Flight sims can be intimidating things at times, especially to those who aren't all that well trained in what it's like to actually fly a plane. With their confusing terminology, and an image of being incredibly difficult games (even if that's arguably not really true), it's not too hard to see why some wannabe flyboys and girls may have been a bit nervous to make a commitment, and have a go at one of the few games that are available. When it comes to Ace Combat, thought, there's no such problems. With the perfect blend of accessible, arcade action and authenticity, Ace Combat's always been about playing out a dream - letting you sit right in the cockpit of a variety of modern day jets, and simply worry about the combat, without having to yearn about yokes, ailerons, and other flight babble.
So, it was with slight trepidation that we approached the news that for its latest instalment, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, the series would be getting a "reboot". In the world of games, that's a worrying word, as it usually means abandoning everything that's made the game great up until that point in the pursuit of some new, and often sadly short sighted great new goal. Like making a flying game for people who don't want to fly.
Leaving behind the fictional setting of Gracemeria for the more humdrum realities of real life, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon tells a tale of a UN task force trying to stop a super-weapon getting into the hands of a group of splinter group turned mercenaries for hire. While previous Ace Combat games, free from things like realism had you taking down giant robots, the super-weapon in question here is only a giant bomb, which sadly makes the storyline feel, well, dull. With a squad of personality-free aircrew, being commanded by even duller generals, there's nothing in Ace Combat that actually sucks you into the story, or makes you care about any of the characters. So we're not exactly off to the best of starts.
But sadly, the problems with Ace Combat just keep coming thick and fast. Where the game used to be a flight sim with a focus on accessible arcade action, whilst maintaining enough authenticity for those who had a penchant for flying games, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon... well, we don't know who it's actually trying to aim for. Throwing accessibility out the window, the game's basically been turned into one big Quick Time Event. Hold on, we'll explain.
The opening missions set the scene for the rest of the game fairly well. Set over an accurately mapped Hawaii (which incidentally adds little to the game for anyone who hasn't been there, and presumably was an extra expense over fictional cities of the earlier games), it's up to you to intercept a flight of bandits who're attacking the city. Choosing to fly from a third person view, or from inside the cockpit of the plane, you'll zip around, Top Gun style, chasing down enemies, waiting for your missiles to lock on, before letting them loose. So far, so good, and so Ace Combat. But then comes the problem.
You see, there are certain enemies in this level - and in the levels that follow - that you can only destroy in a very specific way - by activating the new close quarters combat mode. To do this, all you have to do is fly behind an enemy until a green circle appears around them, then (on the Xbox 360) you press the LB and RB together, where you'll be treated to an incredibly disorienting cutscene, as your view zooms in and out, and pans all over the place, before plonking you back into a zoomed in version of your cockpit, directly behind your foe. In this mode, your missiles lock on more easily, if you keep your enemy in your sights, and your cannon seems to almost auto aim, making taking this the preferred mode for taking enemies down - and in fact, as we mentioned, it's the only way you can take certain "major" enemies down. The only problem is... well... it's not all that much fun?
When you switch to the close combat mode, Ace Combat practically does all the flying for you. Throughout several sections, we sat there without touching the stick once, and watched our plane swooping between buildings seemingly on autopilot. We presume it's intended to put your heart in your mouth - after all, tearing between skyscrapers at hundreds of miles an hour is pretty exciting stuff - if you're the one who's in control. But the emphasis on this new close quarters combat mode means that anyone who decides they'd rather try and shoot the enemies down themselves is at a bit of a loss. For three hours, we tried to shoot one plane down. Three whole hours. Seemingly, with his unlimited health, unlimited flares to throw your rockets off, and gravity defying manoeuvres, it was impossible to shoot the enemy down without using their special mode. If it actually warned you, it wouldn't be so much of a problem, but when there's nothing to tell you which planes it's possible to shoot down manually, and which ones you have to use their lock on mode for, things get more than a little bit confusing.
