[16 November 2011]
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon desperately wants to be Call of Duty. The random first-person controls, the helicopter turret sequences, the pilot with a skull painted on the face of his helmet, the Black Hawk Down-esque level, the AC130 level, the jumping between locations and characters, and last but certainly not least, the overly scripted nature of the world all draw attention to this. Yet it ignores the most important part of Activision’s behemoth: the precise gameplay. Assault Horizon is so scripted it’s simple.
This is the first Ace Combat game to take place in the real world, though it’s not at all realistic. It’s blatantly evocative of other modern military media, but copies them without understanding what makes them good. You’ll enter a first-person perspective during briefings and some cut scenes, but there’s rarely something interesting happening around you so there’s no reason to actually look around. There’s a shaky cam during dogfights (a new mechanic which I’ll get to shortly) but it doesn’t add excitement, it just makes enemies hard to see. There’s a clichéd twist where you’re betrayed by a friend, but this adds no drama to the story since there are no consequences to him switching sides.
It doesn’t help that things are so scripted I’m often unsure whether I’m playing or the game is playing for me. I had trouble with a boss midway through the game, and when he nearly killed me it triggered a cut scene, so I was never supposed to win. One level had me protecting cargo planes while they landed, but when one was shot down the game kept going. During another level I was shot at while trying to land; I tried to pull up to engage the enemy so I wouldn’t be killed on the ground but the game wouldn’t let me. Such things happen way too often. The game has a plan to show you something cool and it takes away control without any indication. You’ll fail so much as part of the story that when you do fail for real and get a game over it feels unfair.
Assault Horizon is ostensibly an air combat game, though there are enough turret sequences to make one question that description. It does, however, solve one issue that has always plagued air combat games: since you’re fighting enemies that are always so far away, it often feels like you’re just shooting at abstract red reticules, not other planes. Assault Horizon closes that distance with the new dogfight mode: Get close enough to an enemy and you can activate this mode, which automatically locks you behind the target while it swerves and dives. While he dodges, you have to try to hold your reticule over him long enough for a missile to lock on. Accelerating makes your reticule bigger, and slowing down allows you to take sharper turns so he can’t break out of the dogfight. All this happens very fast, with the camera jerking around while it follows the bad guy. Dogfighting captures the sense of speed of the planes, and feels more like close-quarters combat than air combat, but it also lets the game sneak in and take control whenever it wants to. If a fight is supposed to last a long time, your target will swerve around so much it’s impossible to lock on. When the bad guy has said his speech and when the music swells to its appropriate cue, he’ll level out as if he’s suddenly ready to die. Dogfighting feels personal, but it also feels completely fake.
It’s all so gleefully over-the-top that it sometimes feels like a parody. During a dogfight, the camera zooms in for a close up of each enemy you shoot down, sometimes even going into a bullet-time view of the missile. The helicopter you pilot for a few levels dodges missiles by doing a barrel roll in place, which is (unintentionally) the funniest thing in the game. And of course everything blows up with an explosion that looks twice as big as it should be. The characters are pure military archetypes, and the music is sweeping and grandiose. Such a total embrace of the military-porn mindset makes Assault Horizon out-Michael-Bay Michael Bay.
But the game only has that one bombast card to play. It’s evocative and intense as hell for the first hour, but then the adrenaline wears off and you start to notice its many absurdities. It’s really easy, probably by necessity since I can’t appreciate the spectacle if I’m dead. Its ease makes the often confusing action palpable; if it was like this and I kept dying I’d be mighty angry. But it’s still ultimately a shallow gaming experience that mimics the appearance of a modern military shooter.