Ace Combat: Assault Horizon executive producer Kazutoki Kono is content to have his flight combat game likened to a first-person shooter. He says he's "privileged" to have it dubbed a Call of Duty of the skies, and why wouldn't he be? If the comparisons bring curious FPS fans over to a genre they'd normally overlook, so much the better. And though Assault Horizon's styling and presentation are reminiscent of many a modern military shooter, the likeness is more than skin deep.
The game's showpiece is its close-combat mode: an up-close, lightly flight-assisted mode for airstrikes and dogfights. The mode can be triggered by approaching a target (a green circle pops up around the usual target marker when you are in range) and, in our Xbox 360 hands-on, tapping both bumpers. The camera snap-zooms in tight on your plane--an F-22 in the skies above Miami, in our demo--to let you focus on chewing up the enemy's aircraft with missiles and machine guns. The latter pulls the camera in tighter still while you shoot, over the "shoulder" of your craft, making for hectic, shooter-like firefights. The close-combat view also gets you a good look at your enemy's damaged plane as it spits out smoke and flames, spattering the camera with oil. AI-controlled enemies can also engage you in close-combat fights; you'll need to counter-manoeuvre to keep from being shot out of the sky.
Kono-san likens the combat controls and intensity to those of an FPS but also says that the "mellow, Japanese-ish" script and plot of previous Ace Combat games have given way to a more "realistic" script and setting, more suited for Western tastes (and again, more akin to a Call of Duty title). See the recent trailer, introducing enemy pilot Markov "The Shark," by way of example. Assault Horizon takes place across "17 or 18" maps in the main campaign and is set in the real world, like last year's PSP Ace Combat game, Joint Assault. In a presentation, we see action in Dubai, fighting from the airport to the coast, towards the sail-like Burj Al Arab landmark, and Russia, in a mission to bomb a train station taken over by the enemy.
The focused, one-on-one battles in close-combat mode contrast with the traditional long-range shooting in previous Ace Combat games--"chasing dots," as Kono-san describes it--but both are available to players. And though the difficulty is still being adjusted, Kono-san says, this game means to address the idea that the Ace Combat series produces only very difficult flight games. These nods to inclusion and accessibility bode well for shooter enthusiasts coming to the series for the first time. Between the short-range firefights, explosive up-close destruction, and swooping cinematic zooms (with composer Keika Kobayashi of Ace Combat 5 back on duty for a suitably rocky soundtrack), Assault Horizon makes a convincing case for itself as the new, FPS-inspired face of Ace Combat.