Believe it or not, but Namco's long-standing Ace Combat (originally called Air Combat) series at one point carried as much critic- and player-allocated clout as something like today's money-absorbing Call of Duty franchise, with each new installment pushing the graphical and gameplay capabilities of its respective console. Ace Combat 4, my most cherished title in the series by a substantial margin, and the game that originally enticed my 14-year-old self into purchasing a PlayStation 2 with humble allowance money I had been saving for close to six months, remains the point in which thereafter the Ace Combat games began to slowly decline in overall quality. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, roughly the 13th entry in the Ace Combat canon, is the first of its ilk to appear on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and this initial idea of spreading the wealth across multiple platforms (a 3DS variant, Assault Horizon Legacy arrives next month) hints at what may have lead to Project Aces's most hardcore botching of an Ace Combat title to date: In attempting to tweak the series in order to appeal to a wider audience, they have ultimately squandered the fundamental playability and storyline elements that likely kept loyalists moderately engaged throughout each slightly less awe-inspiring chapter.
Ace Combat games have always thrived on their wacky, alterna-future/history settings and plots; the cheesy, B-movie aesthetic gave the games an inherently unique, often darkly comedic feel, and the titles managed to maintain an airy sense of humor while doing so, never taking themselves too seriously in their assortment of rewritten outcomes. With Assault Horizon, Project Aces unnecessarily enlisted the novel talents of, as the back of the disc's casing so formally puts it, "NY Times best-selling military author" Jim DeFelice (who doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page), to assist in establishing Assault Horizon's core tale into a real-world context, and quite frankly, this decision baffles me. I can understand the folks at Namco making next-gen adjustments to fulfill their desire to rope in more players (the series sales have been holding out at mediocre at best), but if what they had been beginning to effectively cultivate a decade ago with Ace Combat 4 was enough to turn me, someone who, at the time, could give a shit less about aerial dogfighting and sky-set escort missions, they should have stuck to their guns (both literal and metaphorical) and carried on with what was working for the people who were most likely to continue buying what they would be producing. DeFelice's scriptwriting can be accurately summarized as "Every war movie you've even seen, with some Lifetime-brand dramatics." Fortunately, DeFelice is able to confidently span the game's clichéd good-guy NATO forces versus a devious, tactical nuke-harnessing Russian crime syndicate all across the world, giving Project Aces the opportunity to display the graphical aptitude that they're known for. (Locales such as Miami, Washington D.C., East Africa, Paris, Dubai, Moscow, Tokyo, and Hawaii are featured in-game as well as obtained through downloadable content.)
Assault Horizon's gameplay is initially relatively intriguing, its pacing is generally more frenetic than past titles, giving the cloud-borne battles an authentic feeling of palpable urgency. However, Assault Horizon takes a massive misstep in replacing its time-tested enemy take-down layout by introducing the quickly repetitive dogfighting mode, an annoying zoom-in-zoom-out game-within-a-game of sorts that basically consists of haphazardly firing misses interlaced with wild machine-gun fire at numbskull foes in order to prevail. Previous Ace Combat games were by no means drastically challenging endeavors, but they definitely had their share of controller-gripping choke points that required some truly chess-like preplanning and expert reflexes. I completed Assault Horizon with little to no brainpower involved, and while the game's largely cinematic, winning visuals acted as incentive to see things through to the end, the missions (standard air-carrier retaliations, destroying groups of wayward bombers, underdeveloped helicopter-hovering objectives), in comparison to not only other Ace Combat scenarios, but recent aiming-for-realism jet-fighting titles in general, essentially fall flat from start to finish.
Are you a fan of the explosions in Modern Warfare? Well, then, if outright pixelated theft is something that doesn't bother you, you'll love the sights and sounds of enemy fighters blowing up mere feet from your aircraft, the syrupy cherry-hued blood and thick gasoline spraying across your cockpit's windshield after a successful, yowling kill is ripped straight out of the last Call of Duty title (I almost wish they had thrown some Wilhelm screams in the mix). If you were to walk in on a friend playing one of Assault Horizon's sleepy chopper missions, an acceptable question would be "Dude, you're still playing Black Ops?"
Assault Horizon's online modes do little to tranquilize the onslaught of problems with the game's core fun factor, still choosing to draw from other current, more adroit FPS/TPS titles in an attempt to magnetize the uninitiated. Domination and Deathmatch are exactly what they sound like: run-of-the-mill, last-man-standing-type circumstances yielding few singular thrills. One setting in particular, though, Capital Conquest, benefits from allowing players to team up and siege an enemy stronghold, each participant fulfilling a separate, yet no less imperative role. Care to take a back seat to the action for a round or two? Provide distant aerial support via the intermittent, well-timed sweeps of a carpet-bomber. Feeling a bit kamikaze? Select the fastest, most durable fighter and have at it until suicide beckons.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is undoubtedly the best-looking entry in the series, and features an occasionally entertaining co-op mode, but that's basically the extent of the attention the pro column receives here. A game that's only deemed worthy on fleeting first impressions and extremely short bursts of play over time is a shame in this day and age. It's even more troubling that this is a title that comes from a series that once brought its closest followers, myself included, so much joy.