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Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

Score: 75%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: BANDAI NAMCO Games America, Inc.
Developer: Project Aces
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 16 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Flight/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Change is a volatile concept that can carry wildly different connotations. It can either be the best thing in the world, or the worst. Some video game franchises are in dire need of a fundamental reimagining, or if you will, a bold new direction. It's admirable when a developer notices and acknowledges this, even more so when the developer in question is responsible for a beloved franchise. However, from the moment a development studio decides to do a little reinventing, unstable ground is violently tread upon. The best case scenario unfolds when exactly the right changes are made and everything else is left alone. The worst case scenario is when the developers eliminate almost everything that was great in the first place in favor of an approach designed for the sole purpose of appealing to newcomers. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon comes dangerously close to being a product of the worst case scenario, but manages to entertain despite even the most severe of its flaws.

Let's start with the good: I can't really fault Assault Horizon's presentation from any standpoint. This is simply a great-looking and great-sounding video game. On their own, the visuals aren't really anything to write home about, but the default camera angle feels wildly unhinged, which makes the action look incredibly raw and visceral. This is ramped up to eleven with this game's signature mechanic, Dogfight Mode. The camera zooms in close and often cuts away to show you something Bay-esque. This kind of stuff is fantastic at first, but it gets old after the first mission. It isn't long before you realize that it upstages the gameplay by such a degree that it nearly kills the entire experience.

Assault Horizon's sound design doesn't do much to trip up the rest of the game. In fact, it may even be the best part of the entire package. Keiki Kobayashi's soundtrack may be heavy on the metal, but it's good enough to make for some fine listening music, especially if you've got a case of road rage. That's definitely a plus, especially if you pick your copy up early enough to get the soundtrack as a bonus extra. Comms chatter is lively, if a bit hammy, and adds that necessary element of camaraderie. Project Aces has always had the aerial explosion down to an art, and Assault Horizon doesn't break from this tradition.


Gameplay:

Let's play a game of Americans and Russians, only this time, in the air! Unoriginal storylines are unfortunately a heavily entrenched staple of the military genre, and very few are fortunate enough to feature one that is in the least bit entertaining. In this regard, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon more or less goes with the flow, though it tries to compensate with three primary lead characters: Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop, Captain Doug "D-Ray" Robinson, and Major Janice Rehl. Unfortunately, the three leads are stock bland heroic, and you really don't get to know them all that well. Instead, you'll find yourself most entertained by Josť "Guts" Gutierrez, Bishop's wingman.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon tries its best to position itself as the same great flight combat game fans have grown to love over the many years it's been around, only with a few new bells and whistles. And to be fair, it must be hellishly difficult to innovate in a genre as stiff and conservative as flight combat. But the genre is that way for a reason. Few gameplay types have you so completely putting three dimensions to use, so innovation in level design is almost right out. However, mission types vary nicely over the course of the lengthy campaign.

Of course, you'll get your chance to send legions of enemy aces to meet their makers in high-speed dogfights, but Project Aces hasn't spent their entire development period working on just the jets. Assault Horizon features a series of helicopter, on-rail minigun, bomber, and AC-130 gunship missions. These are in relative short supply when compared to the standard fighter pilot missions, but they serve as welcome diversions -- despite many of them lasting longer than they should.

At this point, there's no disputing the fact that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is the most influential game of this current generation. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon's multiplayer suite is testament to that. This is evidenced by a well-designed persistence system, complete with customizable skill sets. Skills may be purchased from the menu, but you must first earn the points to pay for them. The multiplayer action is fun, if only because you're on an even playing field with human opponents. Dogfight Mode tends to make the action look ridiculous from a distance, but then again, this game is clearly not meant to be viewed from a distance.

The four multiplayer modes are standard, for the most part. You can partake in some cooperative missions, or you can leap into a straight deathmatch. Domination feels a bit bizarre, considering it's essentially King of the Hill, only in the air. Capital Conquest might just be the best of the four modes, primarily because it offers the most comprehensive experience. It may boil down to wiping out the enemy headquarters, but there's more to it than that. It's good to have a well-balanced team in Capital Conquest; it's not recommended to have a team oversaturated with air-to-air fighters or any other fighter type. Overall, the multiplayer doesn't reach the heights of its most recent predecessor, but that's only because Fires of Liberation was a better game.


Difficulty:

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a pretty face until the point where you notice that it has absolutely no teeth. Gone is the challenge that previous installments are known for. Gone is the thrill of a hard-won dogfight. Gone is the sense of satisfaction felt at the end of each grueling sortie. This game is pathetically easy by nature.

So what exactly makes this game too easy? The short answer is Dogfight Mode, but there's more to it than that. While Dogfight Mode completely strips most of the game of its challenge, other questionable design decisions affect the difficulty level. For example, it is simply impossible to crash your helicopter. I learned this after accidentally strafing my Apache into the side of a building at well over 100 mph. This is probably the developer's way of making the ultra-close camera angle work without punishing the gamer, but again, this is an example of presentation taking precedence over gameplay.


Game Mechanics:

This is the part where I blame a single new mechanic for a score that would have been at least twenty points higher if it was not part of the game. This mechanic cruelly excises most of what made previous Ace Combat games fun and exciting. The cardinal sin is that it rips the controls completely out of the player's hands. Dogfight Mode (or DFM) is the mechanic of which I speak. In other Ace Combat games, each kill is hard-fought. If you want to take down an enemy fighter in Ace Combat 6, you have to get your plane in position yourself. You must engage in the deadly dance that leads to your enemy's six o'clock, and you must do it with no help. Assault Horizon changes this hugely important rule, and this change alone results in the game being instantly branded as the weak link of the series. If you approach your enemy at nearly every angle (save for head-on and a few others), a small circle appears around the enemy. Tapping both bumpers immediately pulls your plane into position directly behind the enemy -- at a proximity that would be deadly in realistic circumstances. (Wake turbulence? Hello?) From there, the experience shifts from freeform to on-rails, and it's your job to tailgate your target while pelting it with machine gun fire and point blank missile attacks. Your target will attempt to escape your Assault Circle (and erratically at that), but for the most part, your pilot's godlike reflexes and inhuman resistance to lethal G-forces ensure that you keep your quarry in sight. In other words, the game flies your plane for you, and most of the time, all you have to worry about is shooting. This mechanic is questionable on its own, but it's downright egregious at times. Take, for instance, the scripted Dogfight Mode encounters that outright forbid you from inflicting damage on your enemy until the game finishes showing you what it wants you to see. Indeed, the very first Dogfight Mode you engage in takes you on an implausible path through downtown Miami until your enemy plane crashes into a billboard. You don't even have to fire your weapons.

Dogfight Mode is a bit more interesting when you're on the receiving end. When an enemy engages you, the camera zooms out slightly and you're given a clear look at the enemy's Assault Circle. You can either bank around wildly, deploy flares, or pull a Maverick by slowing down and performing a somersault that just so happens to put your enemy directly at your twelve o'clock. It's satisfying, but it (like Dogfight Mode in general) still feels like a glorified win button.

In order to make Dogfight Mode work, the default control scheme has been changed. Pushing the Left Analog Stick left or right no longer sends your aircraft into a roll; instead it sends it into a banked turn. This makes the game feel a bit more like a three-dimensional racing game. The option to return the game to its fundamentals is there, but the original controls don't mesh well with the new play style.

You can teach an old dog new tricks, but you'd better make sure he learns the right ones and doesn't forget the ones that made him famous. Is Ace Combat: Assault Horizon fun? Yes. Is it the best-looking and best-sounding flight combat game out there? Probably. Is it the future of the series? Lord, I hope not.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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