Don't let this one fly under your radar.
After playing through the tutorial of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, a certain fact dawned upon me: This is a Japanese game. Even now, it's still hard for me to truly believe this, given how Western the title feels. Clearly, Namco Bandai was intending to capture the eyes and thumbs of a lot of the gaming audience that has gotten into modern military action over the past few years. Fortunately, Ace Combat relies on aerial vehicle combat to differentiate itself from the primarily infantry-based titles that have been swarming the market.
Set in the near future, Assault Horizon feels distinctly American in its tone, which will likely be a departure for those who've been following the series. Generally speaking, this decision was a wise one, though it's clear that its narrative follows the beaten path that many in its genre have tread. The characters are derivative, the plot is predictable, but it never crosses the line into cheese territory and never becomes annoying in any way. If weapons of mass destruction and evil Russian accents thrill you, then maybe you might care about the story.
At the end of the day, though, like most games of this nature, it comes down to the guns and the explosions. Project Aces is aware of that, as it's precisely these things that Assault Horizon gets right. The most prominent aspect of its campaign is its variety. While you'll fly a jet more than half of the time, there are a few helicopter levels, which play quite differently, as well as on-rails sections where you play as a gunner in a chopper or an overhead bomber, switching between guns for precision. Where other games may fail in this endeavor, however, Ace Combat pulls it off—each style of gunplay feels great and keeps the player attentive, ensuring you can get your “Hoorah!" on.
While each style of combat is enjoyable in its own right, the big adrenaline rushes and the sheer speed of the jet dogfights are the most satisfying. The control mechanics actually change up when you sneak behind an enemy plane and lock on; you steer the plane to keep an aiming circle around the target long enough to inflict heavy damage with either the machine gun or a missile. On occasion, the lock-on will steer you low, in between structures, creating some intense flight sequences. All of the gameplay mechanics of the jets and helicopters carries over to multiplayer as well, where everything functions the same way.
The campaign was longer than I expected, partially because the jet sections can get a bit dull and repetitious. Since most of these levels are in open air, and there's not really a lot of enemy variety, this style of combat can get boring when played for long periods of time. Multiplayer can liven things up, though, allowing you to replay certain campaign missions with other humans as a squad or in competitive matches that involve objectives such as deathmatch, bombing enemy buildings, or capturing control of airspace. Suffice it to say that if your skills aren't up to snuff, you will be getting toasted thoroughly by the competition.
With enough humans playing in one match (up to sixteen), things can get so crazy that the dullness that occurs in the campaign wears off. Points are earned across the multiplayer modes which can be spent on upgrading various elements. From what I could tell, none of these upgrades seemed to be overpowered, and some even seemed to have a drawback to balance out the benefit. If you want excuses to blow crap up after the campaign is over, the leaderboards for solo missions, co-op objectives, and competitive versus play will certainly round things out for you.
The presentation touches solidify the Westernized experience. The music pounds with electric guitar and sweeping strings to evoke recruitment commercials, various cut-scenes slap the camera into a first-person perspective, slowed down zoom-ins accent enemy takedowns, and radio chatter adds authenticity. You can even opt to pilot your vehicles from a cockpit view, if getting nauseous adds to the realism for you. I'm completely apathetic to all of this material but I still found it enjoyable and entertaining, so if you actively give a crap about the Air Force and can name a jet's model by looking at it, then this is clearly a game for you. There's even airplane porn in one of the menus, allowing you to ogle those jets to your heart's delight. You creeper.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon's story is on the bland side, despite having some interesting camera direction and detailed visual fidelity. Its combat can drag on with empty airspace and enemy patterns repeated over and over again. Aside from some scenes in the gunner seat of a helicopter, it's also missing large-scale set pieces that highlight games from this genre. But despite these setbacks, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does a lot right—and well, at that—to make it worth your time and money to jump into the cockpit. Give it a spin even if you're just an action shooter fan, but if you're specifically into the source material (i.e. dogfights, pew pew, vrrrmmm!), this is an experience you won't want to miss out on.
Review based on Xbox 360 version. Copy provided by publisher.