Impressions: Ace Combat Assault Horizon

I’ve been a fan of the Ace Combat series since I first laid eyes on the fourth entry, Shattered Skies.  Though I’ve only played that, The Unsung War and Zero, I feel an intense fondness for this franchise and its many charms.  Due to not owning an Xbox 360, I missed out on Ace Combat 6, unfortunately.  So you can imagine I was ecstatic when Namco first showed a trailer for Assault Horizon, which would be on PS3 too.

Unfortunately, this entry is radically different from its predecessors.  Namco has changed or even outright removed some things, in an attempt to modernize the series and capture a wider audience.  One result of this is immediately apparent.  Ace Combat: Assault Horizon takes place in the real world.  One of the hallmarks of the series (and one that I found extremely appealing) was the fictional yet realistic setting Project Aces drew up for each installment.  Though there were clear parallels drawn from real life—Yuktobonia (AC5) and Emmeria (AC6) being stand-out examples—the stories woven within this fictional dimension felt fresh.  As we glimpse a soldier checking Twitter on his smartphone before boarding a helicopter in opening moments of the debut trailer however, it’s made clear that we’re “back in Kansas”, so to speak.  Now the story apparently follows NATO (read: America) as they fight against insurgents in Africa, only to find that they are receiving aid from a group of Russians.

In a move that I still don’t understand, Namco has also added helicopter and bomber gameplay; a first for the series.  There hasn’t been much word on bombing missions, but helicopter gameplay is intended to have a slower, more deliberate pace, as opposed to the high adrenaline Namco is trying to inject into the jet gameplay.  Naturally, I’ve had misgivings about the game ever since.  The game releases on October 11th, but just this past Tuesday, Namco released a demo for the game, including the tutorial missions for fighter and helicopter gameplay.

Namco wanted to make jet combat a more visceral, exciting affair, so they shook up the gameplay, too.  The most notable addition is Close Range Assault, which you’ll see plenty of in the trailers (or CRA, for short).  Basically, it’s an upgraded version of the simple lock-on.  You get close enough to a targeted enemy, and you can press both triggers (like you would for auto-pilot) to activate CRA, which basically turns the game into a chase scene.  The camera zooms in and dynamically changes angles to highlight the weapon you’re using;  the game mostly flies your plane for you, following your target closely and only really leaving with enough manual flying capability to aim your gun and accelerate/decelerate.  In CRA mode, a circle appears on your UI, getting larger the closer you are to the enemy plane.  If you can if you can keep the enemy plane within that circle (AC veterans, think SAAMs), a meter charges up that, when full allows you to fire a missile with super heightened tracking ability.  We’re talking 90 degree angles on the dime.  You can try to tear the target up with your gun (which by the way has been nerfed quite a bit due to its new lack of accuracy), but really, CRA is about getting that meter full, loosing off a missile, rinsing, and repeating.  The game will even frequently give you a close up of the downed planes as they spin through the air, losing part after part along the way, Burnout-style.

Enemies can also initiate CRA on you, where a circle appears on your UI, that you definitely want to avoid.  If you feel like taking a risk though, you can slow up, which will make it extremely easy for the enemy to target you, but also—if you get close enough—allow you to do a crazy backwards somersault that flips the tables, landing you behind your ex-predator and putting you into CRA.

Though this sounds like a rant somewhat, Close Range Assault is actually a pretty novel feature, and it certainly does a lot to alleviate the concerns some people had that the games were boring because you rarely got to get a look at the targets you splashed.

While I don’t have a problem with Close Range Assault, I do have a problem with the way it’s executed.  It’s not just encouraged, like the vibe you get from the trailers and Namco’s statements about the game; you HAVE to use it.  Now enemies apparently come in squads led by leaders.  Leaders CANNOT be taken down through normal means, believe me I tried.  I pumped 5 missiles into one, and he was still flying perfectly fine.  Go into CRA on him, and it only takes two, like normal.  Normal enemies can be shot of the air however you please, but the game forces you to use Close Range Assault on squad leaders.  Furthermore, outside of CRA your weapons feel nerfed.  Missiles have even worse tracking ability than they normally do, and your gun is almost a waste of time.  Furthermore, the controls are sluggish, such to the point that it almost feels like a chore to keep up with enemies, even in the Raptor you are given in the demo, which has always been one of the best planes in the game, statistically speaking.

