Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (XBOX 360)
So, I've been playing games since the 80's and as part of my job for quite a while now but somehow it seems the Ace Combat series has passed me by. Quite bizarre considering the series is just about to cross the 15 games mark with the launch of Assault Horizon and Assault Horizon Legacy (3DS). This had the potential to remain the case but for Namco Bandai games sending us a copy of the latest title in advance of release.
Sometimes having no prior knowledge of a title can be beneficial, allowing a reviewer to enter the game with no preconceptions. Often a fresh pair of eyes can be beneficial too. On other occasions not having played a series of games could be detrimental, Dark Souls being an example... enter that without knowledge of Demons Souls and it could be quite a shock, though it will be no less enjoyable.
So, without reading up on Assault Horizon, the latest in the Ace Combat series of arcade flight based games we fired it up and quite simply it blew our minds... but first things first, what is it all about?
Set in 2015 Assault Horizon takes us to the skies and drops us into the middle of a conflict between an international peace keeping force and East African rebels. We take the role of Colonel Bishop, a seasoned pilot, whose past experience has left him mentally scarred though his skills are still intact.
The first segment of gameplay we get access to is in the form of a 30+ minute training mission where the basics of fighter plane control are explained to us. The usual left to steer, A to fire weapons is present as is right trigger to accelerate, left to brake. We can lock on to enemy fighters and ground units automatically and launch missiles with B. Nothing to out of the ordinary there. Where things get a lot more interesting is in Project Aces (the developers) decision to include close air combat. Get near to an enemy and through pressing the two shoulder buttons we enter dog fight mode, a high speed battle with the other fighter which calls on skill and tactics to win. Our aim as the attacker is to lock on for long enough to destroy the enemy with rockets or machine guns. Get caught in the same position by an NPC and it's up to us to evade their fire, if possible turning the tables though some neat flying to reverse the situation.
As well as featuring a wide range of planes Assault Horizon also allows us to take control of helicopters, bombers, gunships, etc and mixes things up completely by significantly changing the controls for those helicopter sections. Right stick for example moves us forward back, left and right. A and B change to altitude control and our triggers become zoom and fire. We can also launch special attacks, which have limited ammo, from the right shoulder button or evade by pressing both shoulder buttons together.
Using these varied styles of aircraft, and their accompanying pilots, allows Project Aces the ability to offer a wide range of weapons and mission objectives. One of the first real missions as an example see's us use a fighter to protect our base from enemy planes, before moving to protect one of our side who has ejected and is floating slowly to the ground in amongst the on-going dogfight. Shortly after this we are out with the Black Hawks, clearing enemy villages and attacking ground targets. The game also includes on rails sections which help to progress the plot which is written by Jim DeFelice, a best-selling military author.
In terms of multiplayer modes we can enter Xbox live and get straight into the action with quick play, searching for a game based on four styles including co-op missions, death match and Capital Conquest where teams take each other on. One attacking a capital city, the other defending it. Each player in the 8vs8 battles is able to choose their own type of aircraft and where appropriate tailor it to their needs allowing each person to take on a unique role in the battle.
Finally, as always the usual selection of achievements, unlocks and experience/levelling are all present in various areas of the game.
Graphics and Sound
Put quite simply Assault Horizon is one of the best looking 360 games we have seen in a long time. The level of detail present in some areas of the game is staggering. From very well recreated representations of major cities to the desert in Africa each area looks great. Up at high altitude the game also looks fantastic with the only minor blemish being some average looking buildings when we fly at very low levels.
The graphics in Assault Horizon immediately impress and it doesn't take long for the score to do the same. Yes there are plenty of explosions and the gunfire and chatter are well done however the music most impresses with some great orchestration mixed with electronic instruments, guitar and thumping drums.
Some of the best war based franchises are known for their epic opening scenes. The guys over at Infinity Ward were known for them through their Call of Duty Series with fantastic action packed openings getting the adrenaline pumping and Project Aces more than live up to this style of opening with a fantastic start to Assault Horizon. Throughout the opening area we were hugely impressed by the intuitive controls but more importantly by the new close quarters Dog Fight Mode. This fantastic addition offers real in your face gameplay with the enemy up close locked with us in a high speed battle. When successful we then blast through a cloud of debris and on to the next fight. It is a hugely satisfying experience to master dogfighting and on occasions as we take part in these battles at low altitude, quite staggering in how they are executed.
Even at the end of the first training mission, just as we think things could well have peaked we are taken into an on rails section of gameplay, helicopter based, which looks phenomenal in its level of detail and quality of explosions. It isn't all about action though as this section begins to build on the main plot, being followed by a section of narrative which is fantastically realised by Project Aces.
When not in an aircraft our main character wanders through the military base, interacting with various NPCs and we are given free rein on the view to keep things interesting. The attention to detail is worth looking at though as the numerous "extras" go about their jobs around the main story.
So far pretty much everything has been universally positive but there are a few things we would have changed about the game. First off some of the missions feel a little too long, like one (or two) too many waves of enemy fighters have been added. Some missions can take 45 minutes or so to complete, requiring some prolonged concentration. As a result another minor issue is that the score can sound repetitive, despite many of the tracks being over 5 minutes in length.
Those two minor points aside we can get back to the positives which continue with the controls which become second nature very quickly, though the move to helicopters is a little bit of a jump after a couple of hours of fighter based gameplay. The ability to enable and disable assists such as auto levelling and collision prevention will keep novice gamers happy too... and their ability to be disabled will please enthusiasts.
In terms of online action we also had a chance to experience the online multiplayer with a bunch of other journalists prior to writing this review and found it offers a very nice representation of the solo gameplay. A nice quick match setting will get gamers up and running and the modes are varied enough and well balanced enough to keep players coming back.
Before we finish off we just wanted to make note (no pun intended) of the score once again. It is always easy to tell that a publisher is proud of the composer's achievements because they bundle the soundtrack with limited edition copies. This is one of those cases and we wholeheartedly agree that some of the tracks found here are fantastic and worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster... with more than a few nods to Bear McCreary's work on Sci-Fi's Battlestar Galactica.
So, we have spent the majority of this year, like most gamers, waiting on the two big war based games hitting the shelves. As it turns out one of the most impressive war games of 2011 isn't Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare 3... it is Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. A real must buy.
This is how all arcade flight based games should be. Fantastic visuals, a great score, excellent attention to detail and an engaging plot. All held together by some epic, action packed gameplay of which the dogfight mode is outstanding. 93%