Ace Combat: Assault Horizon – Initial Impressions

I avoided playing the demo when it became available. Partly, because I knew I was going to pre-order the game and I didn’t want to spoil any of the magic that the trailer had started casting on me. Also, because the fan reactions to the demo weren’t very positive. A lot of static concerned alterations to the control scheme, which turned out to be default settings that could be changed. But a certain amount of (perhaps fanboy) vehemence was aimed at the forced use of the new dog fighting ‘feature’ of the game which allows you to engage in a (sometimes cinematic) on-rails type chase sequence that relies less on your piloting skill and more on your ability to keep your reticle on the bogey in front of you. Fans seemed to be afraid that the Ace Combat series had crossed the line and become too, in a word, ‘arcadey’. Last night, I rolled the game off the tarmac to see for myself.

I’ve not played any of the Call of Duty games, but my understanding is that this iteration in the Ace Combat series is definitely playing to that (substantial) fan base. I imagine that most of the changes in player interactivity can be found in the CoD games. First, the game is not the story of an unseen ace pilot. This time, the story seems to split between at least three pilots, one for each of the major aircraft types in the game. The first mission, the tutorial Miami Beach stage from the demo, is actually a dream sequence. Consequently, it borrows the rpg trope of starting the player with all the cool powers and equipment (F-22 in this case) and then taking it away when the real game gets started. As it is the tutorial mission, there are specific tasks the player must do to advance the mission (rudder left – check; rudder right – check; etc.) which is a touch annoying when replaying the mission. It also introduces the new dog fighting mode (DFM) which has to be used on the many enemy lead planes in the mission. The DFM is used to great cinematic effect, pulling your plane low through the Miami beachfront properties, the enemies spamming flares and otherwise unkillable until passing the scripted checkpoints. Partially on rails it may be, but I thought it was a lot of fun. The sense of speed and the tentatively bridled chaos of the ride is part of what I’ve enjoyed in the more recent Ace Combat games. Now, maybe this DFM thing will grow old by the end of the game, but there seems to be enough skill involved staying on your prey’s tail that it might actually improve the standard bank and chase tactic that was so prevalent in the older games.

The DFM also has a layer or two of complexity to it. It’s available against all planes, if you wish to engage at close distance, and seems to be required against enemy aces. And while it seems to make taking down your target easier, it’s not a sure thing. Once you are on an enemy’s six, it makes you more vulnerable should his wingman come to his aid, forcing you to break off your pursuit to evade missiles. The enemy is also able to perform an evasive maneuver if you close too tight, allowing them to reverse your roles. Of course, if you time it correctly, you can follow the maneuver, effectively countering it and painting massive damage on the enemy fuselage with your machine gun. Conversely, enemy aircraft can engage you in DFM, forcing you to shake them off or slow down enough to perform your own Crazy Ivan. Perhaps the game is stepping towards turning combat into a glorified quick time event, but so far, it just feels fun.

After the completion of the first mission, the game segues into the opening credits and has you ride gunner on a blackhawk, picking off rebels as the names of the design team appear around your periphery. Pretty cool, and again with the CoD vibe.

Between missions (so far) the game jumps right back to the story. While mostly in third person, the camera occasionally swings into the first person perspective of your pilot, often allowing you to look around your environment while walking through the barracks. Then, you are picking your craft for the next mission and trying to read the load screen tips. Perhaps it is just my tv, but this is one of those games that uses a font that is almost illegible on a standard definition television. I plan to fiddle some more with the contrast settings, because the text is crisp as it is fading away. But when in full display, it is really hard to read. The beloved pre-mission sitreps are gone. There’s just a list of the aircraft available for the next mission. A button press will take you to your hanger so you can gaze at the aircraft model, but so far no store. Granted, I think I’m still in the introduction levels (tutorial, title, jet, helicopter, gunship) so perhaps after I complete the gunship mission things will open up a bit.

Not sure about the helicopter stage yet. Mostly, because it’s new and I don’t have a good handle on the chopper controls. Not that they are difficult, but I need to invert my vertical axis on my gun sight, and maybe bump the sensitivity, if it will go higher. I do like the low altitude mission, and actually being able to use rocket canisters to great effect, but it did get a little repetitive, and it is definitely tricky trying to find human targets in the landscape. I expect that the level design will get more complex later in the game, and once I’ve attained a level of copter piloting skill on par with that of flying jets I’m hoping that the helicopter stages will be as fun.

I peaked at the multiplayer setup, and the game has an experience system that unlocks various skills that can be set to your aircraft for various missions (coop) and battles. I noticed that the third paint schemes for a given aircraft are unlocked by earning a certain number of points while flying it in multiplayer. Not sure how much I like that, since my gold membership expires at the end of this month. What I am hoping for, however, is that the tweaks they’ve made to the online system are founded on the lessons learned from other games to provide a robust and engaging experience that attracts and maintains a solid player base. That way when I do get to pop on during free live weekends there are still plenty of furrballs to dive into.

In short, so far, while it is different, it is still Ace Combat, and it is still fun. I’m looking forward to my next sortie.

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