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Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy Review

Plane crazy.

Legacy of what, exactly? Ace Combat may be in the aerial dogfighting niche, but previous entries go all the way from heavy simulation to frothy action. The recent Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is the obvious starting-point, but Legacy also pays homage to the series' distant PlayStation past - and has ended up with baffling priorities.

Legacy's 3D dogfighting is a slim and feature-light offering with high production values but zero online functionality: no multiplayer, no leaderboards, no system for swapping its in-game replays. The PSP's Joint Assault had online multiplayer. Legacy is on 3DS, a portable where online functionality is even more central. It's a missed opportunity at best, criminal at worst.

Legacy's budget has gone on the audio and visuals, and it shows. The 3D effect has great subtlety, raising out landmarks by degree rather than 'popping' them forwards, and contributes to an enormous sense of speed and inertia when near land. What it does best is the big picture - that sweeping cityscape, a sunset over a mountain range, or a vast tundra dotted with settlements.

Legacy knows when it looks good, and uses lens flare and bloom mercilessly to camp it up and create those scenic shots. But one of its best effects is the sensation of speed, and it's one any player craves. Legacy can't do much when you're at high altitude other than air trails and a reassuring speedometer, so there's always an urge to get close to physical elements in the world to judge your speed.

Though you play through 18 missions, there are 23 in total, thanks to some plot-forking that has no real impact.

Sadly, these close-up encounters are where things look threadbare. What's a town at 10,000 feet turns out to be messy textures with isolated groups of Monopoly houses jutting out in 3D. Enemies are indistinguishable at a distance, jaggy up-close. Legacy's 3D elsewhere is great, so it's a real disappointment its world is so flat.

There are three views: third-person, cockpit and HUD-only first-person. The animations in the third-person view are detailed and intricate, but for the best sensation of speed (with the 3D effect), first-person is essential. The cockpit view is initially appealing, a tiny control panel with two great bits of piping either side of the main view which pop out, but eventually all that seems like clutter.

Things really start cooking with the first-person view, which re-arranges all the detail and proves easier to play over decent stretches. This is where Legacy can make you hold your breath, where its surface textures don't matter because you're ripping through a canyon at a thousand miles an hour or simply floating up in the atmosphere. When you're flying without distractions, it's a gorgeous ride.

Just don't mention the war. In the absence of online, the single-player campaign carries everything and clocks in at around four hours. Its 18 missions are the stage for Legacy's dogfighting, a curious combination of positioning and QTE that provides thrills at the expense of depth. The great satisfaction, to me, in previous Ace Combat games was in outmanoeuvring an opponent; the coup de grâce has its place, but ending up in a position to deliver it is where the skill lies. This is the aspect of dogfighting that Legacy removes and replaces with a button.

The main carry-over from the console Assault Horizon, the 'attack manoeuvre', means that as you track an opponent, a gauge fills. When it's past a certain point, you press Y to initiate a short cut-scene which puts you mere inches from the enemy's exhaust with a zoomed-in view.

It's an absolute doddle to pull off - the gauge fills on its own half the time, thanks to the extremely generous targeting requirements. And when you end up behind an enemy fighter with a machinegun and missiles? They get better at dodging as the game progresses, but clearly the player has a slight advantage here, even further exacerbated by an evasion manoeuvre mapped to the same button and a directional prompt. These gravity-defying moves can't be executed under normal circumstances, and in the latter half of Legacy's campaign, it's impossible to combat enemies without using them.

There are plenty of planes and parts to unlock but you'll have to buy them - and the former certainly don't come cheap.

The motivation behind this system is clear: shortening the length of dogfights and providing an intimate look at the ferocity of air-to-air combat. It achieves both of these aims. But in the process it removes a major part of the challenge, skill and satisfaction in dogfighting. Positioning is the most important part: judging the correct speed and height to approach, factoring in your enemy's movements, pulling the perfect manoeuvre to line up right on their tail. Here it's all about getting close, keeping them in a gigantic frame until you press a button, then shooting. It doesn't feel like an equal swap.

The campaign also runs out of ideas early, resorting to repetitive objectives and infuriating escort missions throughout. As for the plot, Legacy's script is rubbish. In one mission we offed a rival fighter and his last words were "I don't like the way you fight. It's too damn... honourable!" That's laughable stuff, but not in a good way.

Things are padded out by the option to grind single-player levels for unlocks, a survival mode, and the 'Ace' difficulty available after completing the campaign once. There's a levelling and currency system running throughout in concert with new weapons and planes, along with a model viewer and character bios. That's all nice enough, but it's offering persistence in a game as shallow as they come.

Legacy tries to offer extremes, but ends up with half-baked options. The simulation controls don't work on the 3DS layout, requiring constant alternation between the circle pad and d-pad during dogfights, while touch-screen controls are rendered pointless by also requiring the use of buttons. The crux of its combat system is a shortcut, and Legacy's campaign is wearingly dependent on it.

These same levels have their beauties: stomach-lifting moments when you arc out of a dive at just the right moment, or skim another fighter by surprise. And the game offers one of the best 3D effects to be seen on the console. But then there's the lack of multiplayer and online functionality, the short and repetitive campaign, the QTE-like manoeuvres, and the flat earth.

Assault Horizon Legacy is mediocre, but what's worse is you feel it never even aimed for the stars in the first place.

5 / 10

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