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Air combat games are not my forte; in fact, I’m completely unfamiliar with them. Fortunately, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon seemed sympathetic to my inexperience, and while dramatic, its opening sequence eased me into the seat of Colonel Bishop, American pilot and leader of the Warwolf squadron. Some things are clear from the get-go: first, this game is fast-paced and demanding, and pursuing enemy planes can be frighteningly intense; second, it’s probably one of the most cinematic warfare games ever created, from its gorgeous cutscenes to its phenomenal soundtrack. We’ll talk about the multiplayer later. For now, let’s keep talking about the single-player campaign.

Opting for what seemed like a dose of originality, the first real mission in the game establishes that you’re part of a NATO force involved in a UN-sanctioned peace-keeping operation in an unspecified part of Eastern Africa. The story is relayed through inter-mission cutscenes set on the ground, and the characters are developed through random touches of conversation and radio chatter; surprisingly, the game does a good job of both. A lot of the credit probably has to go to the voice acting team for that. The English localisation has been fully voiced by a range of professional American actors, none of which I recognise, but each of which delivers a distinguished identity to their characters.

I actually found myself moved by my allies’ uncomfortably close brushes with death in the game’s more emotionally powerful portions. Being so focussed on its presentation, though, it soon becomes clear that the single-player campaign is almost entirely scripted. You’re free to fly around in the large but ultimately restricted mission area and engage whatever enemy aircraft you can find, but the close-combat dogfights will see you skirting around scenery along a presumably predetermined path to take out your target. The air-to-ground strikes are even worse offenders, with an established start and end point to which you must adhere in order to pull off the attack. That’s not to say there’s no strategy involved, though.

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Dogfights and air strikes only apply to combat with a plane, and while most of your time in a plane will be spent in either Dog Fight Mode or Air Strike Mode, you’ll also have to avoid missiles, make counter-manoeuvres against enemies on your tail, and defend ally units to the best of your ability. Aligning HUD elements in order to pull off manoeuvres works surprisingly well, and there are even a handful of times in which you’ll have to use a guided landing system to ground your aircraft. One mission sees you defend three transport planes filled with medicine and doctors as they attempt to land on a besieged airstrip, and keeping all three intact is so challenging, there’s a silver PSN Trophy awarded for managing to safely land the first.

Not all missions are carried out in a plane, either; the game boasts a diverse range of aircraft and weapons, and while each mission will force you to take a plane, helicopter, gunship, or bomber as necessary, you’ll be free to choose specifics prior to each mission start. Different aircraft have different stats, which you can compare and examine, and then fit with a weapon of your choice, each optimised for different numbers of targets, or designed primarily for either air or ground and sea units. You can adapt your plane to your strategy this way; the players who prefer to play defensively and evade enemy attacks can adopt a high-speed plane, whereas others can choose planes with high defence and strong firepower, while sacrificing dexterity.

The greatest disappointment is probably the frequency with which alternative aircraft appears in the single-player campaign. While it’s obvious that the game focusses on the combat from a plane, which is easily the most developed type of play from a combat perspective, this leads to some fairly repetitive gameplay, only occasionally interrupted with a more interesting and unique mission. The AC-130U gunship, for example, is the favoured aircraft of lone female character Janice Rehl, but still only appears in one mission towards the end of the campaign. The second mission in the entire campaign sees you as a door gunner in a helicopter, which is something like an on-rails shooter, but you’ll only enjoy that opportunity twice.

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Flight controls, for the most part, aren’t challenging to get to grips with, but the differences in controls between each class of aircraft is slightly jarring. One mission might see you as door gunner in a combat helicopter, which means you’re firing on ground units with controls akin to your typical first-person shooter; the next, you’ll be piloting an aircraft, and the vertical axis becomes inverted by default, so that you’ll tug the stick down to pull up. The controls for each individual play-type are well fitted and easily adjusted, even if they seem a little under-responsive at times, but the transition between them is uncomfortable and awkward.

Perhaps this is most true for moving from planes to helicopters; while R1 is an innocent accelerate button on a plane, this is the special weapon fire on a helicopter. An attempt to accelerate therefore becomes a deadly and unexpected attack, and unreliable muscle memory in the midst of air combat is an unfortunate disadvantage. The L1 and R1 button combination for evading a missile strike in a helicopter is also unfortunately misinterpreted as R1’s special weapons fire uncomfortably often, most notably when the missile indicator appears on-screen for only a fraction of a second before disappearing. When that indicator’s gone, suddenly the button combination no longer exists, and you’ll lose valuable special weapons ammunition.

In a plane, the most common aircraft in the single-player campaign, you’ll probably take out most units in either Dog Fight Mode or Air Strike Mode; in the former, you tail a unit for long enough to bring up a green targeting reticule, and then hitting L2 and R2 at the same time will bring them into close-combat engagement. An “assault circle” appears, and by keeping the enemy inside the circle, you’ll charge up homing missiles to fire at them; firing at the enemy with your on-board machine gun also renders them sluggish, and easier to follow. It’s possible to take out some targets without entering a dogfight by simply firing missiles when a red targeting reticule appears, but all the key air battles involve this mode.

