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.