Ace Combat : Assault Horizon

Assault Horizon is an accident. A collection of impossibly bad ideas in an attempt to modernize the Ace Combat franchise and make it more palatable to what appears to be the Japanese perception of a western gamer.

As a result, you have a game that will please practically nobody. Veteran Ace Combat players will encounter a game both severely dumbed down but also fundamentally compromised, and new players will be subjected to a capricious set of quick time events, a bumbling, poorly told story, and gameplay so utterly monotonous the moment to moment experience can become downright maddening.

I’m one of the former category. I’ve been so much a fan of Ace Combats 4 through 6 (including Zero but none of the PSP titles) that it’s approaching some fan’s relationship to Metal Gear Solid. I loved the world Project Aces built, I loved the melodrama, the insane boss planes, the shopping and collection of planes, even collecting *colors* for the planes. It was a series that always got the fundamental joy of flying around firing high tech weapons at high tech things absolutely right, with a wonderfully tuned arcade flight model and a delicious sense of overkill.

I’m also a fairly hardcore flight simmer, so I can appreciate the difference between an arcade sim and a realistic sim. Ace Combat has always straddled the midpoint very well, with serious attention to detail for every plane. Fire up AC6 and note how even the redundant mechanical navigation aids in the A-10 cockpit animate and respond. The games are plane porn.

Assault Horizon is explosions porn. Or at least it wants to be very badly, and it does so at the direct expense of an enjoyable flight experience, and at the expense of the central fantasy sold by the franchise.

Reality sucks dude

The game immediately veers off the path of its predecessors with its story, set in a near future version of our own reality, where a NATO unit is tasked with putting down an WMD-driven Russian military coup before they do evil Russian things to America. I lost interest practically at once, and the story never recovers. The point where it introduces the main villain, a pilot with a shark’s mouth painted on his jet (original) actually made me laugh out loud, as the music kicks in as the camera zooms in on this dude’s face, and we are expected to feel some kind of awe. We don’t. We don’t give a shit at all.

Past AC games have always told bizarre but still engaging stories, because they stood free to do whatever dumb sci-fi nonsense they wanted to. The idea of a massive meteor strike throwing the world into economic and consequentially diplomatic chaos was a wonderful premise, and the games used it well.

Assault Horizon, shackled by reality, puts itself in a position where melodramatic cliches stop being endearing in that Anime storytelling sense, and simply become mundane idiocy. There are twists to the story delivered with earnest that will make you shake your head in disbelief; At one point I looked at a dude’s face and told my girlfriend exactly what I thought that character was going to be doing. 4 missions later I was proven right. It’s abysmal and derivative storytelling, and it only gets to be called functional because of some serviceable voice work.

Reality offers more trouble. In the imaginary world of previous Ace Combats, dozens of planes dogfighting in the sky over a city-cized gun made a sort of strange game sense. Comparable situations set against a real world context seem incredibly stupid by comparison, because we are subjected to how the military operates in the real world. We’ve seen air to ground ops on TV. We know how this should be. Assault Horizon has absolutely no interest in actually capitalizing in any way on its real world setting, and as such feels very poorly thought out.

The story in Ace Combat 6 was similarly terrible, but survived because you could skip every cutscene with no real story lost; Every cutscene was essentially a series of non-sequiturs to the actual story arc the player was involved in, and even if the cutscenes were terrible, the in-flight chatter was entertaining and well done. Assault Horizon gets no such free pass: The cutscenes are long, boring affairs where the player is given slight camera control. To look at what, exactly? Boxes and walls? In-flight chatter is an abject failure. Speech is so processed and distorted by radio noise it becomes impossible to pay attention through the constant racket of heavy metal bullshit techno and explosions. It’s just a constant distorted drone. This is actually the first game I’ve played where the audio mix was directly detrimental to the playing experience.

Actually, screw reality altogether

Assault Horizon doesn’t care about real planes. Where previous Ace Combats modelled HUDs with an eye on reality, Assault Horizon just throws some shit up on screen and hopes it works. There are mistakes in design here that blew my mind. How about a vestigial, duplicate ammunition counter that sits right on top of your aiming reticle, making actually aiming at anything a chore? Or how about removing the machine gun leading indicator altogether, taking out the pleasure of accurately leading and popping a target at long distance and relegating gunnery to an impotent supporting role? How about three camera angles where only one offers you a useful, playable perspective?

