Ace Combat: Insult Horizon

I was a latecomer to the Ace Combat series. The first iteration of the series I picked up was the amazing Ace Combat: The Belkan War. From the first moment I picked up that game I was hooked. The series’ oddball Japanese take on the flight combat genre made it a series that’s just far more fun than more true to life flight games. One of the things I loved the most about the games was the way the action would escalate into outright insanity, for example, having you fly through, and destroy, massive death cannons that are several miles long. Or the inevitable fights against ridiculous planes with lasers attached to them. Somewhat farcical, yes. But also something I, and many others, revelled in.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, has ruined all that. At its heart it’s still the same game, the same mechanics, and indeed quite a number of improvements to the formula. But the Modern Warfare-esque bullshit that’s strewn throughout the game is somewhat difficult to swallow.

Deadly Skies tries to reinvent the series to be more in line with the likes of the Call of Duty series, only in the sky. But in trying to emulate the success of the Call of Duty series, Namco has instead cultivated failure.

The fictional world of the previous Ace Combat games has been eschewed in favour of basing it in real world locations. The story weaves a tale of betrayal by a group of Russian would-be usurpers, (anyone who’s played a Modern Warfare game will start noticing the similarities immediately, the bad guys even have almost identical names). It’s a rather gritty affair, and quite frankly, a boring one. Not that the story has ever been a reason to play an Ace Combat game, but it’s still worth a note, because this is one of the areas where Namco’s attempt to copy the CoD series has lead Ace Combat into mediocrity, and sapped some of the fun out of the game in the process. At least the over the top, campy, and downright ridiculous nature of the previous stories made for a little extra fun outside of the gameplay itself. I wouldn’t mind the “gritty” story so much if it contributed some entertainment value to the game, but it’s awfully written.

However, the writing is a triviality as far as the game’s issues go. The main problem is the fact that, in a series about flying awesome planes, half of the missions don’t take place in awesome planes. The game is broken down into several different types of missions, many of which involve helicopters, and it’s safe to say that if you’re playing through a helicopter mission, you’re going to be frustrated and bored. There’s also one mission that is more or less directly lifted from Modern Warfare 3, where you man the weapons of an attack plane, and shoot a variety of missiles at ground targets – it was so bad it almost made me want to quit playing.

Back to the helicopters though. The chopper missions can be split into two types: missions where you man the gun turret; and missions where you control the helicopter. The gun turret missions basically consist of you doing little more holding down the fire button until you win. The missions where you actually control the helicopter are relatively well designed, but hindered by the fact that the controls are rather clunky. It also doesn’t help that before every helicopter mission you’re treated to some awesome jet action, where you get to fly around at ridiculous speeds while the skies erupt with insanity. Getting in the chopper saps all of that adrenaline straight out of you.

Now for the game’s one redeeming feature, the jet missions. They’re an absolute dream to play, and I found myself wishing there were more of them. You play through a mixture of air to air combat missions, and air to ground assaults, which keeps things from getting stale. The controls have changed slightly from the earlier series entries, which makes controlling your bird a lot easier, although you sacrifice some manoeuvrability. Luckily, Namco has included the option to switch back to classic controls, which is a welcome feature.

They’ve also added a number of new features to plane combat. The feature I enjoyed the most is ASM, or Air Strike Mode. In the previous games, air-to-ground assault missions were a tedious affair, which consisted of the player having to dive towards the ground in order to point at enemy targets, and then pull back up before crashing into the ground. Thanks to ASM you no longer have to keep bobbing up and down to take out ground targets. Instead, there are designated points on the map where one can enter ASM, the camera then shifts back slightly, so that you’re able to get a clear view of what’s below you. Once in ASM your weapons all automatically target in a downward direction, making it easy to score shots on ground targets.

The other new feature is DFM, or Dog Fighting Mode. When you get close enough to an enemy jet, you can lock on to it, and the game becomes more of an on-rails shooter. You surrender control of the direction your plane is going in to the computer, which automatically pursues your target. In return, you gain control of the direction of your guns, whilst retaining control of acceleration and deceleration – allowing you to put yourself in the right position to score a decent shot with either your guns, or to get a missile lock. Even after having finished the game, I’m still not sure how I feel about the feature. Some of the DFM setpieces are pretty to watch, and there are times when DFM really enhances both the gameplay and the feeling of immersion. But there are plenty of other instances where I felt absolutely out of control, and when you’re chasing some of the boss characters things move so fast that you can’t really see what’s going on. The other downside to DFM is that when it comes to the low-level enemies, it’s essentially an instant kill button, taking a lot of the difficulty and the need to develop skill out of the game.

Speaking of difficulty, there’s not much of a growth curve in the game. Enemies on the final mission aren’t much harder than those on the earlier missions, there are just more of them. The previous games did a brilliant job of slowly ramping up the difficulty, not just through making the AI progressively better as the missions passed, but also by throwing ridiculous challenges at you like giant airships 500 times the size of yours, armed with guns, cannons, and homing missiles. You’ll never face anything like that in this game, and that’s a sad fact.

Assault Horizon represents 1 step forward for the series, followed by about 20 steps back. There are elements of it I enjoyed, and I don’t regret buying it (but I only say that because I bought it for a tenner). It’s a good way to kill some time, and most places are selling it cheap now. If you’ve beaten everything else that came out over the Christmas period already, and you can get it for a good price, I’d recommend giving it a try. But if you’re going to buy an Ace Combat game, you’re much better off buying one of the older ones. You lose out on the amazing graphics, but you’ll have way more fun.

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