[17 February 2012]
One of the truths about major technology purchases: if you buy a piece of equipment, you want to be able to use that equipment to its fullest potential, right out of the box. If you can’t, it feels like you wasted the money. If you buy a 3DTV for the sake of watching basic cable and DVDs, you wasted your money; until you have a Blu-ray player or a 3D TV station to watch, it’s just an HDTV with some bulky looking glasses that you’ll never wear. If you buy a surround sound system, you need to figure out how to run all those cables, not to mention figure out which movies will give you the best idea of whether you have your levels set appropriately or not. Fancy hardware alone doesn’t give anyone anything special to do.
As such, it makes sense that the first year’s worth of software for any console release is geared toward showing off the bells and whistles of that console. It seemed almost every Wii game was a series of mini-games geared towards giving players a variety of ways to move with that odd little remote; every DS game relied on stylus use, whether it suited the genre or not. 3DS games understandably strive to use 3D effectively and impressively, as a way of showing off the hardware that they are running on. Too often, however, this is to the detriment of the game. So much development effort is spent on making the 3D effects as impressive as possible that there simply isn’t time left to stuff the game full of features. The result is a whole pile of pretty-but-transient experiences. They look great and they’re even fun for a while, but the limited feature sets and extras make the games too easy to put down after just a short amount of playtime.
So while it’s understandable that Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy is just such an experience, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. We are no longer inside the 3DS release window. Developers have had time to get accustomed to the new technology, such that the technology itself should no longer be the focus. The game should be the focus.
Off the bat, Assault Horizon Legacy is a fun, impressive game. It’s very easy to pop it out of the box, put it in the 3DS, turn on the machine, and suddenly feel like you’re a flying ace with a quick trigger finger and a feel for aerial combat. You start and finish every mission in the air, so there’s no silly flight simulator stuff to master, and the only real ship controls are the directionals provided by the analog pad and “Speed Up/Slow Down” functions triggered by the shoulder buttons. That’s it as far as basic controls.
Getting fancy is relegated to one button. If an enemy fires a missile at you, a well-timed (prompted) button press will trigger a barrel roll. Because, I mean… barrel rolls. If you’re in pursuit of an enemy, pushing the same button sends you into an unskippable mini-cutscene that depicts the airplane equivalent of slamming the brakes and performing a hairpin turn that leaves the tires screaming, after which you are directly behind the enemy, allowing for quick lock-ons and effective machine gun attacks. Truly, a control scheme like this never leaves any doubt that you are playing a game, but it is the type of control scheme that empowers the player, allowing for an immersion born, not of realism, but of pure, cartoonish adrenaline.
Helping things along are the visuals. Nicely varied scenery and rich, saturated colors contribute nicely to the feel of the game. The 3D is well done, too, though it’s unfortunate that this sort of game almost necessitates that enemies spend much of their time as specks in the distance. Flying toward that lovely scenery for too long also betrays some primitive pixelated texturing, too, but if you’re just playing the game, it’s not so much so as to be overly distracting. For the most part, it feels like a solid, polished game.
It is also, however, the type of game that simply begs for additional modes, unlockables, multiplayer, something other than the main game to keep the player interested. The campaign, bare bones on story, is good, clean, repetitive fun. You end up using those one-button special moves an awful lot, and the motivation to do so is usually something like “Okay, shoot these planes. Now, shoot those planes. Nice job, you’re all d – OH WHERE DID THOSE OTHER PLANES COME FROM? SHOOT THEM DOWN TOO.” Alternatively: “Okay, shoot these boats.” While your enemies get a little quicker, a little more aggressive, and a little bit tougher to shoot down, they don’t really change all that much. The thrill is gone after a couple of hours, long before the challenge is up.
Now, I’m not expecting Ace Combat to turn into Pilotwings at this point or anything, but this is where some races, some checkpoint runs, or even some one-on-one dogfighting multiplayer would have come in handy. Something, anything to break up the monotony. You can replay missions as “challenges” to improve your score, but replaying old missions doesn’t feel like variety. It feels like padding.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy lives up to the Legacy portion of its title by stripping the mechanics back to their arcade-style basics, and it works well on the portable. Still, it feels like a launch title. Maybe it was a launch title, held back from release early in 2011 for the sake of coming out around the same time as its fully-featured Xbox and PS3 siblings. Maybe it just needs another iteration to truly come into its own as a game. As it is, it’s destined to be enjoyed for a little while and then promptly forgotten about. Its engine deserves better.