There was time a few generations back when I loved flight sims, I was at home in the cockpit of an F18 or F16, whipping under the Golden Gate Bridge or taking out SAM sites in some god forsaken plain brown wilderness. Of course that was on an Amiga1200, C64 and various PCs. In fact my earliest recollection of an ACE game was on the C64, 8-bit split screen dogfighting with my father, at the time it was really something.
However this is the current generation and technology has moved on, game expectations have moved on and flight sims should have moved on.
Firstly I would be hesitant to call ACE Combat a sim, yes it is the latest in a successful series, but from this experience and my understanding of previous titles they offer little of the sim aspects and much more supersonic combat. There is a narrative and that story arc takes the game through a number of global locations, starting with an impressive tutorial dogfight over Miami, across African plains through to Moscow. The story is moved along with traditional and interactive cutscenes, where you get the chance to help your character move along the designated path and look around. These scenes may soon fall victim to the skip button though as they do look quite dated and the voice acting coupled with the narrative quickly becomes cliched without gaining any investment from the player.
Once the story has explained the reason for the next mission, you are presented with a plane selection, make ready and find your self in the sky. That’s where I miss the old days, playing a mission end to end, taking off and carrying out orders, then getting back to base for a safe landing.
The missions fall into distinct categories, the high speed fighter combat is the guts of the game, that aspect is bolstered by some passenger missions either as the gunner of an AC130 or hanging from the side of a Blackhawk with your trusty mini-gun. The third alternative is the chance to fly an Attack Helicopter, the first time out in an Apache Gunship, these levels are a nice turn of pace and can be better played in 3rd person to the chopper. As a support role the gunship pilot must resolve targets that are threatening ground troops and ensure the mission is a success. All well and good until you have to use the ‘roly poly’ maneuver to shake off a missile attack, leaving my suspension of disbelief somewhat rattled.
The passenger missions are pretty much as described and have been seen before, the helicopter sequences are reasonably fun if you like shooting fish in a barrel and the AC130 sortie can’t stand up to the first time it happened in the original Modern Warfare.
The high speed fighter combat undoubtedly has it attractions, but in practice soon becomes a rinse and repeat affair of chasing tiny target blips. The combat in Assault Horizon has been tweaked and the controls apparently refined to make the game more accessible, but the biggest problem for me is the lack of inertia. The environment is generally a well textured map and some mission objective show structures, but on the whole more time is spent twisting and turning in the air trying to lock onto the next closest bandit. No matter how fast everything is whipping around, there is little sense of travel, no feeling of movement, just a frantic ballet of green and red on the HUD, this does however improve when using an external view rather than the cockpit view.
You can close in to a target and flick into a close combat mode by tapping the left and right bumpers together, activating DFM mode which will let you concentrate on a more refined missile lock and get some practice with the planes forward gun. This mode is useful and the majority of kills will not be made without it, some enemies cannot be taken down outside of this mode. It is quite handy to see the planes take shape and stay in your vision rather than whip past and I do wonder at the level of scripting going on here. On a couple of occasions I have closed down an enemy and suddenly found myself weaving through structures on a very similar path. This aspect of the game needs cat like reflexes and patience, because some of these missions go on far too long as you rack up billions of dollars in collateral damage and kills.
The game is nicely presented and there is obviously a lot of love thrown into the planes and ambience, the radio chatter in particular strikes me as adding significantly to the experience. Whereas your flight group, wingmen, AI buddies that seem to talk such a good fight can’t actually hit a barn door from six feet.
The developers have tried to mix things up a little and succeeded in that respect, the mission types do add variety and some of the visuals really hit the mark. In fact a flick of the right stick during an in-cockpit flight will give you an instant external view which can at times be quite beautiful..
There are a number of online game modes to enjoy, but at the time of playing there was too little activity to get a match. These include deathmatch, co-op missions and a base defence variant called Capital Conquest.
Upon re-reading this review may come across negatively, I would stress there are things about the game I like and there are things about flying into these missions that I would love to enjoy. For fans of the series, it’s probably a no-brainer purchase, for dabblers I’d recommend a quick rental. For me it does fall down somewhere along the way, but even when things are really being drawn out beyond belief I still hear that tinny voice at the back of my head goading me, “I feel the need…the need…for speed”.
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Entries close Thursday 20th October 2011.