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Ace Combat: Assault Horizon: Steel Phoenix

Stagnation is often the bane of great gaming franchises. It's easy to see the effects of this undesirable phenomenon simply by walking into your local gaming retailer. Ideas that were once novel are being spread too thin these days, and franchises once thought invincible are no longer producing installments. It's really amazing to see a sinking franchise reinvent itself. The Ace Combat franchise already has a lock on the underdeveloped genre it belongs to, yet even it is not immune to stagnation. Namco Bandai and Project Aces recognize that, and are taking action to prevent it. Enter Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. If the recently-released demo is any indication, the seventh installment of the long-running (and consistently great) combat flight series shows that the developers weren't kidding when they used the word "Rebirth" to describe it.

Though the file size for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is small (less than half a gig), it's a long demo. It contains two missions that feature fundamentally different styles of gameplay. Already we're seeing the changes; until now, Ace Combat has only been about taking to the skies in the fastest and most powerful fighter jets. While Assault Horizon's focus is undoubtedly on the dogfighting, it's also looking to expand its horizons, so to speak.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon's Air Supremacy mission follows a pilot operating under callsign Warwolf 1. There's only a touch of storytelling present in this mission; the pilot has apparently been dreaming about his own death for quite a while, and that's about all we have to work with so far. We have a transition to a wide scale sortie over Miami Beach, where the pilot in question fortunately snaps out of his daydream and gets back to the fight.

From the moment you're in control, Assault Horizon's new direction becomes very apparent. You're immediately pulled into Dogfighting Mode, a mechanic that takes most of the control away from you to allow for a much more cinematic experience. The camera angle pulls in extremely close, and provided you keep your enemy in your sights, you will remain almost directly at his six o'clock. Your first Dogfighting Mode target seems to be invincible to your attacks, but luckily he ends up flying too low and crashing into a giant scoreboard. Aside that one particular instance, Dogfighting Mode is more about getting extremely close to your target -- close enough to the point where deploying chaff countermeasures won't save him.

After the initial dogfight, your plane takes a bit of shrapnel, which sets up a plausible scenario for a control tutorial. The default scheme is "Optimum," which is much more like that from The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces than previous Ace Combat games. Your plane is incapable of rolling, and only banks left and right on command. This control scheme works with a new camera system that makes the action look more raw and chaotic. Also (kind of) borrowed from The Sky Crawlers is a mechanic that allows you to pull off an impossible aerial stunt that puts you at the six of a pursuing bandit. Of course, if you want complete control over your aircraft, you can switch the control type to Original. The action looks great and plays even better. At the end of the mission, an enemy pilot called the Sharkmouth shows up and hits your plane dead on with a missile. Via a simple quick time event, you eject from your plane into the insanity above. And it seems like the pilot's premonition might just come true; the screen cuts to black as the Sharkmouth's plane hurtles toward his unprotected body.

The second mission in the Ace Combat: Assault Horizon demo marks a first for the series: attack helicopters. The mission in question is the rescue of a prisoner of war who's being held in an African city that is positively boiling with hostile activity. Your job is to provide air support for the ground forces, whose job deals with the physical rescue. The controls are mostly smooth and allow high-speed strafing runs. Every now and then, a stationary SAM or an RPG-wielding infantryman will try to bring you down. Hitting both shoulder buttons at the same time will send the Apache into a barrel roll. I'm not sold on the realism of this mechanic, as there's no minimum speed for performing one of these. However, they are fun to execute. But it's even more fun to line the chopper up with a road full of hostiles and unload its secondary weapons. While the Apache mission isn't as fast or thrilling as the Air Supremacy mission, it still offers a change of pace from the usual dogfighting action.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon doesn't look like it's set to be a complete gamechanger, but I'm sure it will easily take its seat atop the flight combat throne once it becomes available. While it's impossible to gauge Jim DeFelice's story or the online multiplayer component, it's easy to come away very excited and optimistic about this game. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon takes to the skies October 11; check back for a full review later.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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