Ace Combat: Assault Horizon gets a sneak peek

The Ace Combat series has never been interested in simulation levels of realism, but the latest version, dubbed Assault Horizon, has taken things even more into the arcade realm. Is it a dumbed-down attempt to snatch casual players? We don’t think so, at least based on the brief glimpse of gameplay we got recently. The newest Ace Combat goes for the standard near-future setting, this time in 2015 Africa, where the hero, William Bishop (there’s a hero’s name if we’ve ever heard one), must attempt to seek out and destroy some new-fangled weapon of mass destruction. You’ll get to play as other characters as well, but how important is the plot, really? What we want to know about is the flying.

Assault Horizon introduces a new play mechanic that is the core of the dogfighting, so the change to gameplay is considerable. A common complaint about previous Ace Combat games was that a lot of the time you were shooting heat-seeking missiles at distant, tiny silhouettes of planes. Assault Horizon has addressed this issue by bringing in what it calls Close Range Assault, or CRA. Once you are tailing a bogey, keeping them within your reticle for a few seconds allows you to activate CRA with a tap of both shoulder buttons. This locks you into a close chase where you’re always right on your enemy’s tail. This allows for more exciting chases, lets you get to appreciate the detailed aircraft designs, and also brings the machine guns into the forefront, which helps mix things up from the repetitive nature of “lock, fire missile, find new enemy.”

Above: Here we see the CRA in action, although it often takes place at even closer ranges than this

Firing away with cannons at a plane at close range causes hunks of metal to peel off the fuselage and for smoldering plane parts to hurtle past your own plane and right into the camera. The camera itself is so close to your craft that it reminds us of the over-the-shoulder cam now popular in third-person shooters. Indeed, we saw moments when the player’s jet obscured most of the screen for a second or two. It’s possible that this could become annoying, but it’s hard to say until we get to play it. Visually, it was striking and made the chase feel like something out of a movie. Indeed, this movie-like approach extends to the kills, where every time you take down a bogey using CRA, you get a quick cinematic showing their wreckage ripping apart and spraying pretty blossoms of fire, smoke, and debris. It lasts only a couple of seconds, so it doesn’t interrupt the pacing of the combat. For a final nifty touch, often you fly right through the defeated bogey’s fireball as player control resumes.

Above: Kind of like scraping the burnt parts off of too-toasted... uh... toast

It’s possible for enemies to get on your tail as well, of course, but Assault Horizon provides you with an escape route that isn’t realistic, but sure looks fun. You have to time it just right, but you perform a counter maneuver where you do a super-quick loop and end up right on your opponent’s tail. We’re not sure if performing this move is required to pull off the finisher attack we saw, but what followed was a camera switch to the underbelly of the player’s plane, where a hatch opened to reveal a rack of four missiles, which then all fired off at once, each one streaking to a different enemy, and in a symphony of carnage all four missiles struck home simultaneously. A nice reward for getting the jump on your opponent.

Above: It's like plane-belly porn

That’s all we really saw of the game so far, but we must say it looks promising. It’s possible diehard Ace Combat fans will take issue with the new approach, but it certainly made us want to get our hands on it so we could see how the CRA plays out. Assault Horizon is set for a late 2011 release on PS3 and Xbox 360.

Feb 4, 2011

Matthew Keast
My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.