ACE COMBAT: ASSAULT HORIZON (XBOX 360)

Let’s get this out the way first. “The strongest Ace Combat in a decade” says the end of Eurogamer’s review.

No it isn’t.

“It’s Call of Duty in the air” says the start of Eurogamer’s review.

Yes it is. However, I’m not as keen on this development as that reviewer seems to be.

Since the very start of the series Call Of Duty’s single player campaign has been a shooting gallery, a theme park ride from Man’s-Inhumanity-To-Man World (The Shootiest Place On Earth!). It rolls you through a series of action set-pieces featuring explosions and carnage dialled up to eleven. It never makes much of an effort to disguise the fact that you’re on a predetermined path, that everyone playing the game is going to have pretty much exactly the same experience as you. That approach gives the game’s designers a great deal of control over the pacing and staging of the action. This allows the construction of awesome experiences like Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s sniper missions which start with the unbearable tension of slithering through long grass as a company of enemy troops marches past and over you, and end with you fighting off seemingly endless waves of enemies in a post-Chernobyl radioactive ghost-town fairground. Another example would be the Death From Above level from the same game, which made you the gunner in an AC-130 gunship but used a combination of abstracting “night-vision” visuals and minimalist sound design to make you feel distanced and removed from the action, turning a completely familiar rail shooter setup into something eerie and weirdly affecting.

The tradeoff for having that tight control over the experience is obviously that the player’s freedom is greatly curtailed. If you’re building a game around these pre-fab cinematic moments you need to make sure that the player’s in the right place to see them. It means that you’re telling a story rather than allowing the player to make his own. None of this is inherently bad. Some of my best friends are linear action titles. Not every game is served by being a sprawling, freeform open-world affair.

Ace Combat is served by being a sprawling, freeform open-world affair. After all, what’s appealing about flying a jet fighter? Isn’t it speed? Isn’t it the power that that speed grants you? Isn’t it the ability to go where you choose and rain down with great vengeance and furious anger those stuck plodding impotently through the mud below? Isn’t it going up-diddly-up-up and down-diddly-own-own? Isn’t it looping the loop and defying the ground?

The prior entry in the series, Ace Combat 6: Fires Of Liberation might be my favourite game on the 360 (Non-Plastic Guitar Division). And a major reason for that is that it understood that need, the need for speed. It provided big, sprawling maps so you had the space needed to thunder across the landscape and it provided big, sprawling missions so you had plenty of targets to swoop on like a supersonic metal seagull of DEATH. A side benefit of the large playing area was that you got room to breathe – Ace Combat 6 was hectic and action-packed, but it also gave you time to make decisions, whether they were based on tactical considerations or sheer capricious whim. It made you feel like a king of the battlefield.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does not make you feel like a king of the battlefield. It makes you feel like a put-upon underling being ordered from one task to the next. And that task always seems to be “Go And Have A Knife-Fight In A Matchbox”.

In other words, it’s Call Of Duty in the air.

Project Aces have clearly decided that the best bit of Ace Combat is dogfighting at close range so wouldn’t the game be better if you did more of that? Like, a LOT more of that? Like, making that pretty much all you ever do? The game’s been built around a new mechanic where getting close to an enemy allows you to press both triggers to kick in Dogfighting Mode. In DFM you give up control of your plane which just automatically follows your target (often along a pre-determined PATH OF AWESOMENESS, twisting and turning amoung skyscrapers or around oil-rig booms or whatever is needed for the requisite Call Of Duty set-piece spectacle). You just concentrate on keeping a crosshair locked on the enemy plane ahead, firing your cannon and launching heat-seeking missiles until it ceases to be a problem in the most pyrotechnic way possible, often spraying your canopy with spots of oil as you zoom through the explosion. It’s pretty fun, the first half-dozen times you do it. By the twentieth or thirtieth nigh-identical repetition of the process the thrill’s worn pretty thin.

What makes it even more annoying is that the designers have gone all-in on Dogfighting Mode, sacrificing pretty much every other aspect of the game to it. Missiles now require you to be behind the target to even have a chance of hitting, obviously making them much less effective. Long-range and multi-target missiles are still present but are almost worthless. I complained about the small maps and linear missions in HAWX but AC: Assault Horizon makes HAWX look like Operation fricking Flashpoint. A group of enemy fighters spawns out of thin air practically on top of you in the middle of the cramped battlefield, the game waits until you’ve shot all of them down (including the enemy’s flight leader, who you’re explicitly told is practically impossible to destroy in any way other than via DFM), at which point another group of enemy fighters spawns out of thin air. You’ve got no agency, no tactical decisions to make, you’re just being dragged by the nose from one pre-canned encounter to the next.

