Flying planes can be boring. Making minor altitude adjustments, tweaking pressure settings, coasting on autopilot for hours over Kansas—it’s a miracle anyone becomes a pilot. (Not every flight requires an emergency landing in the Hudson River.) Since 1992, Namco’s Air Combat/Ace Combat games have built a simulation series around the most exciting aspect of flying: fighting. And each game is more realistic and measured than the last. Assault Horizon is the most nuanced of the franchise, employing stellar graphics and a robust arsenal of planes, helicopters, and stealth bombers to better capture the wartime piloting experience.
The game is so hyper-accurate, in fact, that there’s little room for excitement. Sure, real combat might involve gunning down trucks full of enemy soldiers, one after the other. But after an hour or so of that, “realism” is much less a virtue than a gameplay hurdle.
It doesn’t help that Assault Horizon demands a lot of attention. One of the major gameplay upgrades is the introduction of “close range assault,” a departure from older games where stray machine-gun bullets would randomly take out major targets. Now in order to shoot down advanced enemy planes, you have to enter “dog fight mode”—closely tailing a plane to ensure your missiles knock it clear out of the sky. And yes, you have to. Same goes for targets gunned down from your helicopter; very little is accomplished unless you’re fully zoomed in. At first, it’s thrilling: The landscape soars by (real locations like downtown Miami) as you dip, dive, and dash toward the enemy fighter. Then you do it again and again. Assault Horizon employs the military strategy of Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan: Wave after wave of men are hurled your way, and with few options that let you take out more than one at once, each level requires long stretches of sequential solo combat.
The story, written by military-savvy author Jim DeFelice, falls by the wayside. Assault Horizon takes place in 2015 in East Africa, where NATO and Russia have teamed up to keep rebel forces at bay. Later, the Russians defect, and a terrifying weapon is unveiled that must be stopped immediately. The plot unfolds in fits and starts, between missions that drag—even at the easiest settings, and while employing the upgraded failsafe flight-assist options. Plus, checkpoints are erratically placed, so dying requires even more infuriating repetition. No amount of plot twists, or variation in the type of plane flown, can mitigate Assault Horizon’s inherent boredom.