There's a sweet spot somewhere between the flap-tweaking tedium of a hardcore flight sim and the inane tail-chasing and button bashing of most flight shoot 'em ups. In the past the Ace Combat games have come closer to scoring a direct hit on that target with each new release, and while it doesn't quite pierce the bullseye, Assault Horizon is the franchise's best shot yet.
Lifelike, not realistic
There is a difference. The visuals in Assault Horizon are incredibly lifelike. From the models of the planes themselves (which you're free to eye up from any angle via the analogue sticks) to the plot sequences between levels, just about everything here is good enough to convince a casual bystander that it's video footage. But this is not a realistic game. For realism, check out the video at the end of this review. No, this is most definitely an action game.
Getting up close
The problem with most airborne shooters is that you never get to see your quarry, spending all your time trying to line up a little dot in your sights. Assault Horizon knows this and not only does it compress the play area and control the movement of the planes to counter this.
It also gives you a kind of 'in the zone' mode when you're up close which keeps you tracking behind your enemy to let you concentrate on the missiles and bullets. It's like an intelligent autopilot that can duck and weave like a young Muhammed Ali. You might call that cheating but it does make for a better game.
Let me Google that for you
That leads to intense dogfights with spectacular fireworks that only want for a bit more detail down on the ground. Not that you'll spend much time there, but at times it does feel like you're playing a game that's set on Google Earth.
Never mind, there are other new features to keep you interested, mostly the helicopter gunship sections. There's a long-range duck shoot reminiscent of that bit in Call of Duty 4, but more fun are the 'door gunner' and third-person chopper levels set in smaller towns, which vary the pace and add a dash of strategic seasoning. And you'll be grateful of these intermissions, as too much dogfighting can send you a bit scatty.
Previously enrolled Ace Combatants are likely to welcome the new features, and there's just enough to lure new cadets into the academy, including a 16-way online multiplayer mode. Mission accomplished? Roger that.
And now for the video we promised. Do you want to know what it's like to fly a jet plane for real? We did, so we did...
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is on sale from 14th October and is available on all major platforms.