Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

I love the Ace Combat series.  I loved Ace Combat 4, I loved Ace Combat 5 (my personal favorite), and I loved Ace Combat Zero.  With no Xbox 360 on hand however, I was forced to miss out on the series’ foray into high definition.  So, you can imagine I was pretty excited when Assault Horizon was announced.  But as details came out, the more I heard about the game, the more concerned I became.  No super planes?  No squad based combat?  A real world setting?  The misgivings just kept on flowing.  It was becoming blatant that Namco was, in many ways pursuing an audience with the Call of Duty crowd.  I was becoming genuinely concerned for not just this game, but the direction of the entire series.

But then I played the game.  And I continued to play it.  I went in cynical, but as the hours rolled by, I had to admit it: this game is fun.

Assault Horizon’s story is pretty simple and down to earth compared to scenarios seen in some of its predecessors.  The game doesn’t really concern itself with familiarizing you with the slightly futuristic setting in which its tale takes place.  I gathered that a rebellion had sparked up in Africa, and the UN (and in turn, NATO) is called upon to deal with it.  Soon enough however, it’s discovered that the rebels are receiving aid from a powerful faction of Russians who plan to terrorize the world (but mostly just the US) using an experimental, absurdly powerful cruise missile known as “Trinity.”  The story is told from the perspective of three POV characters: primarily Colonel William Bishop of Warwolf Squadron, with supporting roles from bomber pilot Janice Rehl and helicopter captain Doug Robinson.

The game begins with a bang, as Colonel Bishop and his squadron fly over Miami and engage in heated battle with invading Russians.  This level serves as the tutorial, and also introduces us to the game’s antagonist, Andrei Markov.  Though you are shot out of the sky by him at the end of the level, Colonel Bishop wakes up in a cold sweat before Markov can deal a finishing blow, revealing it all to have been a dream.  This sets the stage for the rest of the campaign, as Bishop and Markov continue to clash over multiple locales across the globe.  Though the story is technically yet another about Americans overcoming the bad guys, in many ways it revolves around the fierce rivalry these two pilots share.  It’s not the most fleshed out protagonist/antagonist relationship I’ve seen, but it still manages to serve up an entertaining campaign and an intense conclusion.

In fact, “intense” is a pretty good describing word for Assault Horizon, as a whole.  Throughout the game’s coverage, Project Aces and Namco made it clear that they aiming to make airborne combat a more fast-paced, visceral affair.  And they succeeded, through the use of an interesting new mechanic known as Dogfight Mode (or DFM, as it’s referred to in game).  Locking onto an opponent and aligning yourself close enough to their rear allows you to squeeze both triggers simultaneously to enter a dogfight with them.

What follows is a white-knuckle chase across the skies as you relentlessly pursue your query.  On paper (and initially in practice), dogfight mode seems a lot like the Enhanced Reality System, or ERS featured in Tom Clancey’s HAWX; that is, a crutch.  But the more you use DFM the more it seems to validate itself as a worthy gameplay mechanic.  When you enter a dogfight, a circle appears on your HUD.  Your goal is to keep your opponent within this circle, which in turn charges up a bar.  When that bar is filled, you’ll be able to loose off a missile that flies with near perfect tracking, resulting in a guaranteed hit on your opponent.  Why being able to keep a reticule trained on your target for a period of time gives your missiles perfect accuracy is never explained, just like how they never explain the curious inclusion of regenerating health (a series first).  But despite its realistic trappings, Ace Combat has always been an arcade series first and a flight sim second, so I can dismiss such things.

There are further intricacies to dogfights, like the ability to counter out of being pursued, instantly turning the tables, or the ability to release flares.  But it’s a great system that allows for surprising amount of push and pull between the pursuer and the pursued.  The mechanic doesn’t shine truly until you take the fight online, however.  Other humans don’t soar lazily through the sky like AI opponents often do, nor do they fly through any set pattern.  DFM allows you to single out a player and engage him or her in a battle of aces across the skies.  The DFM Support mechanic allows multiple players to pursue a single target, and by the same token you can rescue a comrade by engaging his assailant in DFM, which rips them out of their own pursuit.

Another series first, Assault Horizon introduces styles of play outside of jets and planes.  Though most of the time you’ll still be playing as Bishop, often you’ll jump in the seat of a helicopter, or a bomber.  There are even a couple instances where you play as a gunner, either from a helicopter or a gunship.  Though I was skeptical about them at first, these missions are fun, and just sparse enough to feel more like breaks in the pace, rather than actual portions of the story.