Actually, hey, how about we just forget how planes work. Let’s set the default control scheme to an abortion of a third person shooter scheme where roll control is removed? How about we take the skill out of lining up a ground attack, and make players move to a point and press a couple of buttons to magically teleport the plane into a nice vector? Actually, about that…

Scripting engage!

I was not aware that the attractive traits of Call of Duty included “tight linear scripting”, but apparently Project Aces thought that was the absolute bomb. Assault Horizon is linear to a fault. Gone are branching missions, multiple operations, plane/upgrade purchases, even squadron orders. On that basis alone, replayability is at zero. Double this with a campaign so tightly scripted it regularly wrests control from you at a rate that becomes alarming. This is a game where a particular enemy plane can NOT be shot down with missiles no matter how long you try. You HAVE to fly up to it and engage one of Assault Horizon’s many gimmicky minigames, called DFM (Dog Fight Mode, geddit?). In this mode, your plane is on a rail, and so is that of your opponent. Within moments, you’ve subjected him to enough punishment to kill a bomber, but no. The game doesn’t want you to kill him yet. See, you have to see him fly under this exploding building first. THEN you can kill him.

Or how about a plane that just won’t go down, and you pound it with all your special weapons ammo, only to realize later that oh, the scripting was set up such that you couldn’t kill him; He had to fly into a building as part of a scripted sequence. Thanks for making me waste all my special weapons ammo!

It extends to ground assaults, done through a similar minigame. Here’s a ship that you can shoot at for hours, but it won’t take any damage. Not until you fly to a preset point and engage a minigame. THEN you can kill it.

The irony is that the dog fighting system has some merit; Planes can counter your DFM, and you can counter theirs. And you can counter their counters. Against the normal planes that aren’t tied into any kind of stupid rollercoaster animation for you to watch, it’s actually enjoyable. Then you encounter a boss enemy and realize that even though the game mockingly insists you should stop him as soon as possible, the game will literally not ALLOW you to stop him until it’s good and ready for it. This entails a frustrating, long chase where your life hangs in the balance, and your enemy remains essentially invulnerable.

The game just feels hugely out of control. The aforementioned ground attack sequences will occasionally interrupt your carefully adjusted angle of attack to show you an explosion somewhere, and then return you to a plane on a totally different course. Every time you feel the least bit invested, the game yanks you out of it and makes it absolutely clear that you are watching more than playing.

For a player out for a fair skill-based experience, such as those offered by past Ace Combats, games that remain playable and enjoyable at the highest difficulties, it’s like a cruel joke.

A/V

Visually the game is fine. It’s not a huge leap over AC6, which I replayed in preparation for Assault Horizon’s release, and that game still looks and sounds superb. Assault Horizon has a gritty, high contrast look to it that sometimes works and sometimes don’t at all. Some missions take place in an Apache helicopter, and they take place a little too close to the ground than the relatively low resolution satellite imagery making up the ground textures can handle. One mission in a dense city requires you to fly at street level, and it’s during these sequences the game looks its absolute worst. It’s a shame, because the apache sequences, hampered by two camera angles so unhelpful it boggles the imagination, are among the least gimmicky the game has to offer, feeling like a totally serviceable shooter.

The audio fares much worse. This is a dense, noisy affair, and it comes off as simply ugly, with a mixture of overly compressed metal guitars and breakbeats. One mission has what sounds like a disco theme thrown in for good measure. It’s pretty weird. The voice work would probably be fine if you could hear any of it through the game’s muddy mix.

If it ain’t broken…

Some perceive Ace Combat as fundamentally busted games, because all you do is shoot at dots in the distance. The reality of it is that flight combat IS shooting at dots in the distance, while managing a good sense of spatial awareness between yourself, the target, your allies and the terrain. Flight combat is never going to be palatable to those without a real fundamental urge towards it.

Assault Horizon attempts to drag the player closer to each kill and, through a more intense audiovisual experience, be more engaging for those turned off by past titles’ relative sterility. The result however is a game that steals control away from you on so many occasions and in such a haphazard fashion it becomes nearly impossible to maintain any such spatial awareness. One moment you are facing one direction, two button presses and you’re on a completely different altitude and vector, with the camera shifting to another position. You’re shooting a tank, but suddently the camera cuts to a soldier being shot somewhere. It’s nuts, and it robs you of ever feeling like you were on top of the situation, one of the primary joys of any combat flight sim.

It’s hugely ironic that instead of being a game about shooting dots in the sky, Ace Combat is now a game about moving icons and circles around and timing button presses. You stare intently at moving icons on your hud more than you look at what you’re trying to shoot.

