October 2011
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Assault Horizon – Long Review

It is difficult to not compare Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s sunny way with the compromise attempted with Namco Bandai’s Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. In the case of the former, Laurier sought to compromise in order to appease both sides of the political spectrum, as seen in his solution to the Manitoba Schools Question and his decision to send a limited volunteer force during the Second Boer War–the end results, especially of the latter, had left many of Laurier’s supporters disappointed, factors that would lead to his defeat to his successor, the conservative Robert Borden. In the case of the latter, Assault Horizon is an arcade flight action game that sought to compromise as well–this time, by implementing new game features and following a remarkably different design principle from traditional Ace Combat and flight simulation in an attempt to appease fans of mainstream first person shooters such as the likes of Call of Duty–all while attempting to maintain its appeal to fans of the franchise and of flight simulations in general. And, much like Laurier’s sunny way, Assault Horizon has failed in this regard as well–the mainstream gamer dismisses this game as a shoddy attempt to renew their interest in a dying genre, and fans of the Ace Combat series have also dismissed it as a shallow, watered down and overall disappointing title. Assault Horizon is, by no means, a terrible game, however. But while it is an interesting attempt to freshen up what is considered a stagnant franchise, it is clear that it has attempted to appeal to two markets at once with spectacular failure.

Ace Combat is not well known for strong storytelling–however, its stories, especially from Ace Combat 04 onwards, (it should be noted that Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere was the first game to introduce a storyline, and is arguably the most detailed of the lot) have been known for superlative narratives set in an alternate reality world, Strangereal, and exploring contradictory anti-war themes ranging from the meaninglessness of political boundaries to the horrors of warfare. These narratives, while highly criticized even among fans, was the original charm of the Ace Combat series, and is unfortunately not present in Assault Horizon–scrapped in favour of a real world setting, with a story written by military author Jim Defelice. In Assault Horizon, you (primarily) play Colonel William Bishop, the commander of NATO’s 108th Task Force, as they hunt down a rebel-made superweapon known as Trinity. The rebels are backed by a freelance Russian mercenary, Andrei Markov, and a skilled ace pilot with a seething hatred for Americans. This premise, unfortunately, has little support to set it apart from the storyline of a B-rated Hollywood film–there is very little exploration of any of the characters, and the only interesting development by the end of the game is, by far, Markov’s motivation for playing the role of Bishop’s arch-nemesis. The story is told through motion acted cutscenes, and also from the perspective of three additional characters that you play as over the course of the story. The story cutscenes are not a particularly immense improvement over past games–an attempt at detailed storytelling actually peaked at Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, where the story was told from the perspective of the pilots of your squadron on the ground. In comparison, Assault Horizon is not much different, although it does add some slight improvements over Ace Combat 5′s cutscenes by allowing you to view limited areas of the bases that your characters will explore.

There are about sixteen to seventeen missions in total, predominantly fighter jet missions flown by William Bishop. As with all Ace Combat games, these missions revolve around completing mission objectives while destroying enemy aircraft and ground targets in droves. New to Assault Horizon, however, are missions flown in a helicopter, in a bomber, a gunship, or even as the door gunner on a utility helicopter–all as different main characters who work with Bishop. While these missions are few and far between, they are undoubtedly a major subject of criticism in a game primarily about fighter jets. While there are only two helicopter missions, there are no more than two attack choppers available, and the helicopter flight model is completely non-existent. Furthermore, the door gunner and gunship missions are the least fun of the missions in the game. Furthermore, omitted from Assault Horizon entirely are other staples associated with the Ace Combat series–namely, tunnel missions, and duels with giant, hulking anime-esque science fiction fortresses with advanced laser weaponry far beyond that of a real life fighter jet. These changes only leave the mainstream gamer comparing Assault Horizon to the Call of Duty series, while the Ace Combat fan is angered that attention is not only being drawn away from the jets, but that many of the essentials that establish the charm of the Ace Combat series have been stripped away in favour of mainstream Hollywood-esque appeal.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Assault Horizon is its new game mechanic, the Close Range Assault system. CRA is the definitive attempt by Project Aces to appeal to the mainstream gamer while maintaining a fresh look on Ace Combat for its fans, by introducing a pseudo on-rails system that allows the player to tail an aircraft, perform maneuvers to evade pursuing craft, and to ease the difficulty of air-to-ground assaults. To “force” players into CRA, missile effectiveness has been toned down by a large amount, limiting the effectiveness of combat outside of CRA. Furthermore, sometimes CRA is forced completely on rails, completely scripted and forced on a specific flight path–this occurs frequently at the beginning of the game, leaving a terrible first impression on the typical Ace Combat fan, but levels off by the later half of the game, with such sections few and far between, if ever. The purpose of this system is to appeal to the mainstream gamer by enticing them with the exhilaration of steel carnage, while at the same time appealing to the Ace Combat fans by demolishing a critical problem with the competitive multiplayer of Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation–missile spamming. Unfortunately, it appeals to neither crowd. The mainstream gamer will never see the appeal behind the excitement of dogfighting, and the Ace Combat fan is outraged by what is perceived as a complete loss of user control, the end result of which is what is perceived to be a very shallow, watered down version of Ace Combat. This problem is also exacerbated by the fact that, although the original control scheme is present in Assault Horizon, it is not obviously there as it was in previous titles (Every game from Ace Combat 04 onward provided the option for the player to choose their preferred control scheme before starting the game). As a result, countless players are seemingly forced to work with the Optimum control scheme, an arcade-like control scheme designed for players completely unfamiliar with proper flight control.