There is a certain inconsistency to the campaign, however.  Sometimes it progresses through missions so fluidly that I didn’t that I didn’t realize certain segments of gameplay were actually multiple missions until I looked at the mission list later on.  Other times, however, you’ll finish an objective, only to find yourself somewhere else--maybe in another vehicle--with sparse explanation of why you’re there.  This extends to the gameplay, as well.  Though the jet portions are of course the most fleshed out, the helicopter sections do a complete 360 on the controls, and the bomber and gunner portions are comprised mainly of simple, context heavy gameplay.

The campaign is also a little bit shorter than I expected it to be, but it’s bolstered by the game’s simple yet fun online multiplayer.  The game ships with four modes: Capital Conquest, Domination, Deathmatch, and Mission Co-op.  Due to only moderately populated servers, I was only able to actively try out two of them (Deathmatch and Capital Conquest), but flying with (and against) real players makes for an entirely new experience.

Capital Conquest is a spin on the tried and true “blow up the other guys’ base” multiplayer formula.  Each team has an HQ, and all you have to do is blow it up.  Though technically you can make a rush for the enemy HQ immediately, you’re limited to your machine gun and dumb-firing your guided weapons until you can capture the radio tower placed square in the middle of the two HQs.  Once you capture the radio tower, an opportunity opens up that allows players to fly in and deal significant damage.

 That is, if they don’t get shot down trying.  In multiplayer, you have access to all three classes of jets and planes, as well as helicopters, and each one of them have roles they can fill.  Fighters escort fellow players, and guard the enemy HQ.  Multirole craft keep enemies busy, and can take it upon themselves to head up the offense.  Attackers are easy targets for everyone else, but have the best air-to-ground capabilities.  And for everything else, you have helicopters.

While Capital Conquest and Domination are modes more for team strategists and people of every skill level, Deathmatch is an utter warzone.  Here, everyone picks their favorite plane and takes to the sky, joining one of the most intense free-for-alls I’ve ever experienced.  Sixteen indiscriminate players form an angry cloud of missiles, bullets, exhaust clouds, and eventually plane parts.  I have to admit, I would unwittingly grit my teeth at some points while playing a game of Deathmatch, and then take a moment after some matches to just take a deep breath, and check my perspiration.  It’s that crazy.

Though for the most part you’ll get farther with raw skill than you will with a better plane (though good luck for you guys trying to fly something other than a generic F-22, which is statistically the best plane in the game) or any bonuses, you can use the points you accumulate as you play Assault Horizon to unlock small but meaningful perks.  Such perks include ones that might reduce the time it takes to charge a missile in DFM, or enhance your throttle performance.  Like any decent multiplayer suite, you can have several different load outs of skills set up at a time.  You can also assign one perk in your load out to benefit other members on your team as well, which is nice.

For the most part, Assault Horizon is a good looking game.  As always, the plane models look great, and are more detailed than ever.  Even the cockpit view has some life to it, for once.  Mutilating a plane from close behind tends to give you a bit screen splatter, with bits of oil and flecks of debris flying into your view.  Wind is well represented here as well, and for the first time in the series you gain a genuine sense of speed when you hit the afterburners and the world around you becomes a blur.  Everything just seems to have a lot more life to it.  As is typical of the series however, many aspects of the visuals do not fare well under close inspection.  Frequent Burnout-style close-ups of your kills on enemies reveal unconvincing explosions and some borderline crude object modeling.  The ground map, while better than it’s ever been, still looks pretty bland.  This is only highlighted by the helicopter missions, which have you flying no less than 200 feet above the ground, usually.

The music is the one aspect of Assault Horizon that is extremely consistent with its predecessors.  The series has always had great music in my opinion, and this entry doesn’t disappoint.  The main theme, which is remixed a few times throughout the campaign, sounds amazing, and stands among such tracks as “ZERO” and “The Unsung War” as one of the best in the series.  The voice acting, while not standout, still delivers the narrative well.  I also appreciate the amount of radio chatter there is during gameplay.

I wasn’t prepared to like Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.  I wanted to play it because I love the series, and I felt obligated to.  But I’m glad I didn’t decide to ignore it entirely.  Despite everything it changes or removes, this game is fun.  Is it the Ace Combat I wanted?  Is it the Ace Combat I want?  No, and no.  However, there was never a point while playing where I didn’t feel like I was having a good time.  And because of that, I can’t really knock it too hard.  An 8.5/10 

No comments: