If you are an Ace Combat fan, Assault Horizon may not be what you were looking for--but that doesn't mean it isn't a lot of fun. We got our hands on two separate levels on the E3 2011 show floor. One of them featured the F-22 fighter aircraft; the other, a helicopter. In both cases, Ace Combat has taken a cue from cinematic shooters like Modern Warfare, in which scripted sequences and dramatic camera views highlight every explosion and shake the entire screen. If that information makes your heart drop into your stomach, you can assuage your fears somewhat: the demo we played was good fun and was wonderful to look at. This is a game worth keeping an eye on, even if it isn't a direction you expected from the vaunted aerial combat series.
The fighter mission took place in the skies over Miami. Here is the setup: a terrorist is wielding a superweapon called Trinity. Namco Bandai was tight-lipped about the specifics, but this story marks a departure for the franchise by being set in the real world, rather than an alternate-reality version of it. What happens in the skies is also a departure. The F-22 controlled as we expected it to, so we easily yawed, pitched, and rolled amid the clouds. You can approach furballs in a traditional manner, selecting targets and then firing missiles and bullets at enemy aircraft. If you prefer a more dramatic battle, however, you can enter dogfighting mode. When an enemy plane approaches and your reticle flashes, you can press two shoulder buttons to center the camera on your target and let the autopilot take over. This initiates a chase sequence in which you must hover your aiming reticle over the enemy and fire away. You might zoom past looming skyscrapers and above familiar Miami locations, all while filling your foes with bullets.
You can also put the screws to fighters on your tail. By slowing up and forcing an enemy aircraft to pass you, you can switch roles by pressing the shoulder buttons at the right time, with the camera zooming back dramatically to highlight your success. When you make a kill in dogfighting mode, you get a close-up view of the resulting explosion. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon loves its explosions, hammering you with melodramatic close-ups every chance it gets. The action didn't change much during this mission, but it gave us a taste of standard combat and ended with a cutscene in which our pilot floated to the ground in a parachute after being shot down--complete with quick-time events.
The helicopter mission played less like an aerial combat game than it did a first-person shooter in the air. This level took place over an East African city's streets. The left stick controls direction, while the right stick moves the camera, and shoulder buttons fire weapons. Altitude is controlled by face buttons, but altitude didn't seem all that important in the demo, since we were absolutely unable to crash, whether it be into the ground, buildings, or other aircraft. As a rule, we triumphed by holding a shoulder button to lock on to enemies and moving around them while firing machine guns and rockets. While there were some airborne foes, most of our targets were on the ground: infantry, antiaircraft vehicles, and tanks. You can't just rely on spamming fire, however, since buildings get in the way. We had to reposition ourselves frequently in order to take down the constant waves of enemies. In addition, you must sometimes avoid incoming rockets by performing--you guessed it--a quick-time event. Like the fighter mission, this one ended in a cutscene involving another quick button press or two.
In spite of the focus on cinematic splendor, Assault Horizon still managed to be good fun. It certainly looked gorgeous as we sped through the air, rushing past tall towers while directly on the tail of another fighter. We're curious to see how the final game turns out, not just because the demo was fun, but because it's such a dramatic departure for a beloved series that isn't likely to please its fans. But if you have an open mind, there seems to be an entertaining game here. We'll find out for sure when the game is released on October 11, 2011.