Ace Combat Assault Horizon hands-on preview

At some point we noticed we’d been gripping the controller like we were trying to choke the life from it. It was right after blowing a bogey to wreckage so nasty it could almost be described as gory, and we relaxed our talon-grip along with a release of endorphins in our brain. Damn, the enemy pilot got freakin’ handled. Not only does Ace Combat Assault Horizon feature super intense dogfights, but it also makes you feel like the baddest pilot in the universe. What a difference a little bit of camera trickery makes. Just as Gears of War made the humble sprint something glorious with a little low-angle camera swinging, Assault Horizon has turned the dogfight into something like a shaky-cam Jason Bourne scuffle.

Above: The game also features a delectable selection of aircraft, which makes picking just one before a mission a bit of a struggle

The new mechanic is known as DFM, or dogfight mode, and it eliminates the tendency for flight combat games to look like glorified connect-the-dots, as well as allow for some rip-roaring chase sequences thanks to some scripted AI behavior sleight-of-hand. Assault Horizon has the standard long-range combat where you either thread a needle by trying to hit the one dark pixel in the sky with your guns, or you lock on and hope your missiles don’t get flared. However, if you get close enough on a bogey’s tail, little green circles appear around your target. Pop both top shoulder buttons and you enter DFM. The camera zooms in super close to your jet and a nifty compression of field of view brings your target close and detailed for your greedy eyes. You also get a partially-guided flight path that keeps you on the guy’s tail (but you still have to keep with him – veer too much and he’ll break the DFM).

With just a big plane filling your view, it becomes much more reasonable to nail him with bullets, which is something modern flight games tend to miss out on. There’s something primitive about eating chunks out of an enemy with successive sprays of straight-firing lead that homing missiles just don’t capture. Even so, you’ll want to use both weapons, because in DFM if you can hold the target in your sights, the green circles will grow and then become red, allowing your missiles greater power. Yeah, it’s not super realistic and it’s definitely arcadey, but who cares when it’s this much fun? And while you get your prey perfectly aligned in your sights, the camera will take on an even more dramatic angle, either in an almost over-the-shoulder view or a supremely sexy underbelly view. Finally, when you do obliterate your target, you’ll get a slow-mo, short cinematic of plane-crash porn. It’s just deliciously rewarding each time you triumph in a prolonged dogfight.

The disadvantage of DFM is that you can’t dodge missiles, which means sometimes you’ll have to break off, but of course we like to be greedy and see if we can hold on just a few more seconds and nab the kill before a warhead goes up our exhaust pipe. It’s also possible for an enemy to engage DFM on you – you’ll get a red circle on screen, but if you hit the brakes, two arrows will begin to line up. Right when they overlap, you can hit the shoulder buttons to perform a counter-maneuver, suddenly flipping around and snapping onto your opponent’s tail. This also give you a short time to land an extra-powerful missile, so pulling a counter-DFM and quick kill is stupidly fun in its gleeful vengeance.

We mentioned earlier some sneaky AI scripting in the DFM. See, with certain enemies, when you engage DFM, they’ll take you on a “rollercoaster ride” by following a scripted path through a narrow canyon or between skyscrapers, and for some added excitement, there are scripted events where an oil rig will erupt in a ball of fire with collapsing beams to barely swoop under, but it all feels totally organic and you’re still controlling your craft the whole time. It’s an impressive illusion – bringing action-movie moments into freeform combat in a seamless way we haven’t really seen before.

As in previous Ace Combats, you won’t just be flying fighter jets. In just the first few missions we also played the part of a chopper gunner, piloted an Apache helicopter, and gunned an AC-130. These missions break up the action nicely, but aren’t nearly as exciting as the fighter-jet missions, although we imagine they’re a bit necessary to make sure the DFM doesn’t get monotonous. The overall game, from what we’ve seen so far, has a super-slick presentation and a story that may not be terrible, so we’re actually really excited about Assault Horizon now, when before we were cautiously curious. Flight enthusiasts: watch out for our review, because this could turn out to be a must-buy for every top-gun wannabe out there.

Sep 14, 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.