Modern Air Shooting games are a rare guest on PC. In fact, except for two HAWX titles from Ubisoft, players had to either slap on a flight peripherals set and play hardcore simulators like Lock On, or make do with WW2-style games. Meanwhile, Playstation and later Xbox360 owners enjoyed the Ace Combat series (made by Project Aces for Namco Bandai). It started out on the original PS, and has gained both critical acclaim and a large player fanbase across 17 years and 12 games. Assault Horizon, the latest home console installment, polarized the audience after its initial release in 2011. Some praised the game’s changes for accessibility, while others were disappointed by the series’ departure from its roots. Just a week ago, a PC exclusive Enhanced Edition was quietly released with optimized graphics and controls and all prior DLC included with the game. Should you take to the skies, or book another flight?
The game’s story isn’t exactly what you’d call original. You play from 4 different perspectives – Colonel William “Warwolf 1″ Bishop, a fighter pilot, Captain Douglas “D-Ray” Robinson of an AH-64D squadron, bomber pilot Major Janice Reel and an unnamed gunner of Nomad-1 MH-60, all part of a joint NATO-Russia operation against rebels in East Africa in 2015. After a couple of raids, half the Russian forces turn on their allies and run off with weapons, planes and a WMD called Trinity, which help them pull off a coup in Moscow and establish the New Russian Federation (NRF). Soon after, the extremists start making threats against the rest of the world and the brave American pilots have to lead the joint forces to bring the terrorists down. All current trends are here: personal revenge, one’s quest for courage, betrayal, Russian separatists, a hint at romance and self-sacrifice. However, the longer you get into the campaign the more appropriate the nearly static cutscenes feel. The writing, while not award-winning, explains the motives and sets up the mission objectives well and overall, Assault Horizon’s story makes the most sense in the series and genre, when you compare it with plots for AC6, ACX (PSP game) and HAWX2, for example.
The game’s campaign is broken up into 16 missions, taking around 8 hours in total. After you complete them all, you can tackle them in Free Mission mode for leaderboard highscores or play them in Co-Op mode with friends. If you’re into competitive play, you can dive into Deathmatch, Capital Conquest or Domination modes. While DM and Co-Op have been around for some time in the series, the other two are new arrivals. In CC teams of 4v4 or 8v8 have to destroy the enemy HQ, while protecting their own, with a transmission base in between them that players have to secure first. Domination is Battlefield’s Conquest with planes instead of soldiers – two teams fight for territory control. Every mode is balanced and provides an experience varying from pure combat to tactical operations that require teamwork and on-the-fly planning. That is if you manage to get into a match, since very few people play the game online (at the time of review). As for replay value, getting both through the campaign and multiplayer nets you a plethora of unlockables in the form of planes (39 of them from fighters and heavy bombers to attack helicopters and fictional multirole aircraft), pre-designed custom liveries and the options to paint aircraft as you see fit. Another pinch of salt is that Assault Horizon uses Games for Windows Live rather than Steam (review version) which means you can expect all usual connectivity issues.
Now, how does AC:AH actually play? Like Call of Duty in the sky. Variety and accessibility are the main focus here. The first is made obvious in the opening levels: You’ll be taking down enemy aircraft, decimating ground forces, providing close air support from helicopters and do strategic bombing runs flying under the radar through a canyon, with Dubai, DC, Moscow, Derbent, Miami (SP) as well as Paris, Honolulu and Tokyo (MP) as background. As for the second, flight assists prevent your plane from crashing into the ground and stalling (which is very difficult by default), a control scheme prevents you from rolling and losing orientation and destroying both planes and ground forces is made easy with the addition of Dogfight and Airstrike modes. Assists you can turn off in the options menu. The DFM/ASM don’t have this ability (just in case you wonder), since they are the main gameplay features here. When you get close enough to a target a simple button combination locks you onto the enemy plane or airstrike path and you can start chipping away at the foes. This, while completely unrealistic even for AC series, actually eliminates a lot of frustration associated with previous titles or the HAWX series, streamlining your combat and making it more enjoyable. At the same time, the game is still challenging. You will often find yourself swarmed with missiles and enemies trying to engage you in DFM. And while your plane carries hundreds of missiles and an unlimited cannon, you’re usually set up with only 4-5 flares so you end up spending a lot of time on evasive maneuvers. Also, since triggering counter-maneuvers takes some getting used to and half of the objectives are on a timer, checkpoint restarts will happen quite a few times. When you do manage to pull through, the sense of accomplishment makes it all worth it. Plus, even when you fail a few times in a row, the frustration or repetition-caused boredom don’t set in as much as you’d expect. That’s probably also due to the helicopter missions giving you a break from planes at all the right times, letting you slow down and play with a more FPS-like control scheme. You can even land your Apache and take a closer look at your surroundings. Speaking of controls, this game is best played with a gamepad or a flight sim peripheral. Keyboard controls, while tolerable, don’t provide as much grip as you need for an air combat game. Also, as with prior games in the series you can save replays of your missions and later watch those using the game’s viewer.
If you do manage to get a moment of downtime during a mission, you might want to check out the game’s visuals. While the engine certainly shows its age, the characters look good enough, except for a few wrong camera angles. The levels themselves are well-detailed with lots of buildings in urban areas and forests in the hills and mountains. Every aforementioned city is well-detailed and anyone, who’s ever been to Moscow, DC or Dubai will recognize a lot of landmarks. The catch is the closer you get to the ground, the worse it looks, especially in 1080p. While this was understandable on consoles, this falls a bit short from the promised Enhanced Edition feature. This can be forgiven due to good optimization work the devs put into this version, since the review machine (specs below the review) ran the game on max at 60 FPS in 1080p with only a few frame rate hiccups. The visual highlight is, of course, the aircraft. If you’re into planes and choppers, you’ll find a lot of joy here simply from checking them out in the Aircraft Viewer mode. Cockpits, while not fully viewable, are detailed and you can play from that view, even reading the dashboard if you feel like it. Another minus to the game is the odd lack of sound/picture synchronization in some of the post-mission cutscenes. Reasons for this and whether or not it will be fixed are unknown at this time. Luckily, this doesn’t hamper the impression much and can be dealt with through subtitles.
On the audio front, the voice acting is exactly as you’d expect. Combat chatter over the radio sounds authentic and is understandable, unlike that of the previous titles in the series. Dialog in cutscenes is straght-to-the-point, tuning you into the right mood for the next sortie, and even during the somewhat cheesy ending, feels strangely appropriate. As does the music. Rock and synth tunes are mixed with orchestral scores and a nearly opera-level song in Russian during one particular duel. They all kick in at the right times and fit the tone of the game.
So, is this plane worth taking for a spin? That depends. If you’re into hardcore modern air combat sims, you have nothing to see here. If you’re more of an FPS player trying to get a fresh experience, you may want to take note. If you are of those who enjoy the specific genre of Air Combat Shooter games, it’s a bit more complicated. Those familiar with AC, be warned, this game isn’t what you remember it to be. And if you’ve been waiting for a chance to get your hands on Ace Combat on PC, go and do it. This is the best experience you can get within the genre on the platform. It’s only 35 USD.
PC Specs: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+ 2.3 GHz, 4 Gb DDR2, GeForce GTS 450 512 Mb, Xbox 360 Controller.