Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy (3DS)

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy could have ended up anywhere on the spectrum of very good games to very poor games. On the one hand, it’s a fighter flight sim. Heavy on the arcade action, yes, but these games are traditionally unwieldy. Far too unwieldy for the paltry number of buttons the 3DS boasts.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a genre that benefits more from the 3D effect. Landscapes are at the best of times bland and boring in fighter flight sims, but on the 3DS they suddenly acquire an scenic quality that makes them that much more enjoyable to fly over. And, when the action heats up, having bullets and enemy planes whooshing around in 3D is a sight that would make Michael Bay weep.

Thankfully, Ace Combat didn’t suffer from the 3DS’s potential failings with this genre. Namco Bandai did a great job of scaling back the controls to a bare minimum, and then mapping them effectively to the 3DS. With large hands, the likes of Mario Kart 7 can give me cramps after long play sessions. This did not happen with Ace Combat.

Not that it’s a game that demands long play sessions. Missions are short and sharp, and lacking multiplayer as it does, Ace Combat is over far too quickly. There’s some score attack modes to return to, and an in-game currency to use to buy better planes and more deadly weapons, but this is a game best experienced in short bursts.

Despite this minimalism, there’s a surprisingly wide range of things to do in Assault Horizon. One level will be entirely dog-fight based, while another will have you bombing land-based targets on a coastal city. Still another mission will have you protecting said city once it has been captured. Missions are delivered in amateur but mercifully brief sound bytes, and what passes for a story takes place there. The game didn’t really need a story of course, so it was wise of Namco Bandai to effectively let players go with little more than the command to “just go kill stuff.”

That stuff is marked on the player’s radar, and tracking down enemies is an easy task of following the dots. Killing those enemies is a greater challenge. As befits a game of combat in the sky, enemies are highly mobile, and the AI is smart enough to know that flying in a straight line is a bad idea. You’ll need to make good use of speed and high-G turning to get a proper lock on an enemy, and even then there’s no guarantee that the enemy will be hit by your missiles.

The best strategy is to get a lock on an enemy and then stay with him long enough for an on-screen meter to fill. When it does that, a simple tap of a button turns the autopilot on and positions your plane in the prime real estate right behind the enemy’s tail. While the game does still present a challenge, flight combat purists are going to be put right off by this arcade solution to make the game more accessible for genre newbies, but the result is just that; a more accessible game. As someone who has never been able to wrap his mind around the “real deal,” Ace Combat is a good alternative.

Ultimately, this is a good game that falls ever so slightly short of brilliance. The problems – the brevity of the missions, lack of multiplayer and shallow arcade depth are offset admirably by the sheer thrill of playing the game in 3D, but fingers crossed a sequel delivers, at the minimum, online dogfighting.



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