In the context of an action flight simulator like Ace Combat, the first two of those points are almost automatically assured. The question is just how much "more" producer Kazutoki Kono and his team have managed to pour into the game.
As early as the first real mission over the East African desert, its clear that this is not a flight simulator: it's an action game with aircraft. Many of the missions start directly in the air. There are three perspectives to choose from and a lot of enemies to shoot down. To take 'em out though, you can't rely on long-range strikes, not even air-to-air missiles. Instead, we've got the dogfighting version of melee attacks, up close and very personal.
Up pops a small circle around the enemy, and with a touch of both shoulder buttons soy initiate Dogfight mode. Once we are locked to the enemy, we stick close to him. Only through breakneck manoeuvres has he a chance to shake us off and avoid being killed.
In some places the game goes a step further with the Close-Range Assault system. This deprives the player of aircraft control, automated systems kicking in to allow you to concentrate on shooting with machine gun and homing missiles. In these sequences we rush through narrow gorges and valleys. The missiles are flying right and left, concrete and rocks crumbling, and the aircraft almost touches trees and rooftops, our target weaves ahead of us in a desperate flight for survival. One last missile transforms him into a spectacular fireball, while our F16 Fighting Falcon rushes towards the sky. Time for a deep breath.
Assault Horizon's wealth of craft impress with their lifelike details and movements - even as control over them is engagingly easy. Heat waves from jet engines, airflow adjustments, afterburner - everything looks great.
When an aircraft rolls to shake pursuers or chase opponents, the illusion is completely convincing. The game also boasts some excellent sound design, the sound of air war delivering on a grand scale. In addition, motion blur and angular zoom effects perfectly set the mood. The entire game feels incredibly vivid and overwhelming. The entire colour palette used in stages are never boring...as long as one doesn't stray too close to the surface.
For there are some visual limitations. A lot of time has went into the satellite imagery, and for the most it works: when you sit high above the city, everything looks fine. But if you look at the details, it soon became clear that the city resembles a projected version of Google Maps.
Destructible environments are just embedded in scripted sequences. Outside the cities, we have not the playground of destruction, such as what Battlefield offers, and neither the 888 meter high Burj 'al Kalifa or Burj' al Arab hotels in Dubai will suffer so much as a scratch if attacked. The same obviously applies to the civilian aircraft encountered occassionally among the clouds.
Then there Airstrike mode. A AWACS radar plane sends a route that we can choose to follow. When reaching the launchpad for this route, the game switches to an on-rail mode where we fly low over the ground and only have to concentrate on shooting. Particularly good kills are rewarded with sequences from the Direct Impact camera. It's a static affair, but the presentation works and it never gets boring. "A faster gameplay with more empathy," Kono has called it. Airstrike mode is similar to Hawx 2, but with better choreography and therefore more intense.
Assault Horizon not only includes jets from different eras, but also allows you to fly helicopters for the first time in the series. You got two options to play with: pilot and shoot, or handle the 25mm machine gun. The heavily armed helicopters act the same as any similar appearance in an FPS title. You have your gun, rockets, and can also throw bombs. The gameplay is significantly slower in the helicopters, but no less intense for that very reason. Dust swirls in the air when the bullets from your 25mm cannon hits the ground. Enemy tanks explode and helicopters rip to shreds when the rockets from your AH-64D Apache Longbow strike. There's sometimes a little too much showboating to the effects - especially in scripted sequences when you only control the cannon. But usually it is beautifully set up.
And then there's the famous AC-130U Spooky. In Mogadishu, we must protect a settlement. As always, it is evil and impersonal when you shoot from this flying fortress of an aircraft. It is no great challenge, but it fits in with the campaign's concept of letting one try as many different aircraft types as possible.
A late twist in the game's story bumps up the difficulty level. At that point air battles tend to last a trifle too long, which can get on your nerves. It'll be necessary - and invaluable - to utilise counter-manoeuvres vigourously. Fail to shake a pursuer and you'll have to suffer replaying long sequences again and again due to the game's checkpoint system.
But Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is more than just its campaign. The flight mechanics - Close-Range Assault, Dogfight and Airstrike - are also available in multiplayer. Skill sets ensures fair duels as they enhance individual jets' performances and balanced out by halting ability improvements once you've reached a certain level. There are four game types: Conquest Capital, where each team must destroy the Servizi Headquarters, as well as Domination, Deathmatch and co-op missions. The last one is especially good in the helicopter.
While the game has certain hallmarks of the action genre - long cinematic intro followed by brief training mission, a fast-paced generic story and a rotating cast of characters, it's the aircraft and the action in the skies above that really count. No matter which craft you pilot - Mirage 2000-5 or a MiG-21, you'll find that the game soars when you're roaring through the air. Assault Horizon is an intense, fast, beautiful and well-made action game.