A god damn tragedy
Assault Horizon is an accident. A collection of impossibly bad ideas in an attempt to modernize the Ace Combat franchise and make it more palatable to what appears to be the Japanese perception of a western gamer.
As a result, you have a game that will please practically nobody. Veteran Ace Combat players will encounter a game both severely dumbed down but also fundamentally compromised, and new players will be subjected to a capricious set of quick time events, a bumbling, poorly told story, and gameplay so utterly monotonous the moment to moment experience can become downright maddening.
I'm one of the former category. I've been so much a fan of Ace Combats 4 through 6 (including Zero but none of the PSP titles) that it's approaching some fan's relationship to Metal Gear Solid. I loved the world Project Aces built, I loved the melodrama, the insane boss planes, the shopping and collection of planes, even collecting *colors* for the planes. It was a series that always got the fundamental joy of flying around firing high tech weapons at high tech things absolutely right, with a wonderfully tuned arcade flight model and a delicious sense of overkill.
I'm also a fairly hardcore flight simmer, having invested handsomely in controller hardware, and running a squadron in DCS A-10. So I can appreciate the difference between an arcade sim and a realistic sim. Ace Combat has always straddled the midpoint very well, with serious attention to detail for every plane. Fire up AC6 and note how even the redundant mechanical navigation aids in the A-10 cockpit animate and respond. The games are plane porn.
Assault Horizon is explosions porn. Or at least it wants to be very badly, and it does so at the direct expense of an enjoyable flight experience, and at the expense of the central fantasy sold by the franchise.
Reality sucks dude
The game immediately veers off the path of its predecessors with its story, set in a near future version of our own reality, where a NATO unit is tasked with putting down an WMD-driven Russian military coup before they do evil Russian things to America. I lost interest practically at once, and the story never recovers. The point where it introduces the main villain, a pilot with a shark's mouth painted on his jet (original) actually made me laugh out loud, as the music kicks in as the camera zooms in on this dude's face, and we are expected to feel some kind of awe. We don't. We don't give a shit at all.
Past AC games have always told bizarre but still engaging stories, because they stood free to do whatever dumb sci-fi nonsense they wanted to. The idea of a massive meteor strike throwing the world into economic and consequentially diplomatic chaos was a wonderful premise, and the games used it well.
Assault Horizon, shackled by reality, puts itself in a position where melodramatic cliches stop being endearing in that Anime storytelling sense, and simply become mundane idiocy. There are twists to the story delivered with earnest that will make you shake your head in disbelief; At one point I looked at a dude's face and told my girlfriend exactly what I thought that character was going to be doing. 4 missions later I was proven right. It's abysmal and derivative storytelling, and it only gets to be called functional because of some serviceable voice work.
Reality offers more trouble. In the imaginary world of previous Ace Combats, dozens of planes dogfighting in the sky over a city-cized gun made a sort of strange game sense. Comparable situations set against a real world context seem incredibly stupid by comparison, because we are subjected to how the military operates in the real world. We've seen air to ground ops on TV. We know how this should be. Assault Horizon has absolutely no interest in actually capitalizing in any way on its real world setting, and as such feels very poorly thought out.
The story in Ace Combat 6 was similarly terrible, but survived because you could skip every cutscene with no real story lost; Every cutscene was essentially a series of non-sequiturs to the actual story arc the player was involved in, and even if the cutscenes were terrible, the in-flight chatter was entertaining and well done. Assault Horizon gets no such free pass: The cutscenes are long, boring affairs where the player is given slight camera control. To look at what, exactly? Boxes and walls? In-flight chatter is an abject failure. Speech is so processed and distorted by radio noise it becomes impossible to pay attention through the constant racket of heavy metal bullshit techno and explosions. It's just a constant distorted drone. This is actually the first game I've played where the audio mix was directly detrimental to the playing experience.
Actually, screw reality altogether
Assault Horizon doesn't care about real planes. Where previous Ace Combats modelled HUDs with an eye on reality, Assault Horizon just throws some shit up on screen and hopes it works. There are mistakes in design here that blew my mind. How about a vestigial, duplicate ammunition counter that sits right on top of your aiming reticle, making actually aiming at anything a chore? Or how about removing the machine gun leading indicator altogether, taking out the pleasure of accurately leading and popping a target at long distance and relegating gunnery to an impotent supporting role? How about three camera angles where only one offers you a useful, playable perspective?
Actually, hey, how about we just forget how planes work. Let's set the default control scheme to an abortion of a third person shooter scheme where roll control is removed? How about we take the skill out of lining up a ground attack, and make players move to a point and press a couple of buttons to magically teleport the plane into a nice vector? Actually, about that...
