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    Ace Combat: Assault Horizon: Dogfight in The Danger Zone

    Growing up, I loved fighter jets, the open blue sky, and explosions. Aside from having an active imagination, I have Ace Combat to thank for that. Not sure how or why I acquired the first Ace Combat game back in 1995 - known then as Air Combat - but I did, and it was good. Fast forward to the year 2011, some 5 or 6 home console sequels later. Having not played any of Namco's recent air dominance titles, I wasn't too sure what to expect from Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. After having logged hours in the sky, I can easily say Assault Horizon offers a surprisingly complex and unique experience that I will continue to revisit in the next few weeks, even ahead of Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3.

    The story is told from the perspective of a few different parties who are part of the 108th Task Force, a military body comprised of NATO and Russian forces. These noble warriors are currently at war with Russian insurgents, who have acquired a weapon of mass destruction called Trinity, which has the capability to level entire cities. As the story progresses, the plot thickens, challenging the player to reconsider who to trust. You will be in control of a selection of unique vehicles, all modeled directly after their real life counterparts. The primary protagonist, Colonel William Bishop, sees the bulk of action in his iron eagle of choice, selected from a roster of international fighters and multirole jets. Secondary characters man helicopters, AC-130 gunship turrets, and dedicated bombers for segments that add a more varied experience, instead of throwing you into an infinite barrel roll of dogfights.

    9 months ago, this trailer sold me on Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. Thank Gods.

    Honestly, if Assault Horizon were nothing but jet-to-jet combat, I would not be mad. The gameplay has come a long way from how I remember it. As exhilarating as it is to chase an enemy fighter at near Mach speeds with missiles screaming through the sky, the inclusion of Dogfight Mode is a huge advancement in terms of pacing and action. What happens is, once you get close enough to an enemy, a prompt appears, indicating the player to press two buttons to initiate DFM. You automatically close in on the enemy, the camera take a tight angle behind your target, and the game pretty much becomes an on-rails shooter. Piss poor piloting or an evasive maneuver from your enemy will break DFM, so it's not a total stroll through the park. In DFM, the closer you are to your target, the more effective your machine gun, but it is also easier for your opponent perform a counter maneuver, so close distance cautiously. While in DFM mode, a targeting reticule will appear on screen, with the purpose being to keep your enemy in the reticule while a meter builds over the span of a few seconds. Once the meter has filled, fire a high accuracy missile for impressive damage. Switch between certain missile types and watch the camera shifts to provide the best possible cinematic view, in third person at least. This may all sound very easy, but I assure you it is not, especially against other ace pilots. It's called Ace Combat for a reason, baby.

    On the downside, DFM is scripted at times - meaning you have full control of your attacks, but the enemy will not be destroyed regardless of how many white hot vulcan rounds you put in their afterburner. It doesn't happen much, and when it does, it's usually to show something utterly ridiculous happen, like skimming past the Burj Dubai, or having a close call with Dolphins Stadium. Though you may feel powerless during these segments, that is offset by the sheer brilliance of these playable cinematics. These "mini-games" pop up on other occasions - an Air Strike Mode for destroying buildings, turrets, and tanks, for instance - though DFM easily steals the show.

    There is a good mix of time spent doing more than just dogfighting. Helicopter segments are a decided change of pace from the continual adrenaline rush of the dogfight. I don't mind the down-tick in action, but it seems the whirlybird missions move much too slowly; I caught myself waiting for what seemed like an eternity between enemy waves. Flying an F-22 is like snorting 2 lines of cocaine and immediately chugging a Four Loko, while piloting a helicopter is like smoking a Chamomile joint, comparatively. In addition, reacquainting yourself to a new set of controls is a bit challenging. By default, the face buttons become your navigation lifeline, with the shoulder buttons assuming weapon duty; the exact opposite to the control scheme of the jets. This can be reversed in the options so the two birds of war control a little closer to each other, however when piloting a chopper, the right stick leads your crosshair when in the button activated targeting mode - think of it as looking down the sights in an FPS. Leading your crosshair is not necessary, but it helps, especially when fighting moving targets. Manipulating the left stick, right stick, shoulder buttons, and face buttons simultaneously would take sick dexterity, and if you're able to pull that off, you should probably enroll at Xavier's School for Gifted Individuals.

    Once you've conquered the campaign, you should head into multiplayer for a spell. There are a few different modes to play, such as Capital Conquest and Domination, which will have you destroying and occupying enemy bases respectively. There is also a co-op mission mode, where you and a human wingman can take on any and all of the campaign scenarios. Though the star of multiplayer is undoubtedly Deathmatch, mostly because this is where you can find the most people. While I had a difficult time finding a full 8-on-8 match of Conquest or Domination, and could hardly even find a co-op mission, Deathmatch was overflowing with amped arcade aces, ready to take to the skies. The only option here is a 16 player free for all, it would have been nice to have a Team Deathmatch option. Credits earned from exceptional multiplayer performance can be used to tweak your avionic assault craft just the way you like. Stronger machine guns, larger missile capacity, automatic counter maneuvers, easier DFM acquisition, and much more can be assigned to one of many "class" customization slots. In addition, your vehicle's appearance can be tweaked slightly, with all the colors of the DMT enhanced rainbow available to different parts of your bird's body. Ravenesque, or Skittles with missiles, the choice is yours.

    These days, most of my games get shelved after they've been played to completion. I fear Ace Combat: Assault Horizon will be in my rotation for a bit longer, to conquer the campaign on increased difficulties, and to revel in blissful barrage of bullets that is Deathmatch. Project Aces has crafted a masterful airborne experience, with renowned author Jim DiFelice's surprisingly strong and simple script as a backbone. Mastering the dogfight repays the learning curve with utter allure, sure to hypnotize even the most stalwart critics. Fans of fighter jets and airborne combat need look no further; you have just found your new favorite game.

    The Score: 8 outta 10 Blasters!

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