You don’t need to be a Top Gun fanatic to occasionally feel like a flight through the Danger Zone. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is releasing across two consoles that have seen very little in the way of arcade aerial combat action, aside from Ubisoft’s relatively enjoyable H.A.W.X. games and a handful of also-rans. But despite the relative prestige of the franchise, this latest effort may well not offer up enough to satisfy everyone.
Assault Horizon feels like a game designed by bricolage; the core experience assembled from many different parts. It’s got the vague setting, familiar music and malarkey plot elements popular in middling Western combat games, and CoD4’s famous ‘bomb’ scene is more or less repeated several times. For the first time in the series, players get to mess about with vehicles other than fighter planes, including a now-standard AC-130 mission, helicopter missions, and mounted gun sections, in which you blast away wave after wave of enemies.
Despite the constant gameplay shifts, Assault Horizon still manages to be extremely repetitive. A typical mission will usually involve doing the exact same thing over and over again, with incredibly minor variations on the same themes popping up if you’re lucky. The helicopter missions, in particular, drag on for far longer than they should. The best missions are, as you’d expect, the ones in which you’re piloting a fighter plane, which still make up the majority of the game. They suffer from all of the aforementioned problems but occasionally offer up worthwhile thrills and spills as well.
The new ‘Close Range Assault’ mechanics are the highlight of the package. Get within range of an enemy (or let an enemy get on your tail and then perform an evasive manoeuvre) and the camera zooms in to the plane equivalent of an RE4-style shoulder cam, from which your machine gun bullets and missiles have a much better chance of hitting. It can be visceral and exciting way of fighting when your target gets daring - zooming over an exploding oil refinery, firing the machine gun at close range and zipping under chimneys as they collapsed was a real highlight. The way enemy planes disintegrate is satisfying too, in its own silly way.
These moments mean that the game makes an excellent first impression, but it doesn’t manage to maintain this level of excitement throughout the campaign. Most missions involve doing the same thing over and over again, your efforts generally rewarded with more enemies, who perform in the exact same way as the ones you just beat. If you’re really lucky there might be a bomber to take down or ground targets to take on (attacking ground targets, incidentally, involves a rather fiddly mechanic whereby you need to fly into a H.A.W.X. style target before you can switch to the proper camera perspective required for an effective run). There’s little in the way of interesting or innovative gameplay, bar a few fairly lacklustre attempts at variety when the game asks you to, say, defend a certain target or land a plane effectively.
Unfortunately, there was no one else online before launch to test the game out with in multiplayer. Ace Combat 6 offered up fairly solid fun online, and we have little reason to doubt that this one will offer a similar experience. However, there’s also nothing here that hints at a revolutionary, amazing online game. The four modes available are fairly vanilla, bar co-op on selected campaign missions.
Assault Horizon is intermittently quite enjoyable, but doesn’t work hard enough at realising its own potential. There’s a definite gap in the arcade aerial combat market, but H.A.W.X. and earlier Ace Combat games remain your best bet if you’re feeling the need for speed.