As cool as fighters jets might be, they've always presented a unique challenge for game developers in one key regard: repetition. Simply put, you can only swoop around and shoot down so many bandits before it starts to get tiring. Seemingly aware of this conundrum, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does more to mix things up than any game in the series.
The first thing you'll notice is that the atmosphere is much more in line with modern military shooters like Call of Duty. The fictional nations are gone, and so are elements like satellite lasers (charming as they were). It goes further than that though, with even the story being lifted almost directly from the original Modern Warfare.
Yes, you will begin by fighting bizarrely well-equipped Middle Eastern rebels who end up coming into possession of a nuclear-like device -- specifically the fictional Trinity device. Russian renegades are involved too, and at one point an ICBM gets launched at the United States. Needless to say, I got a serious case of déjà vu playing this game.
But for all its unavoidable similarities to Modern Warfare, it still does a lot of things right. Chief among them is the jet combat, which looks as good as ever, but has been greatly enhanced by the new dogfight mode. Now, rather than engaging in endless turning wars, the computer will automatically lock you onto their tail, where you're free to pelt them with missiles so long as you can keep them in your sights.
Dogfight mode accomplishes a couple things. First, it's an easy and intuitive way to lock onto an enemy ace and put a missile up his tail pipe without being a guaranteed kill. It's possible for the enemy to escape with an Immelmann turn, and you never know when their buddy will sneak up behind you and start firing.
Dogfight mode is also a sneaky way by which the developers have slipped in scripted events. Go into dogfight mode over Dubai, for instance, and you may find yourself narrowly avoiding escaping commercial airliners. In Miami, dogfight mode will have you dodging between exploding buildings. Basically, it's a seamless way to inject a little drama into the chases without interrupting the flow of the action.
But while these tricks do their part to mix up the action, it's the new vehicles that will get the most attention. Unfortunately, the first appearance of the Longbow helicopter -- a new addition to the Ace Combat series -- makes for one of the weakest missions in the game. Apart from overstaying its welcome in terms of pacing, it features a dogfight with a pair of Hinds that really illustrates the limitations of Ace Combat's helicopters.
Lacking air-to-air missiles, I was forced to sort of clumsily bump against them while firing my Vulcan cannon. And then, with another Hind on my tail, I had to fly in and kill individual soldiers without hitting a VIP in the middle of a formation. This sequence was like trying to pick up grains of sand while wearing winter gloves, all while being menaced by an enemy helicopter. It really wasn't a fun mission.
Thankfully, the mission design seems to find its feet around the game's midpoint, and from there it's just a blast to play. My favourite mission involved bombing enemy ships in tandem with a squadron of allied fighters, culminating in a fight with a massive battleship. It made me think of one of my favourite parts of Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising, where a squadron of Russian Backfires manage to cripple an American carrier with a concentrated volley of missiles in an exciting battle. That's exactly the sort of feeling I like to have in a game like Ace Combat.
Assault Horizon has other strong moments as well. There's an exciting sequence in which you have to attempt an emergency landing with a pair of MiGs on your tail; an ICBM chase (seriously); and an attack run in a stealth bomber. Through all of this though, the air combat that makes up the core of the franchise continues to be solid as ever, and is even a bit more fun thanks to the dogfight mode.
The single-player campaign takes about 8-10 hours to complete, and is augmented by a solid multiplayer mode that includes both online co-op and dogfight modes. One mode of note combines the helicopters, bombers and jet fighters into one large battle in which two teams try to take out the other's base. Interesting concept, but without some concentrated teamwork, it's way too easy to get in and bomb the enemy's HQ. I much preferred the standard furballs, which are all the more entertaining and intense with the addition of the dogfight mode.