Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, the game that was originally released to consoles in 2011, has finally made its way to the PC. It aims to deliver on all the points flight sim fans love, so let’s find out if the game earns high marks as a top gun, or if it’s just a long dart waiting to crash and burn.
Assault Horizon is the first game in the Ace Combat series to take place in real-world locations and through many different eyes. The year is 2015; Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop is hot and heavy in a dogfight over Miami. The fighting is intense; after taking down wave after wave of enemy aircraft, Bishop is shot down. He has just enough time to eject, but he is almost hit by the enemy in a mid-air collision.
Bishop wakes up in a feverish sweat, realizing that the ordeal was just a nightmare. There’s a knock on the door, and he and his squadron are called to duty. While Bishop prepares for his sortie, you take the role of a gunner, a member of a multi-helicopter squadron. The mission, undertaken by a joint venture between NATO and Russian forces, is to put down rebel resistance in East Africa.
The helicopter squadrons manage to quell the rebel resistance of SRN fighters; unfortunately, NATO and the Russians underestimated SRN’s strength. A mysterious explosion brings down the entire squadron of helicopters, while decimating the entire town, leading to an escalation of tensions between NATO and Russian forces. The Russian General Ivan Stagleishov wishes to have more autonomous control over the situation, while NATO General Pierre La Pointe struggles to work with him to operate within the purview of the orders issued.
These tensions are not necessarily felt on the battlefield. Russian pilot Major Sergei Illich bonds quickly with Bishop, his American counterpart, and his wing man, Jose “Guts’ Gutierrez. The pilots take bets on who’s going to buy the first round of drinks, trash-talking one another as to who will come home empty-handed. During their next mission, they realize just how connected and well-funded the SRN really is.
As interesting (or not) the story mode in Assault Horizon is, the Ace Combat series has always tried, and for the most part achieved, to be at the forefront of what a flight simulator game should be. Unfortunately, in this regard, Assault Horizon has fallen from grace. The flight controls are of particular concern. To my annoyance, I spent much of my playtime yelling at my screen because of the automatic corrections; the two most notable problems were with the Auto Leveling System in the jets and Auto Ascent in the helicopters.
I have been playing flight sims since the mid-90’s, and just trying to pull off basic maneuvers like coming out of a barrel roll and then trying to turn was easier said than done. Such a maneuver would cause the Auto Leveling System to kick in, forcing me to lose track of my target and level out, sometimes resulting in 180+ degree turns in the wrong direction. The game does offer a Flight Assist, and even though I had it disabled, it would remain active. I verified that it was this feature causing my issues.
The Auto Ascent was also particularly frustrating. When in the helicopter, it’s impossible to make it hover unless you go into a zoom state to fire your ordinance; this meant that I had to continuously fight to keep my aircraft below 100 feet so I wouldn’t be shot down by enemy rocket fire. This also meant that if I had wished to turn the aircraft, I would hit the ceiling of 300 feet. Hugely unrealistic and unsatisfying.
I did look into using other controllers, but unfortunately the Flight Assist remained active no matter which controller I used. In this regard, there was no difference between my X52 Flight Stick (my preferred controller), 360 gamepad, or the keyboard and mouse. This meant that I had to play the game with limited flight controls and it was not a pleasant experience.
I mentioned that I prefer to play with the X52 Flight Stick, and I am happy to say that there were no problems with the game detecting it; the game even had its own profile for the controller. The only problem I ran into was when I tried to remap my controls and the icons at the bottom kept flickering between the keyboard and flight stick buttons – this didn’t make it impossible to remap my buttons, but it was confusing at first.
The Dog Fight mode is something I never cared for in flight sims; the whole idea of being able to zoom in and stay perfectly behind a target has just never appealed to me. But the only reason I used this mode here was because of how well the AI could control its own aircraft and practically turn 90 to 180 degrees in a blink-of-the-eye. The reason they could do this was due in no small part to the fact they could slow down almost two times faster than the player. The only way the player could duplicate this type of maneuver is by using the Dog Fight mode.
The problem with the flight controls and the clear advantage the AI had made traditional dog fights last forever. On one level, I spent almost 100 missiles on two Migs and I couldn’t take them down after almost 90 minutes, all because I didn’t use Dog Fight. This feature now feels like a requirement more than an assist for less-skilled players. I played the game on Normal up until this point, but I had to switch to rookie difficulty as a direct result of these problems.
Assault Horizon‘s story takes a radical departure from other Ace Combat games, in that it is set in the real-world, with nations and factions players will be familiar with. The actors and overall story is about average for a game like this. There may be one or two memorable moments, but overall, the story is somewhat transparent and many players won’t experience anything new here.
The graphics are a mixed barrel of good and ugly. The cities of Miami and Dubai for instance, have their distinct looks and appear fine from a distance, but when you get close, the textures are muddy, making it hard to see specific targets. This problem is further compounded when you have missions that take place close to the ground, especially in the middle of a desert. The walking around cut-scenes have been prettied up, so I just wish the whole game could have benefited from that additional effort.
All of the aircraft look amazing and are true to form. I was particularly pleased to see a few bombers in the game, even the B1-B, where the model was very detailed and even had the right tail colors for what squadrons currently operate and service that aircraft; but it’s too bad it said DY instead of EL on it. Multi-monitor user? That’s one thing Assault Horizon gets right.
The sound effects are all top-notch. I even managed to notice differences in the sounds of the engines and how each aircraft flew at varying speeds – to say I was impressed is an understatement. The voice acting is fine; but some characters felt dull and lifeless. Further, in other parts, it was obvious that the developers had some technical difficulties with the quality of the voice over; it’s a shame they couldn’t re-record the dialogue in those parts.
Although it had a ton of potential, with its concept and the level of detail in the aircraft, the flight control problems made the entire experience a frustrating one for me. Unfortunately, I simply cannot recommend this game – at least not until this critical problem is fixed.