And with all these changes, it is disappointing to see that absolutely no merit is recognized within Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. The flight model, on Original controls, is the same as it always has been–lift forces will act on a plane, causing adverse yaw if an aircraft is left on a large angle, or even pulling them downwards if inverted–similar to a real aircraft. At low airspeeds, the plane will stall and nose dive, forcing the pilot to regain control by increasing airspeed. Dogfights can be dragged to as high as 30,000 feet, or can take place at low altitudes. Outside of CRA’s DFM mode, dogfights still retain the dynamic nature that they have always had since the PS2 era, with DFM implemented as an additional dogfighting mechanic. Engaging in CRA is not always mandatory to win, and in fact choosing to engage only in DFM will only put the player at an immense disadvantage, especially against more skilled enemies whom will take any chance to ambush an unsuspecting pilot, with or without the use of the dogfight mode. In essence, the arcadelike physics flight model of Ace Combat remains intact, as does the ability to engage in combat with enemies outside of DFM. Much of the dynamic, free-flowing nature of arcadelike dogfighting is taken away by the Optimum control scheme, which exists to lessen the workload on the player and make flying easier–however, because of the illusion that you cannot change the control scheme, it is no wonder that the game can be considered shallow by all expectations, and it is rather disappointing to see this as such.

And while the storyline is a huge disappointment considering it was written by a bestselling military author, the presentation is still superb. While earlier stated that cutscenes are not a remarkably large improvement over Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, they are still visually impressive–the characters are motion captured, and the voice acting is far less melodramatic and cheesy than the acting in previous Ace Combat games. Added to Assault Horizon is the ability to look around during sections of cutscenes, delivering partially some level of interaction and immersion. The level of graphical detail is impressive as always–while terrain is still blurry as ever at sea level, it is still an impressive sight especially at higher altitudes. Aircraft have fully functioning control plates and weapons bays, and even working cockpit gauges–in fact, the cockpits are especially convincing, virtually matching those of the real thing, down to even the voice of the computer–the Mitsubishi F-2 will have a Japanese computer voice, Russian Sukhois will have a Russian voice, and so forth. But perhaps the best part about Assault Horizon’s presentation, however, is the soundtrack. Composed by the same team that composed music for earlier games in the series in addition to Metal Gear Solid composer Norihiko Hibino, Assault Horizon’s music is by far some of the best music in the series.

One of the biggest improvements in Assault Horizon over Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation is its online mode. There are several different game modes, ranging from Capital Conquest to Deathmatch. The rules of the game can be set accordingly, down to how the scoring system is handled, what aircraft is allowed, and so forth. Incentive to fly less potent aircraft than the most modern, advanced stealth fighters is the reduced respawn time–and if enabled, a scoring bonus that rewards the player for shooting down more powerful aircraft, a scoring system included from Ace Combat 6. New to Assault Horizon are Call of Duty-esque “perks” that allows one to add additional abilities to their aircraft, including improved maneueverability or additional ammunition. These can be turned off by the host, but add a degree of customization on the player’s end. Another welcome addition is customizable colour schemes, allowing one to customize their aircraft and even the colour of their missile trail based on a reasonably large palette. Lastly, the addition of CRA in gameplay completely changes the playing field of Assault Horizon multiplayer, for the better. Gone is the need to brainlessly fire QAAMs (generally considered the best all-around special weapon) into a thick furball–because of the reduced effectiveness of missiles and the implementation of CRA, more skill is required to actually shoot human pilots down online. All of these new additions are additions which should have been implemented in Ace Combat 6, the first Ace Combat game to even support online multiplayer. Unfortunately, practically no one plays online, and at this point it’s very obvious why.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is by no means a terrible game. However, in its attempts to take risks and experiment with new features, it also attempts to appeal to two crowds at once, with disappointingly spectacular failure. That is not to say that the Ace Combat series has taken a large turn for the worse–while many of the staples of the Ace Combat series remain intact, others have been stripped away in favour of mainstream components that have failed to appeal to both the mainstream gamer and the Ace Combat fan. Project Aces would have been better off developing a game designed specifically for one crowd–namely, the Ace Combat crowd, while adding and improving upon what makes the Ace Combat series a unique arcade flight combat series.

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