Namco Bandai have declared war on Ubisoft, entering territory previously unseen in the franchise: the PC. Ace Combat Assault Horizon landed on Windows priced at only £19.99, but it offers so much more than its main competitors  H.A.W.X 2 and J.A.S.F Jane’s Advanced Strike Fighters. With more jets, and the inclusion of helicopters and much more solid mechanics than either of the aforementioned titles, Ace Combat AH delivers powerful innovation and generous content at a price that says “hey, we know PC came third, and we’re sorry about that.” If you haven’t worked it out by now, I’m a pretty big fan of Ace Combat Assault Horizon.

Released in October 2011, Assault Horizon is nothing new. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s no big deal. Oh, but it is. The PC hasn’t seen a decent arcade flight simulator for quite some time, and whilst there have been a few here and there that appeased our thirst for jet-fuel, there hasn’t been anything solid and worth writing home about. The dog-fighting mechanic in H.A.W.X 2 was lackluster and fiddly, and the missions lacked variety. Publishers simply don’t commission these games anymore; they don’t “resonate well with the consumer,” and sales expectations are too low to even bother starting development. Balls to that, I say.

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The new dogfighting mechanic is astoundingly awesome.

This installment throws away any pretense and myth, swapping “Eurasian” continents for real-life settings, featuring NATO and Russia representing their respective military powers as accurately as possible. NATO, a multi-national conglomerate, is portrayed largely through the eyes of Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop, leader of the USAF’s “Warwolf Squadron”. Warwolf are tasked with assisting ground troops in Africa, as a vaguely entertaining but heavily cliched plot unwinds about the uncovering of nuclear armaments and a separatist coup. As is with every movie since 1504, the Russians are ideologically split, with General Ivan Stagleishov previously assisting NATO now leading the Russian “rebels” with view to take Moscow. They call themselves the NRF – New Russian Federation. I suppose Namco Bandai heavily underestimate Russian literature, given the prosaic title of an ideological Russian group.

Warwolf are thus tasked with defending NATO assets against the insurgency of the NRF, and as Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop, you must lead the counter-attack. Top Gun. James Bond. Call of Duty. You get the gist.

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Helicopters play out like Japanese mechs more-so than attack choppers.

Like H.A.W.X, the dynamic and play-style of Assault Horizon is innovative and varied. Every mission is followed by a mission that entails a different type of vehicle, or a different style of mission. For instance, whilst we start with the classic dog-fighting goodness of Ace Combat we all know and love, we soon discover that some missions will have you as the door gunner of a Blackhawk, or the gunnery technician on a C-130. You’ll be flying Apache’s, stealth bombers, super-sonic jets and, actually, an astonishing variation of everything in between.

Missions that have you gunning down endless lines of enemies as a door gunner might not be to everyone’s taste, since it isn’t really what we come to Ace Combat for, but they serve a purpose by breaking up the non-stop action which has been intensified by the introduction of grittier mechanics. For example, the new dog-fighting mode is a semi-on rails pseudo-authentic chase utilizing a dynamic camera (depending on your view – 3rd person, cockpit, HUD, etc,) whereby you are driven between buildings, dangerously close to the ground, or through exploding oil-fields as your enemy tries desperately to lose your tail. These are beautiful, and keep you at your wits end – since enemies can counter maneuver, allowing you to fire a few rounds of the chain gun across the top of their jet as they try to flank behind you. It’s the perfect mix of on-rail arcadey goodness, and a mechanic that is integral to the success and enjoyment of the game. It could have gone horribly wrong, but it went grotesquely right.

As you blow apart the enemy jets, their planes fragment and split apart, sending your enemy flying into the three-dimensional war-zone. I literally punched a guy in the groin with the front of my jet. That actually happened.

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Effects and aesthetic isn’t much improved over the 360 version, but planes are gorgeous.

The two main “direct-user-input” modes (for lack of a better term) are with planes and helicopters. Helicopters in Assault Horizon really remind us that this is indeed a Japanese franchise. Helicopter controls are entirely counter-intuitive, and you need to re-learn them. In short, the Apache handles like something from Armored Core 5 more than ArmA. Turning left and right requires moving the gunnery turret to an axis until such a point as the helicopter follows suit. It feels strange, but considering you’re doing the job of a pilot and a gunner it’s acceptable. Like-wise, locking on with the left trigger makes you feel as though you’ve got Robocop as your gunner, but in reality it makes for an enjoyable “mech” like experience. Namco Bandai built their own helicopter pilot mechanics that are unlike any other game in the genre, but as soon as you realise you’re basically piloting an Apache skinned mech, you should get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

The helicopter missions are explosive, exciting, and entertaining. Taking out multiple enemies with bunker-busters, and firing Hell-fires and technicals and SAM sites never seems to get old. Something that irked me, however, was the Apache’s ability to 360 in the air like a happy seal. It looked ridiculous, and anyone already put off by the arcadey mechanics of the helicopter missions will probably find it hard to see past this. Taking back Moscow in an Apache is one of the most enjoyable – if a little long – missions in the game, and reminded me of an Armored Core skirmish.

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Gunning is a nice break from user-input.

