As a child of the early 80s, one of my favorite movies growing up was Top Gun. Besides teaching me some of my first swear words, much to my mother’s chagrin, it also instilled a love for fighter planes in me. While bad eye sight and growth spurts — most modern planes are not designed to accommodate pilots comfortably above 6′ — put aside my childhood dreams of becoming a pilot, I love to play flight games. From more realistic ones like Jane’s Combat Simulations to the more fanatical like Descent or X-Wing vs Tie-Fighter. When I first saw the trailers for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, I was intrigued to see the developers trying something new with the series. The game deserves some kudos, but like a magic trick, once the secret is revealed it’s going to lose some of its allure.

This major design overhaul is the inclusion of Dogfight Mode and a more cinematic feel. As the developers put it, they wanted to get away from spamming missiles at little dots off in the distance. On the surface it can work really well the first time around. If you can angle yourself behind an enemy plane and engage Dogfight Mode, the camera pulls in close letting your foe’s plane fill more of the screen. By engaging in DFM you’ll automatically follow them to a degree, your missiles will have enhanced tracking and your guns will do more damage. There are some great ideas here, like using guns to stagger and slow the enemy plane, which allows you to more easily line up a missile lock, or being able to counter maneuver when the enemy is on your tail, instantly turning the tables. If you ever wanted to experience a Hollywood-style dogfight without needing to understand a Split-S maneuver, you might enjoy Assault Horizon.

There is an issue within Assault Horizon‘s more thrilling chase scenes though; they suspiciously always seem to end at just the right moment. What you’ll discover is the game is actually cheating a bit in order to play out these scripted sequences. For instance, it might not matter how much weapon fire you land on the bomber because it is always going to crash at the last possible moment. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with scripted event; many games are built on them to varying degrees and the sequences themselves are actually pretty entertaining the first time around. A bit of magic lost when the curtain is pulled back.

When the game isn’t wrestling you into these sequences, it plays pretty solidly. Just like previous titles, you have a number of options to tailor your controls to your particular playing style. Despite the “Original” scheme giving you full control of the plane’s roll, I’d recommending sticking with the “Optimal” set-up for the time being unless you own a joystick. It can be hard to effectively chase and follow with the former in Dogfight Mode and much of the game is centered around this new feature. There is also a flight assistance option to help those who find themselves stalling or “landing” into the ground inverted at hi-speed a bit too often.

When you are not taking to the skies in fighter jets, Assault Horizon throws some different gameplay styles at you to keep things from going stale. There are your typical on rails turret sections where you’re manning a mini-gun on a Blackhawk helicopter or dealing death from above in an AC-130 gunship. It’s refreshing to get out of the cockpit, but a few missions drag on tediously long. There are some standouts though, including taking direct control of an Apache attack helicopter and some of the games ground attack missions. One in particular has you leading an anti-ship attack against a battle group consisting of a renegade Russian carrier, some cruisers and a handful of frigates. You’ll be making your attack runs as they spit out tremendous amounts of anti-aircraft fire and you hope your fighter escorts can keep the enemy planes off you.

The story was penned by New York Times best seller Jim DeFelice, and it takes you from Moscow and Dubai to Miami and Washington DC. You mostly take control of Colonel Bishop, who commands a fighter squadron under the 108th Task Force, but you will occasionally switch to another character perspective for the side missions. It’s a nice touch that the main character is a skilled pilot, but is not so unrealistic as to be able to control every craft in these different missions. Some will actually have you controlling several characters at once, switching perspectives as the goals change. You might start out flying a bomber and hugging the ground to avoid the radar, but then switch back to Col. Bishop once the ground attack has completed and the bomber needs escort out of the zone. You begin the game fighting rebels in Africa, but the situation quickly spirals out of control as a Russian criminal syndicate and a portion of the Russian military break away and attempt a coup. Sure, the story has you fighting “the Russians” again like so many other games set in modern times, but at least there are enough differences, like your Apache squadron clearing out forces in the Kremlin so that your Russian allies can retake it, that it doesn’t feel completely cross into the familiar.

On the multi-player front Ace Combat: Assault Horizon sports a few highlights. There is a new Capitol Conquest mode that lets two sides fight it out as attackers and defenders utilizing not only fighter aircraft but also helicopters and bombers, each with unique roles and missions to carry out. In Deathmatch mode you not only receive points for kills, but also for how long it’s been since you were last shot down. There’s even this interesting interplay in that higher performance planes are worth more points, so flying the latest and greatest generation of planes is not always going to the best choice. There is also an unlockable skills system that will give you bonus to certain actions or weapons, but you can select one of them to be provided to everyone else in your squadron. It’s the little details like these that make for a solid and varied multi-player experience.

Bottom Line: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is solid fun for anyone wanting to experience cinematic dogfighting, though subsequent playthrough are going to reveal the smoke and mirrors behind the illusion.

Recommendation : If you’re a die-hard fan of Ace Combat there is still plenty to love here, otherwise it could still be an enjoyable rental.

[rating=3.5]

What our review scores mean.

This review is based on the 360 version of the game.

Game: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
Genre: Action
Developer: Project Aces
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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