Air-to-ground missions might be even worse, since it lacks even the firework-display distraction provided by Dogfighting Mode. There’s no planning, no tactics, not really even any use for special weapons. You’re given a pre-planned flight path through the enemy forces which when followed allows you to destroy pretty much every available target in one pass with your cannon and the occasional missile. It doesn’t just lack thrill, it’s actively boring.

It would be unfair to claim that lousy fighter missions are all AC:AH has to offer, though. There are also missions flying an Apache gunship which are vaguely tolerable although slightly awkward to control and which suffer from the same lack of agency as the jet missions. There are missions where you get to be the door-gunner on a Black Hawk helicopter which are terrible because door-gunner missions are always terrible. And there’s a mission where you’re the gunner on an AC-130 which might sound familiar because it’s a hackneyed rip-off of the same mission from HAWX 2 which was a hackneyed rip-off of the previously-mentioned same mission from Call Of Duty 4.

In fact, Assault Horizon feels more like a sequel to HAWX 2 than to Ace Combat 6. Beyond the already-belaboured point about linearity and lack of elbow-room that blighted the HAWX series, AC:AH has the same sort of airport-novel military-fetish plot as HAWX 2. It’s got the same reliance on a gimmicky control method (DFM vs. Assistance Off mode). It puts you in the shoes of several protagonists in the same way and has the same vague sense that it’s embarrassed to be a game about jet fighters. Assault Horizon’s helicopter dalliances are more fun than HAWX 2’s interminable spy-drone missions, but only in the sense that dinner with John Major is more fun than dinner with Nick Griffin.

I’ve been trying without success to think of a game that’s disappointed me more than Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. Sequels are often let-downs for a variety of reasons, but I can’t think of another example of a game series that Lost It overnight, that took such a huge step away from the things that made the previous games so special.

Gaming now has its Red Dwarf Series 6.

RANK: D

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10 – The Paddypower.com Vanquisher Of Straw Men

“Cor, look at how ridiculous this is!” says our chummy everybloke champion. With one voice, we reply “Yes, of COURSE it looks ridiculous, you made it yourself with the express purpose of making it as ridiculous as possible!” On the other hand, the spoof advert is actually fairly nicely observed. On the third hand, it looks way more like a perfume ad than one for mobile phones which rather undercuts the point. And without recourse to hyperbole, that point seems to be “Adverts are pretentious, so why not have a bet? The illicit high of gambling will distract you at least temporarily from the depressing spectacle of Western culture mindlessly eating itself.”

9 – The Ladbrokes Shouty Commentator

http://youtu.be/v_-GjKaqh9Q

Do you SEE? He is FOREIGN. And from thence the HUMOUR AROSE.

8 – The Bet365 Matey But Menacing Cockney Geezer

http://youtu.be/KrwiMgb0p0w

I like Ray Winstone. Everyone likes Ray Winstone. I’ve liked Ray Winstone ever since he was Lambeth walking around with the Merry Men begging the inevitable but frustratingly unstated question “what part of Nottingham did you say you were from, again?” But Ray Winstone is really testing our imaginary relationship at this point. We’re now several years into his We’re Mates So You Want Me To Be Happy Don’t Ask What Happens If I’m Not Happy corporate shill phase and it’s getting very old very quickly. What we are learning from this list so far is a that all adverts for bookies are absolutely awful, even if they don’t involve Paddy “Hugging” McGuinness.

7 – The Head And Shoulders Jensen Button

In which a man already compensated far beyond the value of his single skill – guiding a rocket-powered rollerskate along a windy country road – feels the need to pocket a relative pittance in order to turn up on my telly, admire himself in a mirror and annoy the wee-wee out of me. Without recourse to hyperbole, I defy anyone to endure Jensen’s delivery of the line “Wow, it’s bracing!” without wanting to smash in his stupid smirky self-satisfied face with a claw-hammer.

6 – The InjuryLawyers4U “Injury” “Lawyer” “For” “You”

“Hi! I’m Billy Murray. No, not that one. You probably don’t remember me from such movies as Strippers vs. Werewolves. I’m here today to try and reposition frivolous litigation as spiritual enlightenment. I know, right? Still, I’m going to get three solid years of work out of this gig, which will eventually culminate in a hilariously cliched ad that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be on YouTube. It starts with me swanning around the Gherkin, because that’s definitely where a company called InjuryLawyers4U would have its offices. Then I teleport to a random rooftop where I’m joined by the cast of an ultra-low-budget British remake of Ocean’s 11. Which coincidentally is my next movie project. Watch out for Seaside’s 5, available from the DVD rack of all good petrol stations, summer 2012.”

