Ace Combat: Assault Horizon aims for the mainstream

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon aims for the mainstream
Jamin Smith Updated on by

When I first got my hands on Ace Combat: Assault Horizon in Dubai, I was forced to feign excitement: for a good percentage of western gamers, the Ace Combat series is synonymous with needless complication and finicky control schemes.

Wearing a fake smile and reacting to the game with counterfeit ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, I gave Project Aces’ producer Kazutoki Kono an Oscar-winning performance. By the end of the demo, however, that enthusiasm was genuine. Assault Horizon is deceptively playable, with intuitive controls and an incredibly satisfying combat system.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is a franchise reboot Namco Bandai is hoping appeals to the masses. In realising this goal, it has borrowed from one of the West’s greatest success stories: Call of Duty. As fighter pilot William Bishop, it’s your job to save the skies from a terrorist organisation lead by one Colonel Markov, who made his role as the antagonist evident in the Shark trailer. It’s not just the narrative that reflects Modern Warfare, but the cinematic approach to action, too.

The tutorial level I played took place in the blue expanse above the city of Miami. Given my attitude towards existing games in the series, I expected it to take a while to adapt to the game’s way of thinking, but everything fell into place rather quickly. You can choose to purge your enemies from the skies in one of two ways: the traditional Ace Combat approach – from afar, or by entering a new dogfight mode. While the former is a case of being deadly accurate with your guns – your target nothing more than a black speck flitting about the screen – the new dogfights make for a far more involving experience.

Get close to your enemy, and the red reticule encasing the target will turn green. It’s at this precise moment you need to hammer on the LB and RB buttons, causing the camera to zoom in and snap to your target; bobbing and shaking as if some bloke is stood on the tail of the aircraft trying to film the action. As movement is handled automatically in dogfight mode, it’s much easier to land a shot. Whether you choose to unload your machine guns or lock-on with missiles, your target will eventually explode, raining shrapnel and debris onto the streets below.

Controlling your distance from the mark seems to be at the very heart of strategy. Your enemy isn’t stupid, however, and will use your own tactics against you if you faff about too much. Should they get behind you, their reticules will dance about the screen, forcing you to conduct your own evasive manoeuvres. Elude the bullets for long enough and you’ll be presented with the option to send your craft looping over the back of your enemy (again by pressing LB and RB), and the ball’s back in your court. It’s all about distance, timing and accuracy, the resulting blend of gameplay requiring both tactics and skill.

Namco Bandai’s Level Up conference didn’t take place in Dubai on a whim. The Arabic city is a prominent location in Assault Horizon, and – in the presentation the day before my hands-on – we were shown the level in action. Kazutoki Kono flew us down the virtual strip of Dubai, screaming past packed motorways and iconic architecture – including the tallest building in the world. The most exciting part was watching the jet fly over the very conference centre we were sat watching the demonstration. Assault Horizon builds its environment from satellite images, giving an authentic quality to the visuals. It’s a bit like being let loose on Google Earth in a fighter-jet, although that doesn’t do the production values justice.

It was the camera work that really struck me as impressive. As you enter a dogfight, the camera hangs off the metaphorical shoulder of your jet, shaking nervously as you tear through the sky. Land enough hits on your mark, and the camera will zoom to the explosion, throwing in some slow-motion for good measure. All the whooshing and zooming is complimented by a medley of heavy guitar riffs and appropriately epic strings. Whilst I had no sense of narrative to contextualise the action, I felt as if I was involved in a mission of the utmost importance.

Assault Horizon caught me off guard. While it’s doubtful the game will attract the western audience in the capacity Namco is hoping, it’s encouraging to see Ace Combat broadening its horizons. Perhaps the idea of fighter jets, radars and bogeys doesn’t appeal – it didn’t for me before seeing the game – but there’s something about Ace Combat: Assault Horizon that’s very, very playable.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is scheduled for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 release on October 14.