Growing up on a diet of After Burner and Top Gun has given me a soft spot for arcade fliers, and the new Ace Combat instalment scratches that itch. Namco Bandai has delivered another strong contribution to the genre that will attract new players and satisfy open-minded veterans, but will probably annoy purists.
The world is on the verge of a massive global conflict (again!) and the villains are (you guessed it) nefarious Russians. There is a prototype weapon of mass destruction in the mix, an alliance with an international terrorist organisation, and a traitorous but influential General. That’s the extent of the narrative depth of this game, and actually the shallow efforts of building it through poorly-animated cutscenes and substandard dialogue (witty banter: GO!) don’t do much to dispel that notion. Sorry Namco, but hiring NY Times best-selling military author Jim DeFelice doesn’t mean that you can polish this turd of a storyline plucked straight from any COD/BF clone.
But I don’t care, because the narrative is just the canvas for an awesome action game. The core gameplay revolves around jet fighting, and the action is dynamic, intense and at times frantic. Let’s be honest: This is not a simulator, and the 360 version at least does not even support flight sticks. So, although the ground is still (barely) solid, there is no emphasis on tricky takeoff and landing manoeuvres, and praise be that wind doesn’t seem to exist. Instead you are preoccupied with targeting and firing missiles at such a rate that you can destroy thousands of targets in a single playthrough.
In fact, the main new mechanic in the series is also the thing that edges AC:AH further away from the verisimilitude that simulator fans demand. The controversial dogfight mode (DFM) is a type of bullet-time for jets: It means you hardly have to worry about flying and can just focus on your reticule, getting a lock-on, and destroying the target. This is eminently satisfying, especially when you can chain several such kills together or perform a vicious counter-manoeuvre and turn the tables on your opponent.
Unfortunately this comprises about 90% of the game, and the jet fighting sometimes feels a little samey. Oh, bogey number 567 destroyed. This repetition is diluted by missions using bombers and assault helicopters (both controllable and on-rails), and these missions are a welcome distraction from jet missions. Negotiating the streets of Moscow in an Apache helicopter introduces some intriguing shooter strategies, and several missions also combine anti-air and anti-surface objectives, allowing an air strike mode (ASM) not unlike dogfighting. Destroying warships is particularly fun, and the sense of overwhelming air power is joyful, but a bit frightening.
[img_big]center,182,2010-11-16/29656SS_ACAH_E3Trailer_09.jpg,Ace Combat: Assault Horizon[/img_big]
There is little character or vehicle customisation: For some aircraft it is possible to select one special weapon, but nothing like a loadout, so your machinegun and basic homing missiles are stock-standard. There are plenty of aircraft to choose from though, especially in the fighter missions, and a choice of camera angles means you can admire the sleek lines of your stealth bomber as it rains fiery death upon the unseen enemy. The environments are just beautiful: Dogfighting low through Dubai or soaring above Miami is a great experience.
The game also supports online multiplayer for 2-16 players, with competitive and coop modes of the usual variety, with the usual success rates. For example, domination tends to be a bit one-sided, with one team usually taking the upper hand and the other finding it almost impossible to recover. The community is vibrant, strong, and pretty hardcore, so it’s no walk in the park. It is, however, a good way to wring some more hours out; the campaign mode is done in 10-12 hours.
There is one major flaw to this game though: The end of the campaign is insanely frustrating. In fact there is no way to beat it until a forum informs you that there is a hop, skip, and a hoop to jump through to just engage the final battle. I’m not a stickler for a difficult ending but it should be possible to play it through with the strategies that the game has developed through the campaign. It means that the climax is ridiculously out of kilter; instead of a satisfying ace dogfight we are left with a sour taste. I’ll get over it one day.
[img_big]center,182,2011-09-09/35462ACAH_B-1B_001.jpg,Ace Combat: Assault Horizon[/img_big]
Despite my misgivings, AC:AH is a solid arcade flying game, but the series is edging further away from simulator status. This is likely to engage rookies but frustrate those who have a healthy respect to the laws of physics and tight control design. It’s well worth playing if you’re up for some jet fighter action, but don’t expect any game of the year material.