When Jamin saw Ace Combat: Assault Horizon he initially expressed scepticism about the title - probably the millionth in the series or something - based off the franchise's dwindling reputation. Had the law of diminishing returns finally taken hold of Ace Combat, rendering the series a weak shadow of its former self?
I won't lie: I definitely assumed as much but, much like Jamin, actually seeing Ace Combat: Assault Horizon has left me with a definite interest in Namco Bandai's fresh take on aerial warfare.
One of the new sequences shown to me at Namco Bandai's London offices was a helicopter level, dumping the player into the sky shoes of Doug "D-Ray" Robinson (in his trusty Apache) and having him clear out insurgents from a fictional West African town.
Helicopter stages are all about air-to-ground combat - contrasting with the aerial dogfighting of the jet levels - and the Black Hawk can dish out a variety of devastating missile attacks alongside its bread-and-butter machine gun. You can also do barrel rolls to evade enemy attacks. Yes, barrel rolls. Yes, in a helicopter.
It's also important to hover as low as possible in the Black Hawk, as taking to the skies makes you easy prey for rockets and AA emplacements. It's also a good way for Namco Bandai to show off the graphics engine rendering the planet at ground level - the developer is using satellite imagery to help realistically map out locations, and the end result is terrain noticeably more detailed than in the average flight game.
Bishop is tasked with protecting allied forces on the ground, and must provide cover as they sweep the area in search of a captured soldier. This means the area is traversed in chunks rather than all at once, and enemy resistance becomes more aggressive as you progress through the level.
The helicopter sequence made for a nice diversion from all the jet fighting, and the finished game also promises that you'll pilot bombers and also take the role of a chopper gunner. The level did feel a little bit too long, however, and sweeping through the unnamed West African town lost its sheen a few minutes before the action subsided.
More entertaining overall was the introductory jet sequence, set over the skies of Miami. This level also functions as the main tutorial to Ace Combat: Assault Horizon's new dogfighting mode, dubbed close-range assault.
Close-range assault is similar in ethos to H.A.W.X.'s third-person mode, both being designed to intensify the action of dogfighting by stripping away some of the other concerns of being twenty thousand feet in the air. But whereas H.A.W.X. zoomed you so far out it was like you were simply a random passer-by looking at tiny planes doing some loop-de-loops, Ace Combat aggressively zooms you in. It feels like a natural fit for the game; a reflex action already naturally ingrained in the millions of gamers who routinely look down a set of iron sights when they're looking for an extra degree of precision.
Going into close-range assault has your plane snake behind its target, and while the flight path is guided it's not an on-rails experience - fail to keep your reticule under control and your target will escape. Get it right and you'll see a lavish slow-motion sequence of your target exploding like something out of a Michael Bay movie.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon won't be for everybody, of course, as aerial combat games simply don't have the audience of some other genres, but from this glimpse it seems like anybody curious enough to give Project Aces' latest a go might find themselves pleasantly surprised.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon will be released for Xbox 360 and PS3 on October 14.