Ace Combat - Assault Horizon Review
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on Sony PlayStation 3
I feel the need... the need for speed! There, with the most obvious Top Gun reference out of the way right at the top of the review you can relax now! Moving on... Ace Combat - Assault Horizon marks the second outing for the Ace Combat series on Xbox 360, following 2007's Ace Combat 6. Unlike Ace Combat 6 this outing is also getting an airing on PS3, which I'm sure will please fans of Sony's console who felt short changed by the non-appearance of Ace Combat 6 after many iterations of the series on the PS1, PS2 and PSP.
From the Main Menu you get the option of jumping into the campaign, playing on-line, tackling a free mission, fiddling with your settings or accessing the Player Archive, where you can see your stats, sit through the credits or more interestingly view replays in the Replay Theater. Selecting campaign gives you the chance to set a difficult level; Rookie, Pilot or Elite. Once you select your difficulty you're off and running. Or rather flying...
After a brief cut scene you are dropped into the action on the tail of a plane that you need to shoot down. At this point any expectations you may have had that you will be playing a flight simulator of any kind will fly out of your head as you grip the controller and weave between buildings blasting away with your cannon trying to take that bogey down. Yes, it might not be hyper-realistic but it's certainly fun! Good looking too, as you skim past a skyscraper you can see errant shells smacking holes into the structure.
Once you've taken that plane out you start running through a little routine designed to teach you the controls. With no busting urgency to blast anything away you can take a few moments to appreciate the graphics. Unfortunately that's when things start to fall apart a little. In common with most flight sims (okay, so we've already established that this ISN'T a flight sim, but you get the picture!), the closer you get to the ground, the worse things look.
Suddenly what looked like a teeming metropolis below you from 30,000 feet becomes a relatively low-res texture with a few boxy buildings that are placed too far apart and the same single tree that appears over and over and over. Fortunately once the brief control tutorial is over you get some altitude and it all looks good again.
You can switch between three views; the default is a third person view, slightly behind and above the plane. The second is an in-cockpit view with the aircraft's HUD visible, the last being just the HUD. Unfortunately none of the views are completely satisfactory. In third person view the aircraft takes up too much of the screen and can often obscure your target when in dogfighting mode. The in-cockpit view made me want to turn the plane like I would in a “proper” flight simulator and found it confusing when it didn't respond as I expected. The HUD only view just felt weird and disconnected from the action.
Regardless of which view you choose to use, you’re into the action and taking down bogeys until a new cut-scene kicks in.
The next action sequence sees you controlling a gun on the side of a helicopter. It's nothing special, but it adds a nice bit of variety to the proceedings, although it seems a little odd to be jumping into different characters. Chalk it up to the Modern Warfare school of story telling.
Following this there is another cut-scene which helps to set the (hitherto slightly confusing) background to the story. It seems you're in Africa as part of a multinational UN/Russia military force, helping to stop an anti-government faction. The story is from “NY Times best-selling military author”, Jim DeFelice. No, I'd never heard of him either...
Before some missions you get to select which aircraft you want to use, albeit this can sometimes be from a very limited range. You can also select your choice of special weapon, which should obviously be done bearing in mind the type of mission you are due to undertake. Having said that it is not always exactly clear what you will be expected to do. The first mission where I was allowed to make a selection I was somehow under the impression that I would be attacking ground targets and accordingly selected some air-to-ground missiles. Once up in the air it became clear that this mission was all about dogfighting. Maybe it would have been better for the game to just equip you appropriately for the mission.
Another mission puts you in the pilot seat of an Apache helicopter, which controls, as you would expect, very differently to something like an F-16C. Unfortunately here the issue with the third person camera and the amount of the screen taken up by your aircraft became even more pronounced, forcing me to switch to the HUD-only view. Again I experienced that weird disconnected feeling which really impacted on my enjoyment of the game.
It was whilst flinging my Apache around the sky with abandon I ran into a problem with the heavily scripted nature of the game. Zipping back and forth over a city, providing air support to troops on the ground, I spotted a group of rebel soldiers in technicals. Unfortunately as these hadn't become “active” yet (i.e. none of the ground units had encountered them) I was unable to target or destroy them until later in the mission. Frustrating, because that could have saved me some time later when trying to deal with multiple hostiles. Some of our boys died that didn't need to die, Colonel!!
The game continues much in that vein. There's a fair bit of variety between them, enough to stop you from getting bored and fairly decent cut-scenes between missions drive the plot forward. As already mentioned, you play as a number of different characters all of whom have a part to play in the story. It's always easy to critique the plot of a video game and the execution of cut-scenes in particular, but let's remember this isn't high art and they makers are not shooting for an Academy Award. They are just aiming to give you a reason to go and blow stuff up and to keep doing it so you will stick around and discover what you are blowing up next and why. In that aspect the game and the story succeed.
I think multiplayer is well worth a mention. Something like this is always going to have a niche appeal, but if you can get a few good mates together you could have some cracking dogfights. In fact you don't even need that many mates, because while the game supports up to 16 players, it also offers bots to fill in those blank spaces on the flight rosters! Bonus!
Sadly if you were thinking “Great! I can use those bots to play the multiplayer modes solo and wring some further enjoyment from the game!” then you're going to be upset. Despite the inclusion of bots, you need at least 2 players to kick off a match in the first place. Suddenly, “Bonus!” seems much more like “Doofus!”.
In terms of multiplayer matches, you're offered a choice of; Capital Conquest, where teams attempt to destroy the enemy HQ, Domination, where teams attempt to capture bases, Deathmatch, which is as straightforward as you would expect and finally the option to attempt any mission in co-op mode.
Unfortunately, co-op mode only allows you to tackle missions you have previously unlocked in single-player mode, so if you were hoping to co-op the whole campaign with a friend, you're out of luck as you'll both need to complete the game on single-player first. Seems a strange design decision. The presence of co-op mode is becoming increasingly important in purchasing decisions and let's not forget that in games like this that offer on-line co-op the publisher is looking at two sales rather than just the one. So to put barriers like this in the way of gamers who want to play the game their way can surely only damage sales.
Completing a mission in campaign mode also allows you to select it from Free Mission option from the main menu. This also allows you to attempt the mission at any of the three difficulty settings, so if you played through the campaign on easy, here's your chance to ramp things up a bit. On top of that there are some 158 unlockable items in the game, so if you're of a completist nature it could take you a while to track all of those down. Add in the multiplayer, with those lovely bots to keep things interesting (as long as you have at least one other willing friend with a copy of the game) when everyone on-line moves on to Battlefield 3 and/or Modern Warfare 3 in a few weeks and it would seem there is a fair bit of replay value to be had here.
As alluded to earlier, the game seems to have drawn a great deal of inspiration from the Modern Warfare titles. From camera-shaking explosions to scripted sequences to different camera angles that give you a close up on the action... heck, there's even a mission with you manning the gun in an AC-130! With all that, you would be forgiven for thinking you're actually playing Call of Duty: Aerial Warfare.
Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing will depend largely on your opinion of CoD. In terms of where this stands in the pantheon of modern air combat games on 360/PS3, I would rate it above the two Tom Clancy's HAWX titles and Apache: Air Assault, purely on the basis of the variety offered by helicopters, gunner missions, etc. If you're looking for a flight simulation, you're not going to find it here. But if you fancy an arcade action game featuring jets and choppers, wrapped up in military trappings and a Clancy-lite storyline, you'll thoroughly enjoy yourself!