The latest sky-based opus from Project Aces substitutes the preposterous, fictitious realms of Estovakia, Erusea and Yuktobania – which have populated the alternative Earth of Strangereal in the series to date – in favour of reality. But while the Japanese developer has turned to Moscow, Dubai and Egypt for the setting of this umpteenth entry, its foot very much remains in fiction – just not its own.
Forget any preconceived understanding you have of the series to date; Assault Horizon isn’t a standard combat flight simulator but a first-person shooter redressed with metallic paint and jet-powered thrust. It’s the Call Of Duty of the skies. In fact, once behind the devastating canons of an Apache, the control system mirrors the ubiquitous shooter, with the left and right triggers snapping to target and shooting respectively, while the helicopter majestically strafes around targets. It takes some readjustment to succumb to the formula, but it makes Assault Horizon a uniquely exhilarating jolt of action in a genre squandered by chasing black dots on the horizon and fumbling over merciless controls.
As Assault Horizon opens, player-hero Captain William Bishop awakes, sweating, from a recurring nightmare, the ceiling fan thumping like the whirling blades of a helicopter. Subtlety is butchered like ritual bovine here; it’s a title entrenched in Western culture, reading off the blueprints laid down by countless action movies over the last three decades from which so many gruff military games take their cues. Indeed, most of the main plot is made of such frivolous bobbins: an explosive MacGuffin falls into the wrong hands; plot twists are as surprising as night turning into day; dialogue is drenched in risible cliché (mainly involving alcohol, rather bizarrely). Like the best popcorn entertainment, Assault Horizon understands that story is just an aggravation to be ignored.
Its biggest accomplishment is turning the dogfight into a genuinely heart-pumping experience. The various jets themselves swing around the skies, weightless as a feather, guns unloading with a satisfying rumble and audio clout. Approach a rival bandit close enough and you’re prompted to enter Dogfight mode (part of the new Close-Range Assault system), where the camera turns dynamic, rolling around the planes and frantically searching for the opponent.
Action becomes a taut cat-and-mouse chase. Shrapnel from your downed enemy singes the edges of the frame, the burnt-out carcass of the plane spinning in indulgent slow motion as the now-dead pilot gracefully falls from inside the cockpit. While these flashes of enlivening battle are ostensibly on-rails – often with the enemy dragging the action between skyscrapers and canyons, which require little elegance – it retains enough input to make the player feel part of the action, rather than just a spectator.
The only real hiccup this new handle on flying raises is when you’re tasked to perform ground assaults. With both the reticule pinpointing the aim and direction, often bombing ground targets feels like a kamikaze run rather than a precise assault. It’s made more cumbersome when engaging in predetermined strike paths, entered with the same prompted bumper presses and leaving little room for negotiation, especially apparent as the terrain has the habit to dip and climb around with the environment that the targets are sitting within.
By transferring the action to real locations, there is an improved sense of immersion throughout this entry. The action flips between character perspectives, maintaining a swift pace and an impressive versatility in missions. Where Call Of Duty provides respite through aerial jaunts, Assault Horizon inverts the approach, breaking from the flight-based combat with simple gunning tasks and bombing excursions. These dalliances with other methods of destruction are just to be admired for their sheer firepower and sufficiently bombastic production values.
Whether it’s behind the devastating gun of the AC-130 or firing missiles at rival aircraft, it’s the first Ace Combat that truly feels like it has a firm grip on what makes a set-piece buzz; what makes the action roar through multiple missions. Its soundtrack bursts with arcade rhythms and Hans Zimmer-style rib-rattling percussion, while cut-scenes centre on eye-watering spectacle rather than tired exposition.
The visuals remain sharp while in the sky, with an impressive range of weather conditions preventing any two missions from feeling the same. Admittedly, when gliding close to the ground the world reveals itself to be a lifeless child’s play mat. Yet, the abundant choice of planes, helicopters and other vehicles of mass destruction have been admirably recreated. The whole design is a beautiful mess, one with a dizzying focus much like its dynamic camera.
By the end of the eight-hour campaign, you’ll have predicted every twist within the opening five minutes and blasted through a dozen action scenes regurgitated from countless other sources. Nonetheless, Assault Horizon is a triumphant mix of masculinity and pastiche, an excitable exercise in action gaming that moves the genre forward into exciting new territory, by taking the sim side out of the equation and focusing on the most important thing: action. It’s ridiculous in every sense of the word, from the controls to the combat, but it remains an undeniable thrill throughout. Whether it’s manning a stealth bomber to wipe out a village of terrorists, blasting speedboats packing RPGs or just simply weaving between the skyscrapers of Dubai, it’s an exhilarating rush of energy, brilliantly unsubtle and gloriously explosive. It may have done away with the likes of Estovakia, Erusea and Yuktobania, but Project Aces’ predilection for preposterous fiction shows no signs of fading.