There is a right way and a wrong way to do cinematic gaming. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does it the wrong way. In pursuit of its seeming desire to be an airborne Call of Duty, it puts practicality second in favour of providing you with another big thrill.
The story is certainly good at moving you from setpiece to setpiece. The plot itself is complete fluff. It seems a splinter group of Russians called the New Russian Federation have developed a great big bomb called Trinity, and are intent on wiping out the US and all of its allies. Alternating control between “80s Action Hero” in the fighter, “Token Black Guy” in the chopper, and “The Girl” in the bomber, you’ll go from bombing runs in Africa, to laying siege to an occupied Russia, to an all-or-nothing dogfight right above the good ol’ US of A.
The spectacle doesn’t just apply to the set-pieces themselves, as the moment-to-moment gameplay does its best to frame the action in an exciting manner. The problem is that what makes for an exciting movie scene isn’t necessarily conducive to entertaining gameplay. The camera will sometimes slowly pan from left to right during gameplay. This may look cool, but it also means that for several seconds your aircraft will occupy the middle of the screen, meaning you can’t see anything that’s in front of you. In fact, in order to hit enemies with any degree of accuracy, you have to get behind them and enter Dogfight Mode, which automatically chases enemies so you can focus on aiming. The emphasis on wowing the player is even more evident here. In Dogfight Mode, the enemies follow scripted paths, and no matter how many missiles you hit them with, many cannot even be killed until they’ve blown up a given piece of scenery.
At least you won’t have any trouble remembering what button does what. In a truly bizarre decision, almost every important action besides firing is tied to pressing the left and right bumpers at the same time. Want to enter Dogfight Mode? Get close behind him, then press LB and RB. Initiate a bombing run? LB and RB. Do a somersault? When an enemy’s locked onto you, slow down until they’re right behind you, then press LB and RB. Sensing a theme here? While this may seem to make the game simpler to control, the context sensitive nature of these commands means that you often cannot perform the manoeuvre you want. Sometimes there will be an enemy right behind you, but you cannot somersault because he’s not targeting you. The simplicity means that, again, the game can focus on putting more explosions onscreen, but it is a hindrance that could have been avoided had each action been given its own button combination.
With this emphasis on visceral excitement, it’s fortunate that the presentation is pretty exciting. All the licensed aircraft look authentic, and you’re generally soaring above a pretty massive and detailed environment. It definitely adds a sense of urgency when you’re chasing a bogey and the two of you swerve just past the Whitehouse or some other recognizable national monument. Characters look good (if stereotypical), and show an appreciated level of nuance in their facial expressions. Everything sounds realistic, too, with satisfying explosions punctuating every other second.
To be honest, I couldn’t tell you exactly how long it took me to finish this game. I want to say it took around 12 hours, but that seems to be a generous number given how many times I was killed. I admit to not being a flight-simulator aficionado, but as I died death after agonizing death due to the finicky camera and controls that didn’t always do what I wanted, time seemed to slow down. I’d peg it at around seven hours if you have great reflexes and the game likes you. Multiplayer is even less fun than the main game, as the excitement is null when everyone is suffering from the same crippled controls.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon would have made a better popcorn action movie than a video game. It goes out of its way to focus on cinematic style - to the detriment of the gameplay. It definitely has style, and it was quite rewarding when I finally accomplished a mission that kept clipping my wings. That's not enough to make an engaging game. Overall, I did not find Assault Horizon to be a particularly satisfying game experience.