I'll be the first to admit that I am an Ace Combat
junkie. I have been ever since I played the second title for my Playstation
back in 1997 and have always found myself looking forward to the next installment once I finish the current released title. Since 1992, Ace Combat
has evolved into one of the premier flight simulation games, giving a mixture of realistic flight simulation and arcade action by overloading you with enough weaponry to take down a small country on your own. While hardcore flight simulation fans have often criticized the series for that very reason, it doesn't take away from the fact that Ace Combat
has remained one of the best flight sims in gaming. It has been four years since the last console
Ace Combat title, Fires of Liberation
, was released exclusively for the Xbox 360. Namco Bandai and Project Aces, knowing that fans of the series have been clamoring for a new release, has stepped up and given us one of the best titles yet in the Ace Combat
series with Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.
Assault Horizon is the first Ace Combat game to step away from the fictional world that Ace Combat has resided in since the very beginning. A little part of me is disappointed that Osea, Yuktobania, Belka, Emmeria, and so on, are not used in this game. Namco Bandai and Project Aces, in an effort to make the title as realistic as possible, hired Jim DeFelice to write the storyline for the game, which has a very solid plot that centers around an uprising of rebel forces in Africa that eventually spreads to Russia. One benefit of using the real world as the setting is that while flying through the missions, you can see the great detail that went into the game with various landmarks. For example, in the game's opening mission, you get an up close and personal look at the professional football stadium in Miami. You will also get some great views of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Pentagon, Washington Monument, and Capitol building in Washington D.C., just to name a few. You might find yourself getting a couple of secret achievements by viewing some of the specific monuments in various ways, just to give you a little hint.
The single player mode centers itself around the campaign, which includes missions in Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and the United States. Instead of having to purchase planes as you proceed throughout the missions, you simply unlock them by completing each mission, taking away the need to buy and sell planes in order to upgrade weaponry and aircraft. Expect to get anywhere from 10-15 hours out of the campaign mode as you find yourself taking on targets for longer periods of time than in previous titles, simply due to the change in the gameplay. Multiplayer offers four different modes, three of which focus on competitive play in the forms of either team battles or single deathmatches. There is also an online co-op for the campaign that players can do with anyone they choose.
One of the mainstays in the series has been the music of Keiki Kobayashi, who has never disappointed with his wonderful melodies and rhythms. Fires of Liberation was arguably his best collection, and he has built upon that reputation of his with a nice change-up in the style of music, including not just the orchestral pieces that we are used to, but including small elements of guitar and techno to improve upon the overall sounds of the game. Music makes good games great, and such is the case with this title.
Project Aces seemed to focus quite heavily on making subtle changes to the gameplay, leaning heavily on the mechanics that we have used for several Ace Combat titles, though the biggest change that veterans of the series will recognize right away is the assisted flying control that auto-levels your plane and changes the style of banking/turning. I found myself immediately switching this to the original format as it just feels smoother and more realistic. Newcomers to the series will probably find themselves switching after a couple of missions as it can be really bothersome to control your aircraft with the assisted mode.
Not much has changed to the HUD (Heads Up Display), with the exception of the actual size. The HUD is noticeably smaller than past titles, especially in comparison to Fires of Liberation, the only other Ace Combat game that is from this generation sporting HD graphics and on a similar engine. With Fires of Liberation, you really felt that the entire screen was the front of the cockpit, especially if using the in-cockpit camera when playing the game. With Assault Horizon, I didn't get that feel no matter which camera view I chose, though I primarily used the screen that simply puts the HUD on your screen and shows the entire terrain.
