’s fun anyway” so I want to get this out of the way first: I like the game. It’s rarely great, but it’s also rarely anything less than entertaining.
I’m also going to admit right from the start that I don’t have a huge amount of experience with this series. I think I played one of the others on a PS2 many years ago, and that’s about it. So: Ace Combat stalwarts, forgive me if I screw up my facts. I know not what I do.
Do you want to fly a plane at stupidly high speeds, and shoot down many other planes? Are you terrified by flight sims usually having manuals so thick and so heavy you need to be a professional bodybuilder to lift them? Do you have no desire to build a cockpit around your computer with flightsticks and pedals and throttles and whatnot? Do you have a gamepad (because the mouse and keyboard controls border on unplayable)? Then Ace Combat: Assault Horizon might be for you.
ACAH is an action game, not a simulator. It has a few token passes at realism – well, your plane will stall if you fly too slowly, anyway – but for the most part this is less realistic than Strike Commander with all the realism options turned off, if you’re old enough to remember that. Here, it’s best to control your plane from a third-person perspective. Here, you have regenerating health. Here, you have 200 missiles.
It’s easiest to explain the game like this: you usually start in the air. A wave of enemy planes will usually appear. You shoot them down with a hellstorm of missiles and gunfire while gung-ho dialogue plays in the background. Repeat the previous two sentences until MISSION ACCOMPLISHED appears on the screen. ACAH is linear in the extreme: you’re not given an objective and told to fly out and deal with it; you just do what you’re told when you’re told in a series of highly-scripted missions.
Repetitive? Maybe, but ACAH does a pretty good job of disguising this and mixing things up, both graphically and in terms of gameplay. Things start off in Africa, so the first few missions are inevitably full of the same dusty browns that we’ve seen in literally every other game made in the past five years, but things swiftly move to new environments from snowy forests through to major metropolitan areas.
As for the gameplay – well, you’re not just flying planes and shooting down planes. You’ll also play helicopter door gunner in rail-shooter sections; you’ll drop massive explosives from an AC-130 just like That Bit from Modern Warfare; you’ll partake in a night-time bombing run that requires you to fly low and avoid radar sweeps; you’ll take direct control of a helicopter and defend ground troops while dodging RPG and SAM fire.
I’m told that this is the first time Ace Combat has delved into giving you anything to do other than fly planes, and… well, it sort of shows. Other than the helicopter-flying segments, most of these are one-off setpieces that feel like one-off setpieces. That’s not to say they’re not entertaining, but they certainly don’t have the confidence of the general plane-steering.
The helicopter sections, however, are a welcome change of pace. These are still about as realistic as my childhood dream of becoming King of the Universe before the age of 12, but they have more of a focus on staying low and destroying groups of ground-based targets while moving in fairly small increments, which does make a change from the relentless speed of the aerial dogfighting.
Actually, dogfighting – or, well, Dogfighting Mode – is one of the new things that ACAH does. Triggered by getting your plane behind your target and fairly close, Dogfighting Mode has your plane roughly follow behind them while you try to shoot them down with guns, and keep a targeting reticle on them to lock-on close-range missiles.
It’s not exactly another rail-shooter bit, though, as there’s certainly skill to it. The enemy will try to jink, dodge, and weave; the closer you are then the bigger the reticle, but the harder it is to match their turns, and you still need to accelerate, decelerate, and swerve to keep them in your sights. Everything else is still active while you’re doing this, too, and staying behind a plane is a good way to convince their friends to launch a slew of missiles at you.
But it still feels light, videogame-y, and not as skilful or as enjoyable as taking planes down without any sort of automated assistance, so it’s a bit of a shame that this is pretty much the only sensible way to deal with the planes with the “TGT_LEAD” marker that tend to indicate a particularly skilled pilot.
It’s presumably there to lend some cinematic scale to the combat – two planes in a fast-moving close-range battle is obviously rather more exciting than launching missiles at distant specks, and some targets in this mode will drop to a low altitude and start jinking behind skyscrapers and between refinery towers – but it’s really obvious when these bits have been scripted, and scripting is a lot less impressive when you can see the strings being pulled. So yeah, these are a bit hit and miss.
The linearity can hurt a little bit, too. On the one hand, it’s nice that battles are broken up with setpieces; chasing after a cruise missile, hurtling after bombers before they can breach your lines, or trying to escort some failing transports are all rather exciting (and not as stressful or annoying as they sound, not least due to competent checkpointing) but, again, the illusion tends to break when you hit an enemy pilot with five missiles and he only dies when he crashes into one of your ships and sinks it, because that’s what’s meant to happen.
Slightly more sore is that, from reading up on things, Ace Combat used to be a bit more innovative than this. It’s clear that most of the effort has gone into creating Michael Bay’s Top Gun: The Game, with oil from downed planes splattering on the screen and everything erupting in huge fireballs, and that a lot of work went into adding in helicopters and setpieces. But this is apparently a series that has, at times, dabbled with branching plotlines and currency systems, letting you purchase new equipment and aircraft as you see fit, and – while it wouldn’t make much sense here as the campaign has you playing a variety of USAF pilots – it still sounds like something that would’ve made the game a bit more interesting and a bit more replayable. I also suspect this would’ve kept series stalwarts a bit happier.
But! Do you remember the start of this review? Yeah, exactly. For all its failings, Ace Combat Assault Horizon is still really good fun. Okay, you have to ignore some obvious puppet strings. Alright, the new systems aren’t amazing. And yes, okay, the game isn’t particularly deep. But if you want to fly really fast and look really impressive and shoot down a lot of planes and save the world in a series of Hollywood setpieces and massive explosions; if you want to fire rocket barrages at ground emplacements from a helicopter; if you want to be chased by another plane that’s caught you in Dogfight Mode only to loop around behind it and blast it; then this is a pretty cheap way of doing it. It’s the videogame equivalent of a cheesy action movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly when it moves at a constant 60fps.
I like the game. It’s rarely great, but it’s also rarely anything less than entertaining.