“I saw my death in my dreams, many times. But I didn’t die. I was better than my fears. Better than my nightmares. But to find out, I had to face them all. I had to get through the worst to prove I was the best. That was my reality.” —Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop
The second half to Ace Combat: Assault Horizon sees a support mission to help transports land, a night bombing run against ICBM facilities to prevent launches from occuring, and another chance to pilot the AH-64 Apache against the rebel forces under a snowy day in Moscow. After the next Trinity warhead is set off over suburban Moscow, it’s a race to stop Markov before he destroys a major American city, culminating in a harrowing dogfight over Washington D.C. After shooting down Markov and stopping the Trinity warhead, I sigh with relief and enjoy the fact that I’d just beaten my first Ace Combat game ever, curiously enough, on a grey, snowy day. After I set down the keyboard, I gaze out the window, and think to myself that it wouldn’t be out of place for some CF-18s to be flying overhead on some exercises.
- Why are there thirty screenshots for a game that I’ve already reviewed in parts? The second half of the game has its share of exciting moments and breathtaking landscapes, so for this final reflections post, I’ve opted to go with thirty screenshots, the same standard for full game and movie reviews. Mission nine is set at Belyi air base, which is modeled after the Belya air base in Russia’s Irkutsk Oblast, located just north of Mongolia. The actual airbase is in a region with more grasslands compared to the Assault Horizon depiction, and although there are forests and hills in the vicinity, the forests are less dense than the ones seen in-game.
- The F-35B is one of the usable aircraft in this mission: built to replace the F-16 and F/A-18, the F-35 is a single-engine multirole aircraft. The B variant has short-takeoff-and-landing capabilities like the Harrier. Because this mission is a ground mission, I chose to equip the LAGM, which performs reasonably well against groups of ground targets. The cannon is actually quite effective, as well, and for ground missions, using conventional missiles is enough to get the job done.
- The overall character of the Russian forests are heavy with history and inspire a sense of intrigue, bringing to mind everything from the settlement by the first Russian explorers to the region construction of the Trans-Siberian railway. Even though Canada has a sizable boreal forest as well, the nation’s relatively short history means that here, the forests are a natural beauty, and that’s about it.
- Mission ten is another airstrike mission; this time, the goal is to rescue the Russian Prime Minister, who was captured by the rebel faction, and I take absolute joy in taking out the ground targets using rocket pods. The A-10 Thunderbolt II is one of my favourite aircraft for its legendary durability and GAU-8/A 30mm cannon.
- While it’s hardly realistic for rocket pods to sink a frigate, I could roll with something like this in an arcade game where fun is more critical than realism. Initially, rockets and missiles won’t work against the frigate, which has a tight close-in weapons system network: Colonel Bishop suggests saturation fire to overwhelm the systems, and in the ensuing chaos, the frigate is sunk.
- This mission is strictly an anti-ground mission: other aircraft will be keeping the skies clear. Upon closer inspection of this image, note the shock-wave emanating from the damaged frigate. This subtle detail adds a nice touch to the explosions, bringing to mind the high-speed camera shots of explosions in Mythbusters. While in real time, explosions appear instantaneous, re-watching the same explosion in real time really highlights the complex mechanisms that fuel every explosion.
- The night bombing mission was quite enjoyable, as well. The first bit of the mission is to reach the designated bombing point in within the time limit, taking care to stay out of the radar’s range. This mission evokes feelings of tension, bringing to mind the US aerial reconnaissance missions over the USSR in the early 1950s, when intelligence on Soviet forces was not available and the American leaders had wished to assess the size of their new enemy’s forces.
- These early missions were strictly reconnaissance, and the B-47 Stratojets flying these missions were not armed. The first mission was carried out in 1952 to great success, although in later years, the Soviets began intercepting these flights, prompting the US to design higher-flying reconnaissance aircraft. While thrilling, such a mission would be quite dull in Ace Combat, and as such, players will instead participate ina night bombing campaign to take out ICBM silos under enemy control.
- The first three bombing runs are to take our surface targets with unguided bombs, and the second set of runs use special guided penetration bombs to hit the silos. Care must be taken to ensure all targets are hit, and so, it is advisable to saturate an area with bombs so that no stone is left unturned; there is only one chance per run, and failing sends the player back quite a ways. To further survival, flares can be dumped to throw off the surface-to-air missiles; dumping flares with the B-1 Lancer here produces a rather impressive visual show that looks somewhat similar to the ‘angel wings’ flare pattern that arises when an AC-130 dumps flares.