The biggest change over previous titles is the inclusion of Close Range Attack mode, or CRA. In the past, Ace Combat has generally been a "fire and forget" style of game, meaning that you could launch your missiles from a decent distance and, more often than not, unless you were at the wrong angle, the missile probably hit its target and took it out. Wanting to increase the difficulty, CRA was introduced in the form of Dog Fighting Mode, or DFM. When you are within a certain range, which seems to be roughly 3,000 feet from your target, a reticle will appear around your target and allow you to enter DFM by pressing the LB and RB together (L1 and R1 for PS3 players) at which point the camera zooms in and you get a very close angle of the target you have locked onto. At this point, you need to maneuver your plane to either shoot him down with guns or stay in the reticle long enough to fire a missile that will be far more accurate than at shorter distances. The mode increases the difficulty due to the nature of the mode, which is very fast paced. It gets harder as you go up in the importance of the targets, which start at secondary, move to primary targets (Marked as TGT), and then the lead targets (TGT_LEAD). The more important the target, the harder it is to shoot down. I like the addition the mode to increase the difficulty, but my biggest issue with this is that piloting the plane seems to go by itself. While you can move the plane to some extent, there are specific times through the campaign that you can't help but feel as though the CPU is actually piloting your plane, taking away from the overall feel. Of course, you can also be targeted in DFM mode, which you will know due to the extra reticles on the screen that are hunting you as you bank to escape. You can also put on the brakes in an attempt to pull a risk move, which is executed by hitting your bumpers or L1/R1, depending on your platform. It's tricky to pull off, and I've found that it's not always accurate as sometimes the game thinks you are attempting to level yourself out. This is also the case when trying to enter DFM, as the game gets a bit confused. It's difficult to pull off such a system when you are including the same combination of commands more than once in the game.
While the overall feel of the game is in tact, some of the changes to the engine have caused results that take away from the finished product. The Flight Assitance mode basically prevents crashes, stalls, and other problems that you experience in flight. While this is nice to have for beginners, it keeps you from having full control of your aircraft. Turning this off, however, does not eliminate all of the easy mode additions. My biggest problem stems in the form of crashing. Simply put, if I hit the ground with my plane, my plane should explode. This is not the case. Depending on the angle of your aircraft, you can literally skip off of the ground and escape with anywhere from light to heavy damage, which also regenerates in some difficulty levels, which I believe should not be available. In past modes, you could fly your damaged plane back to base, re-arm your plane, and you end up having a fixed plane. Removing the ability to return to base, perhaps, is why they choice was made to go with regenerating health.
Some little annoyances do occur outside of this, such as the random addition of red to black spots on your screen when you successfully shoot down an enemy. It's never fully explained as to why this happens, and I find it to be a bit annoying as you attempt to destroy targets. On top of this, unfortunately, is a replay camera that goes off at random points in time, usually at some type of a checkpoint. I'm okay with having these up close angles at very sporadic times, but the real issue is that it happens when you are in the middle of attacking. When the camera is done showing you the destruction you've just caused, you'll find your aircraft has leveled out on its own as well as possibly changed altitudes. If you're on a low altitude attack of ground targets, you may even find yourself skipping off of the ground if the terrain isn't flat.
Project Aces and Namco knows that online play is a big reason why gamers pick up titles nowadays. There isn't a lack of action here, thankfully, as each online mode offers a different style of competition. Whether you wish to play Capitol Conquest or Domination, which are both modes in which you capture and/or destroy bases in order to win the matchup, or you play in a regular deathmatch that is every man for himself, up to sixteen players. This can create a very chaotic online experience, especially with a full slate of players included. Every man for himself can cause a lot of headaches as you find yourself attacking one player hopefully to survive long enough before getting shot down at the same time. Personally, the team modes have been far more enjoyable for me, but this is just a preference of my own. The important thing to note, here, is that there is something everyone, including the online co-op for the campaign.
One thing that needs to be brought up with the online mode is the necessity to learn the D-pad commands to help your teammates out. Pressing in one of the directions will execute some type of command, whether it is to acknowledge an attack or to assist a teammate. There isn't a tutorial on this, unfortunately, but it doesn't take long to figure out what does what. Of course, you can still communicate via a headset, but there is a bonus to using the in-game commands as it can give you an edge, especially when assisting in ground assaults on bases and targets.
There is really a lot to like in this game. Namco Bandai took a bit of a risk by changing up their formula that has been successful for the series for the last fifteen to twenty years. Adding in missions that allow you to control Apaches, B-2 Bombers, and the side-mounted cannons of Black Hawks and AC-130s certainly gave fans of the series a new element, while newcomers picking up the game will be immersed in an environment that covers all spectrums of battle that doesn't involve soldiers, which is the true draw for the series. In an industry that is practically dominated by First Person Shooters, it's great to break away from that and get a game that still draws you into a battle, yet isn't putting a gun in your hand and having you just run and gun your way to a victory. You have to use good tactics to not only succeed, but to flat out survive. This is one of the hardest Ace Combat games released, especially with the revamped engine. It does have its flaws, but nothing that is going to make you upset to the point that you stop playing it.
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