Waaaaay back when I was just a small Simon, we had a Mac Plus in our house. It was our first computer and kind of a big deal... for me because of a game called Falcon. Falcon was an F-16 flight simulator. I played the hell out of that game as a kid - it was one of my first experiences in gaming. Top Gun was big at the box office and the overly romanticized life of a fighter pilot captured my imagination. While the flight simulator genre hasn't since been one of my favorites, I still remember those carefree days of my youth shooting down enemy MiG's by the dozens. Fortunately, I can recapture some of that magic with the excellent Ace Combat series, the most recent installment being Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.
Most games like these offer little in the way of a story, instead providing a frame around which the action is built. However, AC:AH provides a surprisingly engaging narrative. There are nice little interludes where the story plays out in between sorties. These are sort of interactive cutscenes: you can move your head and look around but not interact with anything, and there are even quick-time moments. It's a nice touch. You take the stick as Colonel Bishop, an ace pilot who now works for a NATO peacekeeping force. Bishop is the man, and seems to know how to fly everything currently in service (not to mention a few in the prototype phase). Before long you're blasting planes out of the sky as part of Warwolf squadron. Unfortunately, the bad guys (surprise, surprise, it's the Russians again...) have control of a prototype WMD called Trinity which has a nasty habit of blowing up and killing lots and lots of people. A coup has taken place in the Kremlin and Moscow is now in the hands of those bent on destroying the world. Plus, they have their own ace up their sleeve (get it?) by the name of Markov, otherwise known as Akula, or "The Shark."
Fortunately, you don't have to face the Shark alone-others fly alongside in the fight. You play as Bishop during the fighter sections with his trusty wingman Jose "Guts" Gutierrez, but also fly a helicopter and bomber missions as Captain Robinson and Major Janice Rehl respectively. These missions, while not as common as the fighter sections, break up the pacing nicely. Each time I got the "Mission Accomplished" message, I was wondering what I'd be flying next and as whom. There are even on-rails sections where you man the mini-gun on the side of a Blackhawk or really do the death from above thing as the gunner on a C-130. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is nothing if not diverse.
Now, I'm no fighter pilot (my eye sight is terrible, but that's beside the point), but what I've always loved about the Ace Combat games is that the controls are simple and intuitive enough to make you feel like you were born in a cockpit. It's the difference between a flight simulator and an arcade game, and AC:AH is definitely the latter. Actually, it's an "arcade sim" if you prefer that term: incredibly realistic in so many ways, but the planes have a virtually unlimited supply of ammo and fuel. There is even a flight assist you can turn on to keep from crashing into the ground. Don't get me wrong, piloting a jet fighter, even in a video game, still takes some practice to be sure. It can be very disorienting to find yourself flying upside down while tailing an enemy MiG. But before long I was chasing down enemy planes and "splashing" them all over the place to the point that I began to wonder about the collateral damage on the ground.
Probably the biggest knock against the last game (Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation) was that the enemy aces were incredibly hard to shoot down. This resulted in tedious chasing that lasted far too long. AC:AH remedies this by adding a new mechanic called "Dog Fighting Mode" (or DFM) whereby you can get behind your target with a quick press of the shoulder buttons. When engaged in DFM, you become sort of magically glued to their ass while you fill it full of bullets and missiles. The piloting proper is left to the computer; you just have to line up the reticule and press the trigger. Visually it looks awesome, if a little disorienting.
At first I didn't like this addition because it made things feel a bit too easy, but as you get further into the game things become so chaotic it's a necessity. Enemy pilots will chase you while you chase their friends. It's important to keep an ear out for the tell tale sign that you've been missile locked. Slow down and you might be able, with the aid of on-screen arrows and prompts, to get lined up to do a quick maneuver and get behind them. It sounds complicated, but when it works it's a thing of beauty. Engaging, breaking off, and re-engaging feels natural in the course of a dogfight. However, it takes practice, patience, and quick reflexes to execute properly. Otherwise, entire missions can quickly go pear-shaped if you're not on top of your game.
It turns out that not only is the aforementioned diversity a good thing, here it also proves to be necessary. Allow me to explain... while the controls and the dog fighting are excellent, each mission seems to last eons. That's not a bad thing as such, but the fact is that this game is intense. Seriously, we are talking sweaty palms, white knuckles, hand cramps intense. It's the sort of game you'll find yourself talking to the TV pretty frequently (you know what I'm talking about). And just when you think it's finally safe to breathe and have a look at the pretty scenery, in comes another flight of enemy jets to shoot down.
By the end, I think I'd wiped out most of the aircraft from the former Soviet block, and they just kept coming. This is compounded by receiving orders mid-flight that you need to take out a bomber before it drops it’s bombs or whatever. As the story calls for the ante to keep getting upped, I found myself pausing, getting a drink, and flexing my fingers before diving back in. But then the next mission might involve you flying a bomber under incoming radar (a harrowing experience all it's own) before starting your run (it's like the Death Star, I love it!) or providing close air support to troops on the ground from the side of a Blackhawk. These missions keep things fresh. More importantly, for such an intense game, this keep things from getting overwhelming. This balance is something you rarely see from developers these days (who seem intent on continually beating the same dead horse), so Project Ace and Namco should be commended.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon boasts graphics that are pretty impressive. The planes look like they came right off the runway. The explosions and debris look incredibly realistic. Even the cutscenes looks awesome! The rust under the polish might show up occasionally when you get too close to something. Textures and matting can show up, but these moments don't mar an otherwise beautiful game. Plus it runs with no lag that I saw, which is all the more impressive with so much going on while in combat.
The sound work is more than decent, with great sound effects blemished by some thoroughly un-witty dialogue. The chatter between pilots is overly cliched, although the voice acting for some of the story sections isn't too bad. Also, the background music gets on my nerves. It's not bad (in fact, I'd love to listen to the soundtrack on it's own), but I doubt a lot of dogfights go on with metal blaring in the background so loud you can't hear the chatter from your wing mates or the orders from base. As with most military games, I always get thoroughly annoyed when exposition takes place in the middle of the action. It's hard to tell what's happening (or if that barely discernible chatter in the background is actually important or not) with the whistle of passing jet fighters, machine gun fire, and worst of all, a bloody siren that is constantly blaring in my ear just letting me know yet another missile has locked on. It makes it difficult to keep your focus when enemy fighters are busy trying to shoot missiles up your exhaust pipe... if you'll excuse the expression.
Once you're done with the story you can replay the main story sections in a sort of "Free Play" mode oddly reminiscent of the LEGO games. You can pick your fighter and weapon loadout and have fun with it. You can even play with a friend. Online options involve flying sorties with friends and the always-popular straight up death match mode to find out who is really the king of the skies.
Overall, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is an excellent diversion from most modern military shooters which take place, you know, on the ground. I'm still on the fence about the new DFM mode. It works well, but I don't like how you're more of less forced to use it. However, by allowing you to not only fly a whole slew of fighters from around the world (and some that are still on the drawing board), but also pilot different types of planes in different types of missions (like the helicopter, door gunner, and bomber raid sections), AC:AH offers enough options to keep things from getting boring. When it gets it right, when you take out three enemy fighters in succession, looping in and out of DFM and dodging missiles, it's difficult not to smile as their wreckage plummets from the sky. While it most assuredly falls under the "niche" title heading, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is definitely worth your time if you're looking for something a little different.