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Ace Combat: Assault Horizon preview

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Ace Combat has been a popular flight combat series for many years, but the more recent entries have gotten a little lazy. Not bad so much, more… unchanging. Thank Ubisoft and its H.A.W.X. series for giving Namco Bandai and Project Aces a reason to head back to the old drawing board. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon isn’t so different from its predecessors that it’s been rendered unrecognizable, but a few new changes on both the creative side and the mechanical side promise to give longtime fans a taste of something new while creating a more appealing product for the average newcomer.

For starters, the anime stylings are gone in favor of a real-world setting and a story written by established author, Jim De Felice. The narrative wasn’t the subject of the demo I went hands-on with in New York City last week, but De Felice — who was in attendance — admitted that he’s been a fan of the Ace Combat games for many years. The idea in shifting to a more recognizable world is to give potential new fans an easy entry point. In terms of the gameplay though, it’s still all about being a badass in a fighter jet.

Assault Horizon introduces a range of new aircraft types, which in turn breeds a new approach to different missions. There are gunships and bombers, and opportunities to man mounted turrets while someone else handles the flying. These bits are meant to break things up a bit, so the game doesn’t end up feeling like a series of dogfights, one after the other. Two of the mission types were highlighted in my hands-on demo, a fairly standard jet mission pulled from an early part of the game and an attack chopper mission that sees you taking out anti-air emplacements and fortified enemy positions while providing cover for advancing friendly forces.

The chopper is easy to control, with the A and B buttons (on an Xbox 360 controller, though this will be the first entry in the series released for PlayStation 3) handling ascending and descending and the left analog stick handling X- and Y-axis movement. This frees up the right analog stick for moving your targeting reticule around when the left trigger is held down. Oddly, the controls all taken together give the chopper the vague feel of a first-person shooter, a feeling that is supported by the presence of snap-to aiming when the left trigger is pressed. You’ve got rockets and machine guns — this particular chopper did, anyway — and you can perform an evasive roll by pressing the two bumper buttons simultaneously when a pop-up appears on the screen.

The Africa mission I played was fairly straightforward, as you’re ordered to advance with an attack group of choppers and take out various on the ground targets. The challenge picks up a bit later on, after your forces have laid roots in the nearby African city. You must race between targets that appear on your radar and take them out before they can harm the on-the-ground friendlies. The mission culminates with a series of enemy chopper attacks. They went down easily enough, though this is admittedly one of the game’s earlier missions.

On the jet side, the basic controls should be familiar. Left and right triggers slow you down and speed you up, respectively, while face buttons handle jumping between targets, switching equipped missiles and firing your various weapons. There’s a new twist though, a visual mode called Close-Range Assault.

It’s simple, really. Target an enemy jet fighter — this only works for jet vs. jet showdowns — and get in close, close enough to position the green HUD circle over your target until it starts flashing. Once that’s happening, press RB and LB together and watch as the camera zooms in tight on the rear of your plane. You still have full control over your jet, but the sensitivity is dialed way down to allow you to more accurately keep your sights on target. Finally, jet-mounted machine guns are turned into a useful tool for destruction!

Enemies can also draw a lock on you, at which point a much larger flashing circle pops up on your screen. Much like the chopper, you have a limited amount of time to press LB and RB together before the attack finds your aircraft. Unlike the chopper, the jet’s evasive maneuver is designed to drop you in right behind the enemy that was just harassing you.

The jet mission showcased during my demo unfolded over the city of Miami. It should be noted that, while the environments look good, they are only minimally destructible. No matter how many enemy fighters you shoot down over Miami, the city will remain the same. And you will shoot down fighters over Miami; this mission saw the enemy jets arriving in waves, three or four at a time with one “flight leader” offering more of a challenge than its wingmates.

While nothing’s been confirmed yet, there’s hope that these two levels will make their way to consoles as a demo for the game. Multiplayer will be a component of the finished product, but Namco isn’t showing that off yet. The developer rep did confirm that the online portion of the game will feature a progression system in which players can earn points to boost their abilities. There will also, of course, be a variety of aircraft to unlock. Project Aces is still working out how those elements will fit in, but based on the two demo missions I played, the hardest work is done well in advance of the game’s planned October 11 launch.

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