Ace Combat: Assault Horizon manages to be both straight-faced and somewhat dippy at the same time, and this deliberate personality clash actually works extremely well. Ditching the gentle, sci-fi tinged world that has always typified Ace Combat games, Assault Horizon instead takes place in a surprisingly vivid approximation of the real world. Mogadishu is “Mogadiyu” and everyone in the game is either impossibly gruff or (if they’re female) playful and sultry, but this is still a place that feels like it was borne of at least some research and/or someone’s actual life experience. This is surely a result of author Jim DeFelice’s input; an experienced novelist who has worked very closely with Richard Macinko in the past – a man who’s frequently described as the ‘Father” of the celebrated SEAL Team 6.

There is some exceptionally wet dialogue – “I guess they didn’t see the No Smoking signs!” is one trooper’s response to another when he overhears him marvelling at the amount of airborne debris that he’s just seen – but despite an occasionally bombastic musical score, the game keeps a deliberate (and admirable) distance from tiresome hoo-ra jingoism. Assault Horizon is also absolutely beautiful to look at, and when you first pull out onto the busy African runway after the prologue-cum-tutorial, the lush landscapes coupled with the reflections in the cockpit glass are very likely to make your jaw drop. This newly compelling worldview aside, the reason that Assault Horizon is such a tub-thumping success is because the gameplay is always paramount.

The sturdy foundations of the series are still holding strong, but long-term devotees will be surprised by just how many fresh ingredients have been added this time. Aside from the much-discussed new Close-Range Assault mode – which models itself on the over-the-shoulder perspective used by most third-person shooters – you can now also pilot attack helicopters, AC-130s or side-mounted gun placements. There are one or two missions that do feel a tad overlong, but you’re always aware that your next task is going to involve something completely different. The game’s development team Project Aces were clearly petrified at the thought of anyone becoming bored, so they’ve grafted overtime to protect Assault Horizon from becoming in any way repetitive.

And even the obligatory AC-130 missions feel fresh. In everything from HAWX 2 to Modern Warfare 2, AC-130 missions have never offered up much of a challenge; instead they simply place you at a massive advantage and leave you to partake in an (undeniably enjoyable) turkey shoot, without anything significant being at stake. Your hand was always guided and you were always, essentially, invincible. In Assault Horizon you’ll have to quash the attacks aimed at your troops on the ground, but also ones aimed at you; and there’s a notable absence of flashing waypoint markers. This means that unexpected ground skirmishes sometimes batter you in an authentic mood of panic, as you’ll have to flip between your three different camera perspectives (one for each available weapon) to find the battle, on  your own, before you lose too many troops or get taken down yourself.

Even the multiplayer – quietly included with no on-the-box hyperbole at all – could prove to be something that gets right under your skin over time. It’s basically Battlefield in the sky, and although the modes are familiar (variants of Domination and Rush are present) only being able to use planes and helicopters changes everything else. Teamwork is every bit as mandatory as it is in Battlefield, and keeping in touch with your teammates, to ensure that everyone is using the right aircraft (with the right weaponry) to do the right job at the right time, is rewarding in the extreme. Likening it to Battlefield may suggest that it isn’t original, but that’s not true. It’s well executed and really rather bold, and it’ll be very interesting to see if it soars as highly as it clearly deserves to.

This isn’t the Ace Combat of old. This is an extremely virile action drama that never takes your interest for granted; always going the extra mile to keep its missions diverse, and taking the trouble to re-tool a few familiar gameplay traits until they feel youthful and genuinely original. It’s modelled as closely on the previous games in the series as it is on today’s big-budget action blockbusters, but it’s so much more focused and satisfying than your average half-breed. And it actually does compete with those FPS titles that it holds in such high esteem; in terms of polish, confidence and the general level of nerve-wracking excitement that it consistently delivers. Assault Horizon isn’t some half-baked dry run. It’s a box-fresh action extravaganza.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is released on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on Friday October 14th 2011.

Watch the Ace Combat: Assault Horizon trailer below:

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