The other problem that comes along with this new-found emphasis on close-quarters combat is that it's not just you who can do it. Your enemies can all do it too. So although you can use the mode to lock on to your enemies, and stick to their tail like glue, it's entirely possible for them to do exactly the same thing to you - as they take great glee in proving. Making them next to impossible to throw off (unlike in the older games, before this stupid new mode was added, where all you had to do was a loop or even a particularly tight turn to throw the enemy off your tail), all this does is add a huge amount of frustration to the game - especially for the new pilots the mode's presumably been designed to entice. While it is possible to shake the enemies off in the traditional way - by out manoeuvring them - it's also incredibly hard, and we've managed it all of a handful of times during our time with the game. The easiest (and most reliable) way to do it has also been designed to come at a cost to you. By levelling your plane, slowing down (therefore making yourself cannon fodder), you'll be luring your enemy in - all you have to do is wait for two arrows to start doing a rotating animation (on a HUD that's already covered in flashing lights, rotating dials, and plenty of other distractions), and press the RB and LB together, which'll make the game perform a loop for you, and swoop in behind them. Which somehow works a lot better than if you ever tried to do it for yourself. This then puts you in the disorienting tunnel vision of the close combat mode again, and gives you a chance to blow up your enemy.
But with Assault Horizon being a reboot, and seemingly trying to distance itself from everything that made Ace Combat games fun, there's actually around a 50:50 split between missions that actually let you fly a plane, and missions that see you doing something else - something a bit simpler. Or at least, something intended to be a bit simpler. One of the main things Namco were keen to show off this year was the inclusion of helicopters. For the first time in an Ace Combat game, you could pilot your very own chopper - which certainly had us interested.
The only problem is, the control scheme for flying the helicopter is so incredibly convoluted, we'd wager flying a real one would probably be easier. Far from the accessible game the developers, Project Aces had hoped to create, the helicopter controls are example number one of "How not to design a control scheme". Pushing your right analogue stick left and right, you can move a cursor around the screen to aim your chaingun (but not your helicopter) at enemies. Let go of the cursor, and your helicopter will snap to pointing in the same direction as the cursor - eventually. For some reason, the game seems to take forever to actually centre your view to looking out the front of your helicopter, instead leaving you looking out of the side window for crucial seconds. Minor, accurate movements - you know, like the ones you need to make in a helicopter - are nigh on impossible. It just doesn't work. It's awkward, it's disorienting - sadly, it's just like the rest of Assault Horizon.
Then comes the more common non-flying missions, that of the being gunner. Manning the turrets in a Hercules, it's up to you to pick out targets below, while your AI pilot circles around in an attempt to make your life a bit easier. And it works OK to begin with - blowing up houses, and switching between different calibres of gun depending on how large an explosion you want to make works pretty well. But then, the game asks you to take out individual soldiers. From 20,000 feet, that's the equivalent of picking out a needle in a haystack. Switch between the three different sizes of weapons available to you, and your view will zoom in or out accordingly - for ones with a large area of effect, you'll be able to see for miles - for the machine gun, it'll zoom right in. The only problem is, with no arrows indicating where your targets are, should the tiny people happen to be off-screen (and they probably will be), well, good luck finding them. Of course, the same isn't true the other way round - the tiny soldiers have homing missiles they'll gleefully fire away at you from behind their bush. But you can't see them to save your life, even though you're using an infra-red style camera, which has been designed to pick out targets more easily. Needless to say, it's very frustrating. Which is why it's a shame that these missions make up between a quarter and a third of the game you'll be playing.
To put into words how misguided this is is almost upsetting to write, as it's actually hard to see any logic here at all. What Namco have essentially done is create a flight sim for people who don't like flying. A game about flying planes that doesn't actually let you fly a plane; a game about dogfighting that doesn't let you dogfight; and a game designed to welcome novices in that lets the AI lock onto your tail and blow you out of the sky before you have time to blink. Taking out everything that's fun about flying games, and replacing it with a paint-by-numbers approach, this is the flight sim equivalent of having Tetris clear rows for you every time you press A. If we didn't want to fly a plane, we wouldn't buy a flight sim - and no amount of quick time events will change that. And that's the worst part. Ace Combat 5, the last game, and a 360 exclusive, was an amazing game. We loved it. It already had the perfect balance between arcade action and authentic flying, with a great story set in a fictional universe, that focused on a family caught up in the war to boot. Alienating their core market whilst seemingly desperately trying to appeal to the same (limited) CoD crowd that every other game seems to be being designed for recently, Ace Combat's gone from king of the flight sim to a burning wreckage in the space of a single "reinvention". If there's any justice in the world, Ace Combat will be back to its normal self by the time the next game rolls around. We probably can't take another one like this.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360