Summary

Assault Horizon can, in this Ace Combat fan’s eyes, not be seen as anything other than a failure. It’s a charmless, derivative game with a severe identity crisis. Ace Combat vets will pine for more control and more to do, while newbies with a moment’s alertness will see through the game’s thick layer of capricious rules and scripting to reveal an action game experience that is painfully shallow and contrived.

I have two hopes at this point.

First, that Assault Horizon is an offshoot, and not a reboot. The lack of a number in its title makes me tentatively glad, because this is, so far, the lowest point of the franchise: A flight combat game where neither flight nor combat is satisfying. If this is the future of the franchise, we’re in the shit guys.

Secondly, once I’ve had a chance to try the multiplayer, that the player versus player dogfighting will be more satisfying than the scripted nonsense the campaign puts you through.

19 thoughts on Ace Combat : Assault Horizon

  1. About the roll control being ‘removed’. It isn’t. Settings > Control Settings > Aircraft > Control Type > Original. Amazing what actually looking at the settings can do, isn’t it?

  2. well I must say I have long been waiting for a new ace combat. I’ve played the 6 countless times and I still enjoy myself just flying around and generally shooting all in sight, and it has given me some of the biggest sense of accomplishment in some of it’s stages. But although the planes are incredibly detailed, and they don’t walk, that’s about all the similarity between that and a flight simulator. whomever thinks it’s real when you can spin your plane endlesly on a 12+G manouver is invited to do so in an real plane anytime! and unless you the planes carry a barracs on the back a 150 missile rack is jusssstttttt a bit too much, even for an A-10! Iwould almost dare to say even for the space shuttle.
    the fact is that the games are just fun. some of the things are close to real (plane modeling) the rest is there for quick triggers and fast pace. It’s Halo for planes and not Flashpoint.

    probably the close combat system is a bit too much, but if it’s fun, that’s fine by me. I don’t really care if you have to micro manage the sights on an enemy plane. if you want that, just buy an old flight simulator and draw a C-130 with a gun rack on top.

    I can’t believe really that although not a fantastic game, but a welll received one is getting kicked by the lack of reality… probably you want another style of game Andreas… This is like saying Deux Ex is not fun because the guy has “augmentations” and has replays when u use them!

  3. Spinus, I’ve been a die hard fan of the Ace Combat series since Ace Combat 4, so much so I keep my PS2 hooked up exclusively to play those games.

    If you don’t care about micro managing gun sights on a plane, maybe you care about guns being reduced from something that does damage to something you primarily use to “make the other plane slow down”?

    I’m not kicking Assault Horizon for its lacking realism. I’m kicking it for completely disregarding any attempt to suspend disbelief. If you want to compare it to Halo, that’s fine, but you’d have to imagine a Halo then, where grenades, when you threw them, put you in a first person view where you had to line up two triangles to do damage to your target. You’d have to imagine a Halo where you could do the Super Mario Bros butt stomp. A Halo where you couldn’t damage your enemy until you had passed an optional cutscene.

    Assault Horizon takes the Ace Combat winning formula of military hardware porn and over the top sci-fi action and drags it to a place where it’s falling apart at the seams. It’s simply not a cohesive game, and nearly every component of it suffers as a result.

    In past Ace Combats, you lock on a target, and if the HUD is telling you you have a kill when you pull the trigger, you can trust that information. This is not realistic in the slightest, but it requires you to at least have a good lead and angle on your target. In Assault Horizon, every time you fire missiles at a target, there’s a sense of uncertainty as to whether they will be ALLOWED to kill the target or if they’re somehow destined by scripting to not matter.

    If you don’t think these issues of game design are a problem, then go ahead, you’ll have fun with the blind stupidity this game can offer you. But if you want any kind of sense of accomplishment from your applied skills, you’re so much better off with the past games it’s not even funny.

  4. Spinus, I didn’t catch if you’d played the full game yet or if you were just anticipating it… If it’s the latter, I’d love to hear what you think when you’ve had a bout with it :-)

    Sidenote, I’ve played a bunch of the online play now, and it redeems itself immensely; It’s a much better online experience than 6 was, if only because it now fosters personal fights between players, and in PVP, the DFM system never cheats.

    So, very much like Call of Duty in the air then… Scripted, linear, sort of forgettable single player, but dense and enjoyable multiplayer. I can sort of tentatively recommend it on that basis, though I still think AC6 is 10x the game this is, and AC6 wasn’t even the best AC (looking at you, Unsung War)

  5. Just read your review and completely agree with all points. I’ve been a fan of the series since it was called Air Combat back on the original PlayStation, with Ace Combat 2 and Ace Combat 4 being my favorite entries.

