Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: Project Aces
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7/Win 8, 1.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo/2.4 GHz AMD Athlon X2 or better CPU, 2 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 8800GT/ATI Radeon HD 3850 or better graphics card, DirectX 9.0c, 16 GB hard-drive space
Genre: Flight sim
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date: Available now
Ace Combat holds a special place in my heart, mostly for its childlike disregard for reality. It’s a high-budget projection of what goes through a 14-year-old boy’s mind when he obsesses over back issues of Jane’s. Decades of fighter jet technology swooshing over a city, unleashing dozens of missiles at each other as they dive and roll in close knife fights. Reality is so much more boring, as planes sparingly launch their handful of ordinance from miles outside of visual range. Ace Combat takes the shape and names of the real world and paints them atop a much more interesting reality. The latest in the series, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon has now landed on PC in the form of an Enhanced Edition. With a new cinematic presentation and aircraft that aren’t jet planes, Assault Horizon tries to do something new with an old formula, but keep that romantic fantasy alive.
A new Dogfight Mode has been added to the traditional aerial combat. Far from being a new Madden minigame, dogfight mode lets you lock onto nearby enemies and trail behind them as if on a string, landing highly accurate shots and getting close-ups of the results. In effect, it adds combos and reversals and works out pretty well. Occasionally you encounter an enemy who simply won’t die because he’s supposed to lead you through a scripted chase, zooming low through a cityscape only to crash monumentally into a building. It looks cool enough, but it’s obvious that it was supposed to happen, which removes the punch. There’s also a similar system for ground attacks, which sets up a target-rich strafing run for you to methodically demolish. They might seem like Easy-buttons, but I found the later missions to be as exacting and difficult as before. It’s not the least bit realistic, but you didn’t come here for a 1-to-1 simulation; you came here for something that looks real, but is as fake as cotton candy. While the same turn-and-burn gameplay remains, everything takes on a new cinematic angle. Assault Horizon is as obsessed with destroying airplanes as Burnout is with cars. The new dogfight mode brings the camera up close behind enemy aircraft, then turns into a slow-motion pan to watch them disintegrate into a shower of explody bits. I used to joke about making an air combat game with the violence of an FPS, where little windshield wipers would wash away blood from an aerial kill. Assault Horizon gets shockingly close to that puerile fantasy by having oil spray all over your virtual camera.
Helicopters also make their first appearance. They might not be jet fighters, but it’s pretty entertaining to dodge behind buildings and hills to evade missiles. What’s not so fun are the rail-shooter segments. Whether manning a turret or a gunship, they’re not nearly as interesting as, well, everything else. While they might be heavily featured in the trailers, these two new weapons only show up twice and then it’s back to jets, for better or worse.
So what makes this edition so enhanced? It comes prepackaged with all the DLC, which amounts to new planes, new free-play missions, and a handful of skins. While it’s nice to have it all in one place, most of it amounts to kitsch novelty items. Even so, it was great fun to shoot down the final boss in a plane with an Idolmaster paint scheme. Oh yeah, most of the new skins are girly Idolmaster themes, because prepubescent anime sing-a-long games contrast well with the olive-drab world of the military industrial complex.
Instead of the generic real-world-but-not landscape common to the series, Assault Horizon takes place in our world. Thankfully, it never tries to paint a detailed political fiction. There are rebels who are backed up by larger, badder bad guys, and that’s all you need to know. It starts promising, but about halfway through it gives up and stuff starts to happen for no apparent reason. Wait, I’m protecting the Prime Minister’s yacht now? Prime Minister of what? But before you can panic, Ace Combat lays a firm hand on your shoulder, points off into the horizon and says, “Bogies on the horizon, son. You know what to do,” and everything makes sense again. Still, when you have genuinely good storytelling in classics such as Ace Combat 4, it’s a bit of a let down to settle for mediocrity.
In PC land, we don’t get too many arcade air simulators anymore. It’s either DCS or load up Crimson Skies again (which is always a good option). We stomached HAWX because it was the toilet-bowl prison hooch to tide us over for the real thing. Unlike that game, Assault Horizon is engaging, challenging, and enjoyable for what it is. Say what you will about the changes; at least this one has personality. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon wants to tell a personal fantasy story about people flying fast planes that make things go boom. There’s limited replayability, and the final boss isn’t worth the effort, but the gristle is sparing enough. It might not be the best Ace Combat game, but as far as PC games are concerned, it’s the best we have.