Arcade flight sims – or any action game for that matter – run into two problems: getting the dynamic right so players don’t get bored, and getting the mission length right. Assault Horizon has conquered one more-so than the other. The dynamic is pretty much spot on for the most part, although towards the end you feel as though you’re doing things you’ve already done before (because you literally are), but to break up the intensity of explosions and sounds and lights constantly pumping into your skull, these “on-rails” sequences really help.

Gunning missions are orchestrated particularly well, and they play out almost as meticulously as a ballet – where everything has its cue, and each asset sweeps and scoots around one and other in perfect synchronicity. I sound like I’m fluffing up mere “on-rails” mechanics, but there are often a lot of surprises, and the music and atmosphere of authenticity really make these in-between moments very enjoyable, and an integral part of the gameplay – not just filler.

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Bits of plane plague your field of view.

Where Assault Horizon excels, it does so intelligently and innovatively, but it still falls prey to the same old mistakes of others – perhaps mistakes prone to the genre. For instance, the title has an incredibly beautiful soundtrack which I’m proud to own from the Collectors Edition on Xbox 360 (which you can hear in my video-review), and it also has competent voice acting. The mechanics, visuals, and effects, are all spectacular, but game-play problems leave sometimes infuriating annoyances with the title.

Missions often go on for far too long – especially on the classic flying missions. For instance, who at Namco Bandai decides when enough waves of enemies is enough? When you die, you start back from the checkpoint – that’s a given – but when someone on the team has clearly said “right, I think 7 waves of enemies is enough, otherwise the player will get bored”, and you die, having to do 14, 15, maybe 16 waves of enemies (unless you die again) then we clearly have a problem. The length of the levels are just right if you don’t die. When what you are often doing is generally repeatedly killing swarms of enemies, it’s not necessarily that fun to repeat repeatedly killing swarms of enemies, only to repeat repeatedly repeating killing swarms of enemies in the next mission. There are several times when I’ve died, or failed, on a mission objective where the thought of repeating it all literally had me walking away from my PC. In fairness this happened all of three times, and I did come back quite eager, looking forward to the experience.

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Another issue with the title is the fact that it gets very samey towards the end of the game. In fact, contrary to Ace Combat’s initial roots, the introduction of excellently executed new mechanics, roles, and vehicles, meant that swarms of enemies in the flying sections were a very unattractive prospect. This is the core gameplay of Ace Combat, though! It’s almost as if Namco Bandai spoiled us, and therefore spoiled the classic gameplay roles the franchise was built on. I’m confident that there will be many of you, though, that play this title only for the flying, and that’s fine too.

This time, the story is told through moments of first-person – out-of-combat cut-scenes. In short, I mean… walking… I suppose. Since this is a story driven experience through characters designed to grow as the story grows, Namco Bandai have decided to take the pilots of the cockpits and give them personality. They didn’t fail in this task, and in that classically Japanese-gamey way, we’ve the fun, steely-jawed American protagonists the country needs, but not the one’s they deserve.

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Graphically, Assault Horizon is essentially a ‘Dark Souls style’ port to PC. It’s a straight port, albeit with full 1080p support (and further), and whilst there aren’t a whole bunch of graphical options, there are enough to tweak performance to your rig. Up close, textures are blended, not sharp, but the ground textures and planes have, at least it seems, been improved. The effects of rain, smoke, smog, heat, fog and everything you’d expect are actually beautiful, and flying through sparks and pieces of broken up jets is core to the enjoyment of the experience, and something that was extant in the PS3 and 360 versions. Fortunately, the polish has been carried over and somewhat improved upon.

We get Games for Windows Live, which I’m actually thankful for, since there are absolutely no net-code or lag issues, and playing for our let’s play was an instantaneous success across continents. Multiplayer is populated enough across the four modes, coop (which is just replaying missions from the campaign with a friend), Deathmatch, Capital Conquest, and Domination. It’s likely the numbers will die down quite rapidly, but there is always someone to dog-fight on given the popularity of the genre as a very popular niche. You can as you’d expect play as the attack helicopters in multiplayer, playing an integral role of Capital Capture, where one team must attack capture points whilst the other defends. Playing this, however, I felt that the Apache was severely under-powered compared to the planes, fulfilling more of a tactical role. Tactics didn’t really feel all that apt in a janky free-for-all type situation, though. All of the single-player mechanics are carried across into the multiplayer offering what you’d expect from an arcade dog-fighter of Ace Combat quality.

Ace Combat Assault Horizon offers a wealth of content for £19.99, and it even comes with DLC skins from the console versions of the game. It might not be a port built for PC, but it looks a damn sight better than some games that have had an independent development cycle for the system. It just works and that’s what counts, especially if you’re paying less. Whilst I’m not a fan of the “Optimum” control scheme – the default control scheme mirroring the controls of Star Fox - and prefer manually rolling (why did they change this?!) I think Assault Horizon is a necessary step in the right direction for the franchise. All of the introductory mechanics worked well, and can be implemented in further installments without having to go back to the drawing board, and whilst not all the mission types will have you on the edge of your seat, this is an intense, beautiful, and highly polished arcade flight sim – even if, at time, it feels more like a Call of Duty cut-scene, or Armored Core 5. With a huge array of planes and armaments, and great multi-player net-code, there’s nothing stopping you other than the lack of a decent game-pad, at this price.