    As a veteran Ace Combat fan, all I have to say is Assault Horizon is unspeakably bad. They did to Ace Combat with this game what was done to the previously-good Call of Duty series by MW2 and Black Ops. As I said elsewhere, it feels like someone took Ace Combat and gave it to the same numbskulls who transformed Call of Duty from a series about experiencing a war from a soldier’s perspective instead of a superhero’s, to an on-rails over-scripted POS with such a ham-fisted explosion-riddled Michael Bay story and visuals it instantly induces nausea, and produces negative quantities of enjoyment.

    The first HAWX, flawed as it was, was an infinitely better successor to Ace Combat than this new AC is. Sad. The last Call of Duty for me was COD5, and now it looks like the last Ace Combat is AC6. The games currently being made share only the name and the genre. The sort of experience that made them a joy to play is now gone.

  6. I found this and man does it really tell all about the game. So much of the campaign is scripted that you’re wondering, ‘Do I shoot a missile now, or just keep holding spraying with the machinegun and occasionally catching him just feel about myself?’ But, one thing that should really be pointed is the counter-maneuvers of the dog fight system and how flawed they are.

    Have you noticed that the only time it’s possible to counter-maneuver, aside from getting the enemy in the sweet spot, is when you’re in relatively level flight? This makes online play nearly impossible, as well as the fact that if you get into dog fight mode, you just get hit by someone’s missile aiming for the target you’re trying to kill. This happens so often that you notice when you do it quite plainly. I don’t see how you can find the competitive mode playable when it’s nearly impossible to level out, ensure you’re above stall speed and they’re still in that sweet spot, and spam LB+RB like it’s not funny, every time you get in a fight with anything. It feels like the usual shooter game where the first shot is the deciding factor, and well, this is Ace Combat… I mean, should that really happen?

    Aaaand, not to mention the dog fight mode magnetism can, and will, drag you into the ground, the buildings, that ship you were trying desperately to avoid, all because you’re not ‘hooked’ onto the scripting at that point, but you’re getting on the latch as they’re flying through something which the ‘lunge’ will do it. All in all, the game just feels like… What I expected a HAWX game to be like. I think, I may actually be impressed with the series now.

  7. yeah seriously, bring back the flying around in circles and spamming missiles when lock on hits. that shit was not monotonous at all.

    get your head out of your ass. i’ve been a fan since the first game and this is the crowning achievement of the series.

  8. Completely agree, it’s not that it takes the reality away but to me it robs you of the game-play and “sense” of being in an aeroplane shooter and replaces it with a nasty tacky coin-op with too many flashing lights. Can’t stand this DFM it’s like playing the 1980s F14 dumb-arse shooter called “After Burner”. Gave up on the game after minutes. Really enjoyed the previous titles in this game but would have preferred it to go the other way and get more “real”.

  9. I also loved no 4 – especially for its story (http://www.gamer.no/artikler/21651/feature-historiefortelling-i-spill-del-1/2/), maybe not so much for its gameplay – but didn’t find much new to behold gameplay wise in 5 or 6 (or even its PSP iterations). This, on the other hand, was a fresh breeze: fun, different, visceral, slightly more cinematic in that ridiculously macho Top Gun-way. And, as you say in the comments section here, I quite redeems its silly, Q.T.E.-heavy storyline with its COD-in-the-sky multiplayer. I like this way better than, say, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.K.S.-series. And it’s heeps better than that shoddy showroom back-seat-driver level in Battlefield 3.

    PS: I’ve met you twice with my 3DS spot pass now. I guess we share the same way to our jobs, or something ヽ(;▽;)ノ