The game’s graphics are also sort of a mixed bag, all things considered.  The plane models are great, but Namco doesn’t get points for that because they’ve always looked pretty good.  Some explosions are better than others, but the effects I’ve seen so far (namely flames) are very bland.  The ground looks a lot better than it used to, with actual buildings that you can fly in-between, and the demo’s lower altitude dofighting allows one to realize that this is the first game in the series that really nails that sense of speed.  When you’re hitting the after burners and seeing subtle depth of field and motion blur come into play as you zoom past the ground, you know you’re going fast.

Namco’s really shaking things up this time, and I’m not sure I like it.  They’ve made some things, like the guns and setting more realistic, but they also threw more sorcery into the mix, including regenerating health and missiles that go from barely qualifying as being self-guided to being monsters that hunt targets with ferocity nobody knew they had.  Right now, Close Range Assault makes the game laughably easy, such to the point that I feel really bad using it (like that crazy guidance system in HAWX).  But granted, this is apparently the tutorial mission, and as such the enemy AI was probably too stupid to counter it or even really fire at me at all.  I don’t want to judge the game too harshly, because I don’t think this demo portrays a picture perfect image of it.  Even within this real-world setting, there’s still the possibility that Namco’s got a good story to tell us, and that later missions will more fun.  Even now, just thinking about the demo makes me really enticed to go another round, because it it’s so exciting in concept.  But every time, the gameplay takes some wind out of my sails, all the same.

The Nitty Gritty 
(details that might not be meaningful to newcomers, but those who’ve played AC before might want to know):
-In the demo, the Raptor comes equipped with 4AAM special weapons, effective at about 10,000ft.  It seems to be a new version of the XMAAs, though with shorter range.
-Weapons that can lock onto multiple targets at once can now lock onto the same target multiple times.  So, if you have only three targets on hand and you’re aiming the 4AAM, you’ll just end up firing two missiles at once target.  I think this is incredibly lame.
-Health regenerates.  Very slowly albeit, but it regenerates.  There is no health meter, apparently.  Instead the game will tell you how damaged you are, going from Heavy to Light damage as you regenerate.
-There were no squad commands in the demo.  That’s not to say they won’t be in the full game, however.
-The gun now has a more realistic firing arc, shortening its range noticeably and making it much harder to use.
-Enemies regenerate as well.
-Though you don’t get as high a stock of weapons as in Ace Combat 6, it’s still many more than you get in the PS2 games.
-The expand map and missile/special weapon toggle buttons have been swapped.  Now Select/Back expands the minimap, and Square/X toggles your weapons.
-The two schemes have been renamed, but you can still choose between bank-to-turn flying and full barrel-rolling ability.  There’s also a new option for beginners that provides automated assistance such as automatically leveling your plane to prevent crashes.
-Oddly, there is no sonic boom visual effect.
-The afterburners work a little differently.  Now, they only start up at certain speed thresholds, as opposed to activating them simply by holding down R1/Right Bumper all the way.  A small “AB” indicator also shows up beside the speedometer.
-The 3rd person view is zoomed in further than normal.
-Now, going out of bounds instantly fails you, instead of giving you a momentary chance to get back within the mission area.
-Auto-Pilot is back, and you can still use it to level your plane.
-I didn’t talk about the other view too much because I rarely use them; I like the 3rd person view.  The cockpit view is much improved, though according those who played AC6 that one had a more realistic cockpit.
-Planes accelerate much faster than before.  The F-22, at least.
-Flares are introduced.  Enemies will use them frequently, and you have them too, though I still haven’t figured out how they’re used.
Note: I didn’t write about the heli portion because I didn’t play the heli portion, and I might not ever.

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