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Air Strike Mode, on the other hand, starts when plays approach a green triangular “ASM entry point” and hit L2 and R2. This aligns the plane with an assault path which the player is encouraged to follow, while firing upon ground or sea units on either side. It’s difficult to fire upon ground or sea units from the air without the danger of crashing into water or terrain if you’re not in Air Strike Mode, so in some ways it’s vital; nevertheless, it’s another of the more linear gameplay inclusions. Some key moments require you to enter an ASM point marked red instead of green, which signifies that you’ll have only one shot at it, or else the mission will fail immediately, throwing you back to the previous checkpoint.

In a helicopter, the control scheme changes altogether. Since helicopters can hover, the left analogue stick is used for precise movement, and X and O assigned to descend and ascend respectively. Holding L2 will focus on an enemy, making helicopters the only aircraft with which you can actually “lock on” in the traditional gaming sense, and R1 and R2 become special weapons fire and machine gun fire respectively. I already mentioned the jarring change in controls from plane to helicopter; the switch from X to R2 for machine gun fire is possibly the most unnecessary change of all. The AC-130U gunship is biggest departure from the plane combat, dropping shells from 120mm to 25mm from a high altitude, controlled through a thermal camera display. This is Rehl’s flagship aircraft, and you’ll also take control of her for a stealth bomber mission deeper into the campaign, easily one of the hardest missions in the campaign.

By now, you understand the diversity of the single-player campaign; I’ve barely touched the surface of the missions it holds, and I don’t want to divulge any details of the constantly changing plot, which takes players through Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and America’s mainland itself. After beating mission, you can access them again under “Free Mission” mode to replay them with any unlocked aircraft you like and have your efforts ranked, or tackle them online with a friend in “Mission Co-op”. Disappointingly, Assault Horizon doesn’t feature any local multiplayer options, but there’s a huge amount of fun to be had competitively and co-operatively online. It’s a little strange that there aren’t any unique maps for online, only adaptations of locations from the single-player campaign, but they make for a fun distraction nonetheless.

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Aside from the self-explanatory “Mission Co-op”, Assault Horizon promises three competitive online modes: Deathmatch, Capital Conquest, and Domination. The first is also fairly obvious, taking the form of a free-for-all air battle in which the winner is the player with the most kills. Capital Conquest provides more opportunities to go into Air Strike Mode by placing players into two teams and challenging them to destroy each other’s base; Domination also sees players split into two teams struggle to capture ground bases by providing air cover for a long enough time for ground units to occupy them. Playing statistics are tracked and can be viewed from the menu.

Gameplay aside, the aesthetic is laudable; visually, the game is stunning. While the high-octane air battles prove this with their gorgeous environments and weather effects, there’s little time to stop and appreciate the detail until you’re in one of the ground-based cutscenes, with the game’s primary cast of characters running around and exchanging casual banter, and then making their way to serious briefings while things are happening all around. Some of the battle situations have scripted sequences in which buildings collapse, and the slow-motion killcams that appear after destroying an opponent are immensely satisfying, but the flaming wreckage of a plane skimming the air above your parked aircraft and crashing in a glorious explosion in an early portion of the single-player campaign remains one of the most impressive sights in Assault Horizon.

The sound design has to be mentioned as well. Not only is the soundtrack itself apt and well-crafted, and kindly included on a CD in our review kit, it’s strangely complemented by the beeps and alerts from dogfights and incoming missiles, and the explosions of enemy aircraft. In surround sound, it’s probably outstanding; out of our television’s speakers, it’s still formidable. Some of the tracks carry the influence of the game’s initial Eastern African setting married with the harsh guitar of heavy metal and industrial rock, whereas other tracks, such as those approaching the campaign’s conclusion, fall back on the well-established foundations of grand orchestras, with violins and cymbal crashes serving only to make an intense moment carry an even stronger aura of heroism.

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You don’t have to be an American ultra-patriot to enjoy the narrative of the single-player campaign, and the online mode promises some extraordinary fun, so it’s hard to fault Assault Horizon on those points. The jarring change in controls and the occasional misinterpretation of button combinations are minor annoyances, but they’re easily cancelled out by the intensely fun dogfights and the more deviant missions. The campaign is only about six hours long, and some of that feels a little padded; it would have been nice to see unique missions like the AC-130U support mission and the door gunner more frequently, instead of repetitive plane dogfights, but the strong narrative and character development helped carry it anyway.

Ultimately, even gamers who aren’t typically into air combat titles might find something to enjoy here; there’s an insane number of collectables and a considerable count of Trophies for the player who enjoys a challenge, and the depth of the single-player story should sate those who enjoy a well-scripted action game. Whether you’re drawn in by the adrenaline-pumping airborne action, or you simply want to pretend you’re in Top Gun, I’d recommend Assault Horizon without hesitation.