Stace Harman went to find out whether a wet-behind-the-ears new recruit could get to grips with the next instalment of the Ace Combat franchise.
Project Aces is looking to blow the traditionally closed-off flight combat simulation genre wide open.
It’s evident from my time spent with Namco Bandai’s upcoming Ace Combat: Assault Horizon that if I’m to make it as a pilot – and I’m assuming that videogame skills are transferrable to real life - it’ll be by manning a Black Hawk helicopter, not a fighter jet.
The jet I’m initially charged with handling during my hands-on time is nimble, able to perform air acrobatics, can evade enemy targeting and travel really very fast. Or at least it can during the demo I’m shown by a competent Namco Bandai PR rep.
However, at the point that he hands me the controller the plane seems to become sluggish, unresponsive, lose basic orientation and become brilliant at attracting enemy fire whilst failing to land a single shot on target.
Five minutes later, having gotten to grips with the fast pace of the action and the HUD readouts, I’m much better equipped to evade and stalk numerous enemy bogies at super-sonic speed over an impressively realised US city.
It’s not just fun, it’s tense and exciting thanks mostly to Close-Range Assault System that can be engaged once locked-on to the enemy. This produces a tethering effect that keeps the camera zoomed in on your enemy and in the approximate location of your sights for as long as you’re able to match their speed and course.
Achieving a kill in this mode frequently leads to a dramatic close-up of the target plane as it’s torn apart by gun fire or missile damage. Shortly after, you emerge elated from a black, fiery, cloud where once the enemy plane was; your HUD smeared with your enemy’s oily innards. This is the intimate and brutal combat of the skies.
“Assault Horizon has become an action game with excitement and aggressiveness provided by the Close-Range Assault system's one-on-one dogfight,” executive director Kazutoki Kono tells me via email after my hands-on session.
Long-standing Ace Combat fans will be relieved to hear that the more accessible default control scheme that’s enabling this series rookie to achieve such thrilling takedowns can be ignored if they wish to use the traditional handling.
Kono goes on to state that despite opening up the franchise to gamers who may have previously steered clear of it, there’s still plenty here for more traditional fans of the long-running series.
“The concept of freely flying the skies and taking down enemies at will has not changed,” he says. “Also, the experience of feeling that you are the ‘Ace pilot’ by overcoming difficult situations hasn't changed either.
“Even though the shape [of the game] might have changed to fit the era, the philosophy and sense of the developers has not changed its nature.”
Stop, chopper time
By far the most striking part of my time with Ace Combat is when the action shifts from the skies over a shiny urban metropolis to those over the dusty plains of an African locale. Here I must provided Black Hawk air-support to ground troops hoping to rescue an ally major being held captive in nearby town.
The chopper excels at air-to-ground assault: hovering steady, able to pivot more or less on the spot and bank left and right in small, precise movements it enables me to pick off of an assortment of ground troops and armoured vehicles.
Staying still makes you vulnerable, however, and what initially seems like a simple case of raining down death from above, with the ability to lock onto multiple targets and spy out enemy troops taking cover behind bunkers or in narrow spaces between dilapidated buildings, soon sees the odds rebalanced as rocket propelled grenades are fired with alarming regularity and accuracy and must be dodged by way of a nifty roll manoeuvre.
Moving towards a nearby town, the allied ground troops begin to roll in and require assistance to clear a route to their intended target so that they can extract the major. The action ramps up with larger, more densely populated pockets of resistance requiring frequent evasive action whilst laying down cover fire.
New tactics here require the use of the buildings as cover, hovering just below the skyline and flanking groups of enemies as they seek to disrupt the ground troop convoy. Played from the cockpit view it turns the mission into something akin to a tense, strategic FPS level.
Lighting up multiple targets with a payload of five rockets and watching them decimated in slow motion is thrilling and any lack of empowerment I initially felt during the fast and furious combat of the jet fighter is redressed here with more considered, finely honed control.
"I believe everyone will be surprised with the sense of speed compared to past Ace Combat titles" - director Kazutoki Kono
Modern warfare on the assault horizon?
Alongside jets and combat helicopters the game will see you also take control of bombers, whilst a stint as a door gunner will provide what will presumably be an on-rails shooting section.
With a switch to real-world locations and a war drama storyline penned by military author Jim DeFelice the Ace Combat series is receiving its most dramatic overhaul to date. Despite the seemingly radical departure from its roots, Kono rules out the possibility of a splintering of the franchise, similar to that seen with Call of Duty and Modern Warfare.
“The Project Aces team is smaller than many will imagine, we don't have enough manpower to create two franchises on console.”
Whilst Ace Combat Assault Horizon won’t register on everybody’s radar it will likely win new fans with its more cinematic combat experience and variety of aircraft, but Kono is optimistic that there will be something for both new and existing fans of the franchise.
“Once you play the game I believe everyone will be surprised with the sense of speed compared to past Ace Combat titles ... Once you take it in your hands, you will instantly be able to understand that this is a challenging Ace Combat title from none other than Project Aces.”
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is due for release on PS3 and 360 on 11 October in the US and 14 October in PAL territories.