I beat Ace Combat: Assault Horizon this evening. (Looking at the clock, it’s nearly 2am… I guess I was enjoying myself, huh.)
I’ve already said a lot of the things I want to say about this game in yesterday’s post, but having played the whole thing through from start to finish now, I feel I can talk about it with a bit more confidence.
The thing I most want to talk about, I think, is what it was clearly going for and whether or not it was successful.
What it was clearly attempting to go for was a dramatic military-style story with a personal angle. And, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it failed. Not miserably, but it still fell very short of what I can only assume were the team’s ambitions.
To put this in context for those of you unfamiliar with the game, let me explain a little. The majority of Assault Horizon casts you in the role of Colonel Bishop, an ace fighter pilot who is wracked with recurring nightmares about facing off against a “shark-faced” rival ace. (Indeed, the first level is a dream sequence that — spoiler — you re-enact for real later in the game, only things turn out a little differently.) Bishop becomes embroiled in a war between the free world (the real world, unlike many other Ace Combat titles) and an army of Russian rebels. (This latter aspect allows the game to follow the Unwritten Law of Jet Fighter Games, which is that you must spend the majority of your time shooting down MiG-29s and SU-27s.) Said Russian rebels have access to a weapon called “Trinity” — an incredibly powerful nuclear device that you see the devastating effects of firsthand in several of the early levels. Naturally, it’s up to Bishop to put a stop to all this nonsense by flying shiny planes very fast and blowing lots of things up.
Except it’s not just up to Bishop; there are also a couple of other characters who provide a vehicle (no pun intended) for the other types of mission you’ll be flying aside from air-to-air combat and air-to-ground assaults. One guy flies helicopters, so you get to play as him during the helicopter missions; the token ladypilot flies bombers, so you get to play as her during the few bombing missions — including a pretty cool “stealth” one where you have to avoid enemy radar cones.
The setup is fairly interesting, then; Bishop has the potential to be an intriguing character, confronting his own personal demons over the course of the story and developing into someone “human” as it progresses. Unfortunately, this potential is left largely unrealised; a short monologue at the end of the game suggests that he has learned something from his experiences, but the rest of the game’s narrative really didn’t make that particularly clear.
Things are worse with the other characters, who pretty much only appear to be there for the sake of it. Ladypilot is shoehorned into a rather hasty apparent romance plot in the final scenes of the game, having spent the rest of the game showing no form of interest in Bishop whatsoever, and Helicopter Man is… well, he flies helicopters.
Perhaps the biggest wasted opportunity is the “villain”, who is teased a little early in the game — the “shark-faced” pilot from Bishop’s dreams — and then introduced rather hastily towards the end. He’s given little in the way of explanation, and his own personal motivations are pretty much used to bludgeon the player over the head with to say “This! Is! Why! He’s! Evil!” at one point. He’s a pain in the arse to shoot down in the final mission, so there’s a certain degree of personal satisfaction in blowing him up, but this finale could have been so much more interesting if there were a lot more interaction between him and Bishop throughout the game. It is a poor antagonist who only reveals himself in the final chapters of a story, and it leaves Markov feeling like a rather weak adversary for Bishop.
Despite all that I’ve said above, however, Assault Horizon was an enjoyable experience in the way that a good action movie (with equally ill-defined characters) is. The missions were varied and fun — though a couple dragged on a little too long — and the presentation throughout was immaculate; the PC version looks lovely, and the action is accompanied by some wonderful music and excellent voice acting just to add to the whole “movie-like” feel.
It’s just a pity so many opportunities for interesting narrative development were squandered, leaving the whole experience feeling a bit hollow afterwards. I’m not sorry I played it, as on the whole I did enjoy it immensely, but now my appetite has been well and truly whet for the earlier — apparently much better — installments in the Ace Combat series, which hopefully I will be getting my hands on very soon.