I was not aware that the attractive traits of Call of Duty included "tight linear scripting", but apparently Project Aces thought that was the absolute bomb. Assault Horizon is linear to a fault. Gone are branching missions, multiple operations, plane/upgrade purchases, even squadron orders. On that basis alone, replayability is at zero. Double this with a campaign so tightly scripted it regularly wrests control from you at a rate that becomes alarming. This is a game where a particular enemy plane can NOT be shot down with missiles no matter how long you try. You HAVE to fly up to it and engage one of Assault Horizon's many gimmicky minigames, called DFM (Dog Fight Mode, geddit?). In this mode, your plane is on a rail, and so is that of your opponent. Within moments, you've subjected him to enough punishment to kill a bomber, but no. The game doesn't want you to kill him yet. See, you have to see him fly under this exploding building first. THEN you can kill him.
Or how about a plane that just won't go down, and you pound it with all your special weapons ammo, only to realize later that oh, the scripting was set up such that you couldn't kill him; He had to fly into a building as part of a scripted sequence. Thanks for making me waste all my special weapons ammo!
It extends to ground assaults, done through a similar minigame. Here's a ship that you can shoot at for hours, but it won't take any damage. Not until you fly to a preset point and engage a minigame. THEN you can kill it.
The irony is that the dog fighting system has some merit; Planes can counter your DFM, and you can counter theirs. And you can counter their counters. Against the normal planes that aren't tied into any kind of stupid rollercoaster animation for you to watch, it's actually enjoyable. Then you encounter a boss enemy and realize that even though the game mockingly insists you should stop him as soon as possible, the game will literally not ALLOW you to stop him until it's good and ready for it. This entails a frustrating, long chase where your life hangs in the balance, and your enemy remains essentially invulnerable.
The game just feels hugely out of control. The aforementioned ground attack sequences will occasionally interrupt your carefully adjusted angle of attack to show you an explosion somewhere, and then return you to a plane on a totally different course. Every time you feel the least bit invested, the game yanks you out of it and makes it absolutely clear that you are watching more than playing.
For a player out for a fair skill-based experience, such as those offered by past Ace Combats, games that remain playable and enjoyable at the highest difficulties, it's like a cruel joke.
Visually the game is fine. It's not a huge leap over AC6, which I replayed in preparation for Assault Horizon's release, and that game still looks and sounds superb. Assault Horizon has a gritty, high contrast look to it that sometimes works and sometimes don't at all. Some missions take place in an Apache helicopter, and they take place a little too close to the ground than the relatively low resolution satellite imagery making up the ground textures can handle. One mission in a dense city requires you to fly at street level, and it's during these sequences the game looks its absolute worst. It's a shame, because the apache sequences, hampered by two camera angles so unhelpful it boggles the imagination, are among the least gimmicky the game has to offer, feeling like a totally serviceable shooter.
The audio fares much worse. This is a dense, noisy affair, and it comes off as simply ugly, with a mixture of overly compressed metal guitars and breakbeats. One mission has what sounds like a disco theme thrown in for good measure. It's pretty weird. The voice work would probably be fine if you could hear any of it through the game's muddy mix.
If it ain't broken...
Some perceive Ace Combat as fundamentally busted games, because all you do is shoot at dots in the distance. The reality of it is that flight combat IS shooting at dots in the distance, while managing a good sense of spatial awareness between yourself, the target, your allies and the terrain. Flight combat is never going to be palatable to those without a real fundamental urge towards it.
Assault Horizon attempts to drag the player closer to each kill and, through a more intense audiovisual experience, be more engaging for those turned off by past titles' relative sterility. The result however is a game that steals control away from you on so many occasions and in such a haphazard fashion it becomes nearly impossible to maintain any such spatial awareness. One moment you are facing one direction, two button presses and you're on a completely different altitude and vector, with the camera shifting to another position. You're shooting a tank, but suddently the camera cuts to a soldier being shot somewhere. It's nuts, and it robs you of ever feeling like you were on top of the situation, one of the primary joys of any combat flight sim.
It's hugely ironic that instead of being a game about shooting dots in the sky, Ace Combat is now a game about moving icons and circles around and timing button presses. You stare intently at moving icons on your hud more than you look at what you're trying to shoot.
Assault Horizon can, in this Ace Combat fan's eyes, not be seen as anything other than a failure. It's a charmless, derivative game with a severe identity crisis. Ace Combat vets will pine for more control and more to do, while newbies with a moment's alertness will see through the game's thick layer of capricious rules and scripting to reveal an action game experience that is painfully shallow and contrived.
I have two hopes at this point.
First, that Assault Horizon is an offshoot, and not a reboot. The lack of a number in its title makes me tentatively glad, because this is, so far, the lowest point of the franchise: A flight combat game where neither flight nor combat is satisfying. If this is the future of the franchise, we're in the shit guys.
Secondly, once I've had a chance to try the multiplayer, that the player versus player dogfighting will be more satisfying than the scripted nonsense the campaign puts you through.