The Project Aces producer showing us around his new game has a novel method of demonstrating the finer detailing of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. Coming in low over the silvery thicket of super-scrapers that make up the sprawling Dubai level (coming in low is, after all, part of every textbook landing) he hunts around for the hotel complex we're staying at for the presentation, picks it out, and then proceeds to strafe us mercilessly. Point taken: these maps are pretty accurate, then.
So Assault Horizon is the first Ace Combat title to opt for a real world setting. Along with Dubai, you can expect to shoot up the skies over Miami, and sing through the clouds in Africa, Russia and perhaps some other as yet undisclosed locations. The story will take in around 17 or 18 different hot spots in total, and it's all part of an attempt to make Assault Horizon's narrative a little more involving for American audiences. They can't handle any kind of fiction, apparently, unless they're Donald Trump, in which case they absolutely demand it. Regardless of the justification, it's fascinating to swoop and barrel roll over the Burj Khalifa, or to come in hot past the pastelly art deco seafront of Miami, before finding you've got a bogey all over your tail. Not again, bogey.
Famous locations aren't the only difference for Assault Horizon, though, and the other tweaks tend to play out in the sky as much as on the ground. This time, to complement the all-action storyline - it has a team of heroic fly-boys taking on Markov, a Russian villain known as The Shark - the developer is trying to shove you face first into the very centre of the mayhem. It all comes down to the new close-range assaults, which see you engaging in natty one-on-one dogfights or zipping down towards the streets for speedy air strike bombing runs.
When it comes to the dogfighting, the effect is absolutely transformative. Whether you're protecting Dubai from enemy bombers and their smaller, more nimble side-kicks, or gadding around over Will Smith's favourite summer getaway and letting loose with your machine guns, the new approach to combat brings a great deal of immediacy to a game that could previously seem hectic yet remote. If you prefer to keep things as they were, don't worry: close-range assaults are optional, but they're also a long way from representing a kind of bolted-on easy mode. In fact, you have to be fairly competent at targeting just to initiate them in the first place.
You can get into a dogfight by holding an enemy within your sights and then pressing both bumpers when your HUD turns red. The camera pulls in close and you become locked to your foe's tail: the bullets and bombs get louder, while the chugging rock soundtrack becomes is this possible? even more insistent.
Although you're tethered to your enemy, you still have to take aim as they swoop around in order for your machine guns to have any effect, and to fire rockets, you need to line baddies up dead centre for the lock-on to work. Weapons do a lot more damage like this, and the explosions are a lot more dramatic, but it's worth remembering that everything in life comes at a price and your enemies can get the close-range drop on you too, at which point you'll have to pull off some fancy manoeuvring of your own in order to break free.
Air strikes bring the same explosive intimacy not as weird as it sounds to the maps themselves, with your HUD highlighting a route across the ground for you to follow, while it also picks out targets for you to hit. Tracer fire comes at you in bursts from below, and although there's a gentle flight assist to stop you from splatting yourself against some idiot on a jet ski, you still need to know what you're doing to stay in one piece. (I can't promise there will be jet skis in the African and Russian levels, incidentally.)
On top of all that close-range stuff, Project Aces has only gone and flung in some chopper action, too. With simple up-down-around controls and an option to go for an in-cockpit view that I really wouldn't recommend if you want to survive, helicopters change the pace of the game every bit as much as the dogfights and air strikes, allowing you to hover right over the streets of a map, picking off individual targets, clearing out buildings, and generally sitting back as the world steadily erupts around you. Enemy reinforcements tend to spawn where you least expect it which suggests they're doing their jobs, I guess and if you get too low or try to camp, radio chatter will suggest you get yourself to a safe range again before you've become just another statistic. It's a massive departure for Ace Combat, but the developers have somehow managed to make it feel like a natural extension of the action.
With its desaturated landscapes and shaky-cam set-pieces, Assault Horizon is shaping up to be frantic and intense. This is the most cinematic Ace Combat game yet, and also the most approachable. If you're a fan of the series, there's more than enough of the old design intact to keep you happy, by the looks of it. If you're a newcomer who's after a way in, you may be surprised how engrossing all this jet fighter stuff can be.