Ace Combat: Assault Horizon review: Old dogfight, new tricks

If you're not a devotee of the franchise, I'd forgive you for not keeping track of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.

Not only are there a lot of games in this series, but "Assault Horizon" has to be the most forgettable subtitle since ... well, we can't remember, naturally. (Seriously, guys, you once subtitled a game "Electrosphere." How you've fallen!)

I was just like you, dear reader. I barely realized the thing existed until my lousy brother/reviews editor conned me into playing it. Heck, I'm not even a huge fan of flight games, generally speaking. I make these revelations in the hopes that you'll believe me when I say this next bit.

You have to play this game.
%Gallery-133078% The year is 2015, and Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop, leader of Warwolf Squadron, is squaring off against anti-government insurgents in Africa. When his multinational force learns that the opposition has secured a superweapon called Trinity ... well, let's just put it this way, for fear of spoilers: They have to shoot a lot of things. With planes.

Though I'm sure it'll be controversial among fans, I was relieved that Assault Horizon took the setting out of the parallel Earth known as "Strangereal" that most of the series is set in. The whole affair feels more grounded (plane humor!) here on Earth Prime, and gorgeously detailed stages generated from real satellite imagery really raise the stakes by making you feel like you're waging war on your home soil.
Bishop's story is told surprisingly well for the genre, replete with non-combat first-person sequences that have you chatting up your team and getting mission briefings. You have limited control over Bishop, but the face time with your team makes going into combat with them a much richer experience.

Speaking of richness, the monotony that often sets in with these games (i.e. the realization that you've been slowly turning towards triangles on your radar while holding down the trigger for eight hours) is refreshingly offset in AH. In the midst of regular plane battles, you'll find a handful of helicopter missions, some exhilarating on-rails turret sequences and even one of those "Death From Above" black-and-white AC-130 stages that have become de rigueur in the Modern Warfare series.

Though not as deep as the plane combat, they're a welcome change of pace that last just long enough to make you itch to get back into the cockpit. That said, the plane-to-plane battles are so diverse, the real question is whether you'll ever want to leave.

The big draw is the Dogfight Mode, which generally flows thusly: Bring an enemy into your field of view and get close to them. Pull two shoulder buttons and watch as the camera zooms in on your foe. Either lay into them with machine gun fire or keep their plane towards the middle of your sights long enough to get a missile lock.

The trick is that activating Dogfight Mode puts the plane on a sort of semi-autopilot, letting you focus on blasting away at the enemy. Not only does this keep you from constantly losing the bad guy every three seconds, but it makes it so enemies can lead you on scripted breakneck chases through cities, forcing you to choose between pulling up to safety or hanging in just one second longer until you get your shot off.

Enemies can lock you into their sights too, and when this happens you'll have the opportunity to slow to a terrifying, vulnerable crawl and pull the shoulder buttons to loop around behind your surprised pursuer and put a missile in their engines. A risky maneuver, sure, but always a satisfying one.

This back-and-forth is especially tense in the online multiplayer modes like Capital Conquest, which has you defending or attacking major cities throughout the world. Since I was playing before the game hit shelves, my multiplayer exposure was fairly limited, but what I saw felt really fresh. Locking on someone, having them loop behind you, then re-looping behind them is hilarious ... until you're on on the losing end of that particular game of Hot Potato. (If things get too tense, you and two friends can patch up your differences in one of eight three-player online co-op missions.)

When you're not shooting down enemy birds, there are also some neat innovations in the field of air-to-ground combat. Assault Horizon features optimal bombing paths your plane can lock onto and follow with the push of a button. As in the Dogfight Mode, you'll sacrifice some control, but you'll be able to focus on eliminating individual targets. For the first time in a flight game, I felt like attacking ground targets was something my plane was designed to do well, rather than a risky dance with exploding on the nearest mountainside.

I've intentionally left some of Assault Horizon's variations on flight combat out just so you'll have something to discover as you play. But suffice it to say I was constantly impressed at how often I'd have to take a break after a given mission or objective just to catch my breath.

Honestly, if you're a hardcore flight guy, I'm not sure if Assault Horizon is going to be up your alley, even with flight assistance turned off. This is pretty far from a simulation, even though it never quite strays to the arcade feel of Ubisoft's H.A.W.X. series. But speaking as someone firmly on the casual end of the flight spectrum, I've never had more fun in the Wild Blue Yonder.

This review is based on early 360 review code of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon provided by Namco-Bandai.

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