5 – The WKD Gaggle Of Sniggering Manchildren

This really would work better if their sickly-sweet alcopop slop was named ARSHL. Without recourse to hyperbole, if there really are enough people in Britain going “Ahahaa, YES. That’s EXACTLY like me and my mates! WE’RE inconsiderate, entitled, feckless misogynist hugwits as well!” to make this campaign a success then, without recourse to hyperbole, the total implosion of British society cannot be far away and I weep for us all.  FULL DISCLOSURE – the Robocop one is alright.

4 – The Pepsi Max Gaggle Of Rapey Manchildren

The WKD ARSHLs might be obnoxious wastes of perfectly serviceable carbon, but at least they’re not actual psychopaths. To be honest, even taking aside this particular breathtakingly ill-judged ad in which a manufactured threat of apocalypse is used to manipulate an emotionally traumatised woman into sex these absolute huggers would still make the list for that nauseating self-congratulatory dance they do at the end of each advert. “WOO!! WE RUUULE!!! GO TEAM RAPE, YEAH!!!!”

3 – The BT Family Who Care A Bit Too Much About Telecommunication Technology

A chilling satirical vision of a dystopian future where enthusiasm for the tools that allow us to communicate with other people has supplanted any genuine feeling we might have for other humans. Friends and family drift aimlessly around us tethered by faint, brittle echoes of emotion but no actual affection survives in this weird, sterile, utterly alien world.

2 – The G- C-mpare Abomination Of Nature

There is apparently a school of thought in advertising which believes that it doesn’t matter if an ad annoys you or delights you so long as it gets an emotional reaction, because either way you’re likely to remember the product in question. Without recourse to hyperbole, it’s exactly that kind of pragmatic, careless, self-regarding workaday evil that’s causing the decline and fall of Western civilisation. Do not give in to it. Do not allow it a foothold. Do not permit something that was deliberately, callously designed to make your life just a little bit worse cause you to give a moment’s thought to a price-comparison website identical in every respect to the twenty other available price-comparison websites. Do not give it power. Do not speak its name.

1 – The BMW Singularity Of Smugness. And His Brother Freddie

Despite severe provocation I have carefully avoided using the word “smug” in the rest of this post to make sure that I don’t reduce its impact here. Because Adam Who Works With Architects and his brother Freddie The Actor And Model are, with due respect to Simon Cowell, the smuggest things to ever appear on British TV. They’re so smug it’s practically a superpower. They’re so smug that the sheer mass of their self-regard threatens to cause the fabric of the universe to collapse in on itself. It’s hard to put my finger on the single smuggest part of this smugathon, and if I watch it one more time to try and narrow it down I’m reasonably sure I’ll lose my increasingly tenuous grip on sanity. The line “Freddie on the other hand, he likes to play it smooooooth” makes me want to vomit until my lungs come out, but then the shot of Adam in black and white at the 0:20 mark looking oh so very pleased at his exquisite taste in automobiles makes me want to start walking and not stop until the waves close over my head and the water’s cold embrace drags me to sweet oblivion. And yes, I HAVE watched this hugging thing enough times to tell Adam and Freddie apart and that is knowledge I cannot un-learn.

G- C-mp-re might be indicative of everything that’s wrong with consumer culture. But at least I can fathom how it came to be. I can understand the train of thought that led to its conception, disgustingly foul and cynical though that creation was. I cannot say the same for this BMW ad. I cannot start to imagine the perverted fever-dream that might have led anyone, anywhere to believe that this advert might actually sell cars to anyone, anywhere. If the reaction they were hoping to elicit from the viewer was Pavlovian urge to slash the tyres of any BMW they happened to pass in the street, then that might be understandable, but making those cars seem more attractive? Surely that’s out of the question? This advert is grotesque, obviously, but its true horror lies in the implacable alien incomprehensibility of its mere existence. The G- C—— advert is Hitler. This BMW advert is Cthulhu. Why does it exist? What cosmic sin have we collectively committed that the universe judges this as a fit and proper punishment? I don’t understand. In his BMW parked outside R’yleh smug Adam and his brother Freddie wait dreaming of SOOOOOO MANY SKINNY LATTES. The STARS are RIGHT. I do not understand OH SWEET MERCIFUL LORD PLEASE HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND.

Without recourse to hyperbole, I don’t really care for it.

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