Namco’s push towards more mainstream appeal for its established brands, evident in the forthcoming Ridge Racer Unbounded, kicks off with the latest Ace Combat, the first multiplatform release for the long-standing series. The action is back in the real world as opposed to the franchise’s more frequent fictional setting, and the emphasis is strictly on making things go boom.
Much of what gave recent instalments strategic depth – wingman orders, a simulation approach to flight control – has been shipped out in favour of more immediate thrills. You no longer need to worry about the roll of your aircraft (although hardened players can resort to an ‘original’ control scheme), checkpoints are forgiving and plentiful, and there’s no wrong decision in which war machine you take into battle. Assault Horizon is user-friendly to the point of being overgenerous, but it has to be when a game’s this frenetic and fast-paced.
Dogfights are the main event, and revolve around the new Dogfight Mode. When an enemy is within range, simultaneously tapping the left and right bumpers locks you on. Once locked, you need to monitor your speed and aim as best you can, but the rest is largely taken care of (though a missile locked on to your own behind will require you to back off). This quasi-on-rails approach allows the developer to direct the flow of combat and show off its engine – capable both of citysize scale and shrapnel-shard detail – in all its glory.
The payoff for a successful kill is a dazzling show of slow-mo carnage as glass sparkles like confetti and pilots plummet. When you find yourself in enemy sights, a counter manoeuvre turns the tables in a split-second, transforming some of the game’s later showdowns into tense cat-and-mouse chases through the clouds. It’s this basic game loop of lock-on and counter that marks Assault Horizon as the most accessible and invigorating entry in the series to date.
While the majority of missions involve setting the sky alight, around a third of the campaign is dedicated to mixing things up closer to the ground. There are Apache assaults on towns that play out like three-dimensional Desert Strike missions as you wipe out the tanks, troops and rival choppers; there are door-gunning sections that riff on GRAW; and there’s a (drawn-out) AC-130 section that mimics Modern Warfare’s.
Assault Horizon sees Ace Combat reaching out to the west, taking unlikely inspiration from the broader spectrum of action games. It’s brash and beautiful, and in looking outside its own boundaries has found fresh ways to keep you coming back to the danger zone.