- Where I live, there are snowy days like these that white out everything. On days like these, I prefer staying home and relaxing with a cup of hot cocoa while watching the storm progress, but more often than not, storms happen on the weekdays, and so, I brave the elements on my way to campus. Having grown up in a nation where it’s winter for half the year, I consider minus sixteen to be quite warm: sometimes, temperatures drop below minus forty with windchill for weeks at a time, and so, minus sixteen feels very mild by comparison.
- The AH-64 Apache makes a return, and this time, the ground targets are tougher, consisting of enemy tanks, howitzers and missile batteries. Hinds are also common in this mission, so I’ve opted to equip anti-air missiles rather than the Hellfire missiles I used in the previous helicopter mission. The rockets and chain gun do a satisfactory job, so I figured that balancing my load out and adding anti-air capacities would be more beneficial.
- It was a winter’s day during the Christmas break many years ago, and I was at the local mall’s Sony store, where they were showcasing the then-bleeding edge PlayStation 2. There was a third person shooter set on a cold, snowy, forested map, and try as I might, I still haven’t been able to find the game. It might be Syphon Filter: Omega Strain, although with no reference points (such as YouTube playthroughs), I won’t be able to confirm that for sure.
- It’s times like these that make the anti-air missiles useful: they deal enough damage to the Hinds such that the Hinds can be subsequently brought down with the chain gun without much difficulty. While the ground targets are more numerous and dangerous in this mission, constantly moving about and making use of the rocket pods will do the trick nicely enough, and the Hellfire missiles aren’t needed.
- Dubbed “Motherland”, the aim of this mission is to defeat the rebels and allow the Loyalist forces to retake Moscow. After defeating the enemy radar units and mopping up the rebel ground forces, it seems like victory is near, but then a Trinity warhead goes off in the suburbs.
- Focus returns to Colonel Bishop, who leads Warwolf squadron in defeating the Blackjack bombers that are headed towards Moscow. By this point, I’ve unlocked the F-22, and have equipped it with the 4AAMs, which allow me to target multiple enemies at range quickly. The skies in Aftermath recall the occasional winter clearings during a storm, where a bit of sunlight makes it through the snow clouds.
As noted countless times previously, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon excels with the atmospherics in-game, while maintaining engaging gameplay. While dogfight mode (DFM) might be required to take down certain aircraft, everything else can be defeated traditionally; this is particularly satisfying, to see one’s missiles streak off towards a distant target, and watching the ensuing explosion from the enemy aircraft. Despite what the critics may think, DFM allows for a much more engaging experience: in most games with flight combat, air battles quickly devolve into circling an enemy repeatedly without firing a shot. Similarly, I thoroughly loved the airstrike mode (ASM), which allows for ground targets to be targeted more efficiently in a single run. In other Ace Combat games, the only way was to look for target indicators and strafe them, but here, multiple targets can be determined and destroyed efficiently. The controls for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon were originally designed to be used by a console controller, and since I’m a PC gamer through and through, I don’t happen to have a controller handy, but I can see how a controller would make the game easier. Though I’ve gotten quite used to a keyboard-only control for flight, there are moments where I wished there was more precision.
- The ominous mushroom cloud from Trinity’s explosion can be seen in the distance: from the looks of it, it’s probably a 5 kiloton warhead. Criticism directed was directed at the weapon: some felt that the weapon was a nuclear weapon in all but name, although the fact is that sufficiently large explosions, nuclear or not, will produce a mushroom cloud because the explosion produces a blast wave and fireball that would draw air upwards, including dust and debris from the ground. The mass of dust and hot gas rises until it reaches an equilibrium, forming the distinct mushroom structure.
- While some enemies cannot be defeated with weaponry outside of dogfight mode (they’re either invincible until a scripted event or will drop flares), ordinary opponents (labelled TGT) can be shot down from a distance in the same manner as more traditional Ace Combat games.
- Guts is a very capable wingman and pilot, helping Colonel Bishop out of tight spots and astutely spots that of the Blackjack bombers, only five were destroyed. Given that they traditionally flew in sixes, he lets Colonel Bishop know that a sixth bomber could be arriving, and sure enough, one carrying the Trinity warhead appears. The priority is to shoot the bomber down first as quickly as possible, rather than wasting time on the escort fighters. Once the bomber is destroyed, Bishop will engage Markov a second time and seemingly defeats him in the process.
- We finally come a full circle back to Miami, where the game first began. By now, having played through thirteen missions, initiating and disengaging from DFM has become intuition, and I’m finding myself a much more effective pilot than I was when I first started playing this game.
- Because last time, I didn’t showcase any of the DFM sequences, I’ve opted to do so here. Over the skies of Miami, the fighters marked TGT_LEAD must be taken out by DFM, although even then, some of them will only go down from a scripted event, rather than from any of the munitions the player fires into them. The fastest way to determine whether or not a plane will be defeated in a scripted sequence, I prefer using the cannon.
