There have been quite a few pretenders to its throne over the past few years – Tom Clancy’s HAWX and its sequel, to name two of the most prominent – but Namco Bandai’s Ace Combat franchise has always indisputably been the master of its own kingdom. The series has managed to maintain a genuinely uncommon degree of consistency over the fifteen years since it first emerged, but the latest title in the series – revealed in playable form on the E3 show floor this year – definitely isn’t resting on any laurels.

It feels immediately like an Ace Combat title should do – tight controls, and alarmingly authentic audio and visuals – but the inclusion of the new ‘Close-Range Assault’ dynamic could bring the series to an entirely new audience. Namco are keen to describe it as an “FPS in the sky” but Close-Range Assault is a technique that has actually been ripped straight out of the third-person shooter genre, and encourages you to tackle the game by using an entirely new style of play. That said, likening it to an FPS is a much better shortcut to illustrating how intense and involving it is.

If you’re a long-term series devotee you can still play this Ace Combat in the same way that you tackled all of the others, but pursuing the opportunity to turn every skirmish into a dogfight is highly recommended. When you get close enough to an enemy to initiate Close-Range Assault – which is done by pressing two shoulder buttons together at once – the camera fires into an over-the-shoulder (or over the wing, rather) perspective that really serves to throw you headfirst into the action. The visuals shudder violently and debris constantly whips past you, to sometimes nerve-wracking effect.

This is the best looking Ace Combat game so far by a country mile; with the environments all having been created using detailed satellite data. When you make the transition between the different gameplay perspectives – an action that’s often sudden and quite drastic – amazingly it doesn’t affect the frame rate in the slightest, and the hectic, full-on nature of everything even extends to the FMV cinematics. The end of our demo climaxed with an ejector seat and a parachute drop, and a cutscene that offered up the same kind of kitchen sink extravaganza thrills that are normally the sole preserve of mega-budget first-person shooters.

On this evidence, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon’s primary gamble appears to have paid off handsomely. As already stated, if you feel like playing from a distance in the classic fashion then the game always allows you to do so, but adrenaline junkies aren’t going to be able to resist the raw, invigorating thrill of Close-Range Assault. A whole bevy of multiplayer options are promised but haven’t been announced officially as yet, and during the campaign the action is going to get mixed up every three or four missions by levels that allow you to pilot attack helicopters.

These helicopter missions (which we unfortunately didn’t get the time to sample) are said to be starkly different from the rest of the experience; different control schemes, featuring different mission structures, all executed at a very difference pace. Whether they’re as well-honed as the rest of the experience remains to be seen, but don’t bet against it. Namco Bandai are pushing for this to be the biggest and best Ace Combat game yet, and it’s already looking like a runaway winner.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is currently due for release on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on Friday October 14th 2011.

Watch the Ace Combat: Assault Horizon trailer here:


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