  10. This article sums it up quiet right. It speaks out of my soul. For my part, what I like on AH are the graphics (By that I mean the Engine, how it renders and not the constant explosions and shrapnels thrown at you, and I like the soundtrack.) So I really liked the Trailers for that game. And now since I played the game, bought it a week ago. I realized it would have been smarter to play the demo first. This game is for Brain dead people. I also consider myself a fan of the series, knowing it since the first title. But been really a fan since the 5th “Squadron Leader” which I consider as the finest of them. Also got ac4, Zero and AC6 on the 360. I will not consider AH and Ace Combat, it is not. It’s not even a Arcade-Air-Combat-Game, it is more like a “Dragons Lair” or “Heavy Rain” You only watch a Story and have to react at certain moments, and quickly push some buttons. At first I tried to play it without using the DFM, but I realized that they got this Scripted DFMs where you have to use DFM in order to advance in the game, and u do not know when such a moment comes, so I started to use DFM on almost every main target plane. And those DFMs are so boringly easy, okay I play it in Normal difficult, gotta mention that. Al thou many say u can lose DFM, often u have to lose it on purpose. Also I never had a problem that in previous AC titles that u shoot at distend dots. For me it was always 50/50, I always tried to get in close for a gun kill, and this is also the fun part of the ac series, u have to get the right speed, to much u overshoot, and the u saw your kill up close, and I got many great moments out of that, now those moments are not coming out of the self-generating situation, those moments are now scripted, artificially generated by hand. When a mission in AH ends and everyone says: “Yeah, we / You Did it” I think to my self: “i did what? I did nothing, just watch and pushed a button now and then.” I have to say, the best missions where the helicopter-Gunship mission, the controls may not be the best, but in those missions u where in control. These are the only missions where u got complete control. And what is the purpose of choosing weapons in AH, u know when u can also choose ground attack weapons but u do not know how many ground targets u will find, there are almost never any while u pilot a Jet. In AC u always got a brefing before a mission where u could see how many air and ground-targets are expected, and from that you could decide if u go more to anti-ground or anti-air. The last thing I can mention about the game play is on the final fight against Markov, I turned of the sound and watched some Futurame on my laptop while playing. Because could listen to the same things over and over anymore.

    Story, mmhhh… guess there is none. Just some generic Hua America bullshit. I have no problem about stories about American soldiers, but in AH it is only like this. “You are the good guys, why?, cuz u are an American pilot. These are the enemy, why? Because they are not Americans.” really I am more interested in the story of those African rebells. What are they fighting for, maybe they fight against an oppressing fascistic regime, and they are just fighting for there human rights.

    Assault Horizon to me is not an Ace Combat, it will only be Assault Horizon. If they continue it like that, the Ace Combat series has ended and I will hold it in good memory.

    Sorry for bad English, it’s not my native language.this article sums it up quiet right.

  11. Stumbled to your article by asking Google why I am so bad at Assault Horizon. Wanted to see if others felt the way I do about it – that I’m not really in control of it. I was and am a massive fan of AC, particularly AC4, which I always felt like I was an absolute badass at.

    There’s just so much wrong with Assault Horizon, and, like you, I think it starts from the point of the dev undoing the very foundation of flight control by including that bizarre FPS scheme, not only as an alternative, but as the default!

    There is literally no satisfaction in playing the game. I bought it on pre-order and played the first few stages, then put it back in the box in disgust for months. I’ve been trying to play through it now (I owe it to the rest of the games in the series, or something), but it’s just woeful. It does not reward any skill whatsoever. It’s a matter of engaging DFM and following the dots.

    AC for me is the most fun when you are positioning yourself on radar to make a quick darting turn behind your target, getting in as close as possible and tracking the enemy to finish them off with the guns. DFM has basically taken this pleasure away.

    It’s also about listening to the radio chatter as you begin to realise that Mobius 1 has built this reputation as an incredible pilot who’ll save the day – that’s a great feeling. Radio chatter is almost indiscernable in this game, unless it’s a mission critical order.

    I am so crushingly disaappointed by the whole thing. There is nothing to compare with Invincible Fleet. The sooner we get a HD AC4 the better!

  12. I agree with the review 100%.. I love a/c 4, but this one is complete crap. AH is hopefully going to be the oddball of the set in retrospect.

  13. I am so pissed off, all they had to do was make another ace combat game with better graphics and new planes and instead they put quicktime events in it? WTF???? I am so chapped I want realistic arial combat not crazy counter manouvers that wouldnt even work in real life God damn the default settings are arcade style what kinda fighter pilot wouldnt want to be able to roll over and do all possible manuevers?. I have played several Ace combat games and this is some dumbass marketing geniouses stupid Idea to dumb down a good game.I cant even put into words how bad this game is compared to the previous ace combat games holy shit!!!!!!

  14. and furthermore why cant I ignore that stupid dfm mode when engaging elite pilots? wheres the skill in this? HOLY SHIT DONT BUY THIS GAME IF YOU ARE AN ACE COMBAT FAN ITS NOT ACE COMBAT!!!

  15. Agree with this review 100%. I am so disappointed by this version of A/C. I played for about 30 mins and I think that’s it. I’m going back to my PS2.

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