- One such example is the fighter that ends up colliding with a construction crane, forcing Bishop to fly under it as it collapses. These moments are quite cinematic and, though we are only watching it happen, it nonetheless adds a bit of rush to the game, whereas traditional Ace Combat games didn’t have this element.
- This is my last DFM image, I promise: the Miami mission has a particularly large number of these. I’m not quite sure if I mentioned it or not in the first post, but one DFM sequence takes players unnaturally close to the cargo cranes over the seaport. Most enemies in the game can be engaged via DFM and destroyed quite easily. Near the end of the mission, Markov appears, although this time, Guts takes the missile and finds his plane disabled. A bit of sharp shooting using the cannon will save him.
- The penultimate mission involves chasing after Markov and Illich: the mission ends with Bishop engaging and defeating Illich. Right at the start of the mission, there are several small fry accompanying the two big fish: choosing the 4AAMs will allow most of them to be downed quickly, allowing Bishop to focus entirely on Markov and Illich.
- Despite the radio chatter, Markov will soon be out of range, leaving Bishop to engage Illich in an intense but brief duel in the eye of a hurricane. While this doesn’t really make sense, it is quite entertaining.
- We finally reach the last mission, set over Washington D.C. Even as Bishop joins the aerial combat, fighting has already broken out amongst the American forces and the remnants of the rebels. For now, there is no sign of Markov, but there are a lot of enemy aircraft to take care of. Casually note that there is an American vessel called the USS Anzio. The Girls und Panzer OVA (“Against Anzio!”) is set for release on July 5, and I will try to get out a set of screenshots and review lickety-split.
- While there’s no time to enjoy the sights over Washington D.C., the city is accurately represented, and so, the White House, Capitol Building, Washington Monument and National Mall are visible. I was here on vacation nearly three years ago, and I must say that it was quite enjoyable to fly over a virtual Washington D.C. again, under what appear to be evening skies.
- As with Moscow, Blackjack bombers approach. If one is equipped with the 4AAMs, one volley, plus two more heat-seekers will be enough to down them, and those with über-micro can engage them from a distance without the need to engage DFM, saving some time.
- The final fight in Assault Horizon isn’t one of the classic tunnel flights from earlier Ace Combat games, but rather, a protracted duel against Markov. Part of the appeal about the older Ace Combat games, especially The Unsung War was the unique combination of flying through a tunnel to destroy the SOLG’s controls, then taking to the skies on the morning of New Year’s Eve to destroy the SOLG and prevent it from taking out Osea’s capital city. Here, the ending is rather more conventional, as it is set in the real world; besides the controls with low sensitivity, the lack of a tunnel mission would be the two main disappointments in what is otherwise a welcome instalment of Ace Combat.
- Markov is technically invincible until he makes one final run on the White House. Before that, firing at him with weapons deals no damage, and Markov reciprocates in kind with his homing missiles, which can track Bishop even if the latter is behind him. The fastest way to rectify this is to disengage from DFM when a missile warning appears, and re-engage as soon as possible. Once the White House is reached, Markov can finally be taken down, although he fires the last Trinity warhead before crashing. The game closes once the Trinity warhead is destroyed: sustained cannon fire from the F-22’s internally mounted M61A2 vulcan will eventually trigger the final cutscene where a 20mm round cuts through the warhead and causes it to explode harmlessly over the National Mall’s reflecting pool.
- With this, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon comes to a close, and I’ve finally completed my first ever Ace Combat game. This was one heck of an experience, and now, I’ve unlocked all of the missions for replay. There are definitely some missions I liked more than others, and I will probably go back and play through them again during the winter. There is a multiplayer component to Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, and although the game has now been updated to work with Steam, I’m not sure if I’ll try that or not, given that my current attention is focused on Battlefield 3 for the present.
While the controls are more stiff than is preferred for an arcade flight game, everything else about Ace Combat: Assault Horizon handles and feels good. The visuals do an incredible job of contributing to every mission’s identity; whether it be Moscow, Washington D.C., the Caucasus mountains or Miami, each mission is unique. The planes feel powerful, and it is immensely satisfying to blow aircraft apart in DFM, before watching the remnants fly past one’s screen. The soundtrack, a mixture of orchestral and rock pieces, is quite enjoyable: the tracks “Release” and “Mrs. Krista Yoslav” stand out, evoking a sense of tension and haunting associated with Markov and intense aerial battles. All of these elements come together to yield a game that acts as a fun installment to the Ace Combat series; even if the game does step away from more traditional elements, Assault Horizon winds up being a pretty enjoyable game for those looking to try out an Ace Combat game on PC (more so after mastering the sometimes-frustrating controls).