When it comes to the long running Ace Combat series, Nintendo’s been stuck in the hangar bay with only the forgettable Ace Combat Advance releasing on GBA. For all those who’ve missed out on the excellent aerial dog fight action all these years, this disservice has finally ended with Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy blasting onto 3DS. Combining elements from the series past along with the new, this 3D-fuelled outing should be considered the début title for Nintendo consoles.
Once again, political extremes and rebellious uprisings are tearing through the series' alternate Earth. In line with earlier titles in the series, the convoluted storyline does what matters and little else, giving you the engagement orders to ward off the power hungry rebel forces.
After a quick mission briefing and choosing your desired aircraft and weapons, it’s time to lift-off to the skies for a taste of aerial combat. Instantly noticeable is that the subtle 3D effect adds an extra layer of depth that creates stunningly beautiful aerial landscapes. Don’t gawk at the view for too long though, because this isn’t a peaceful flight simulation — when the enemy forces do come, they do so with blistering speeds and deadly intents. Taking cues from the recently released console title Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, Legacy features the new close-up dogfighting action gimmick that stylishly QTEs you right behind the enemy. An on-screen meter fills as you pursue the enemy, and pressing Y at the instant it fills triggers a slick 3D cinematic, putting you in deadly range behind the bogey and initiating a frantic dogfighting sequence; come out victorious and you’re treated to a slow-motion explosion as you fly through the airborne wreckage to add a final bit of dramatic flair. The sound of jets cutting through the air, firing off machine gun rounds and missiles is superb, and the cinematic visual style of these dogfights is a sight to see in itself. Topped off with the series' typical soundtrack with everything from beautiful orchestral strings to heavy rock tracks that are stripped right out of the series' past, you’ve truly got the full thrills of an Ace Combat experience right in the palm of your hand.
Anyone who’s piloted an aircraft in a similar game knows that you’re not always the one that’s doing the shooting; many times you’ll find yourself getting shot at instead. Instead of constantly manoeuvring in all sorts of directions trying to dodge incoming missiles like in the series' past, an arrow prompt now appears on-screen for a short time; if you can move the Circle Pad in the right direction and press Y quickly enough, you’ll instantly evade the incoming missile in another stylish 3D cinematic. While AC veterans may sigh at these new gameplay gimmicks, the action is allowed to become so fast and intense because of these new gameplay changes requiring split-second reactions that you'll grip your 3DS for dear life.
Controlling an airborne jet past the speed of sound takes precision controls and Legacy delivers. A new user-friendly arcade control scheme makes up for the 3DS’s lack of second analogue stick, though the Circle Pad Pro is compatible with the Japanese version. Directional presses of the Circle Pad will simply turn the aircraft and holding the L/R buttons while doing so will initiate a High-G turn – rapidly decelerating the aircraft in the process. Mastering these turns without stalling the aircraft is absolutely essential to successful missions, but with the new control scheme even those new to the series will have it nailed down in no time. For those looking for a more simulation approach, the classic control method is also available: Left/Right on the Circle Pad rolls the jet, while Left and Right on the D-Pad control the yaw. In both control settings, the touch screen can be used to fire missiles with a single tap or to quickly lock-on enemies by pressing and holding the screen to bring up a cursor and placing it over the enemy. We would’ve liked to have seen the touch screen used to pan the camera around to distinguish enemy positioning like in the console versions of the game, but with the arcade gameplay style that’s featured here, it’s not a necessity.
The campaign mode starts out nice and easy, but it quickly turns into the frantic mix of aerial dogfighting and bombing runs that we’ve come to know and love the series for over the years. Where missions in the console versions of the game are quite lengthy – at times exceeding half-hour long stages with few checkpoints – here the missions are a good bit shorter and stay on the throttle the entire time; a perfect fit for handheld gaming. Much like Nintendo’s own flight title Star Fox 64 3D, the campaign offers a branching storyline and shorter campaign length of approximately four to five hours. In the second half of the game’s campaign, your piloting skills will truly be put to the ultimate test, as you’ll be careening around cliff faces through narrow channels, chasing down a launched nuclear warhead, bombing your way through an entire fleet of Navy vessels and even manoeuvring your aircraft through the narrow passageway of an enemy fortress. The intensity is as high as ever and beautiful in all its 3D glory.
Ace Combat veterans know that once the campaign is over, it’s not the end of the war just yet. Once you complete the campaign, even the best fighter pilots will only have been able to acquire enough cash to purchase a handful of the aircraft and weapons. Not only that, but upon completion you’ll also unlock a handful of Extra and Survival missions, as well as the über-challenging Ace difficulty to put these top tier fighter jets to the test. Another nice perk is the expensive upgrades (e.g. engine, wing, armour and cockpit) that can be purchased that’ll carry over to all of your purchased aircraft and running multiple sorties with any of the aircraft will unlock its alternate paint schemes as well. And for the ultimate throwback to Ace Combat’s past, a certain World War II plane awaits those who are up to the challenge to earning the rights to fly it.
What Legacy does leave behind on the launch pad is any sort of online or multiplayer mode. While there’s definitely enough content here to make the game worth enlisting in, an online mode would have easily elevated Legacy into the 'must-have' range of 3DS titles and is nothing short of a missed opportunity for Namco Bandai.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy brings a touch of the series' new gameplay elements along with a few of the old, establishing itself as the true Ace Combat début title for Nintendo consoles, making up for 2002's GBA misstep. Fuelling up with a boost of beautiful 3D graphics and a cache of unlockable content, Legacy brings the series' high intensity aerial combat action right into the palm of your hands in a way that’s only possible with the Nintendo 3DS. Strapping yourself into the cockpit of Legacy as a fighter pilot, there’s only one question that still remains: do you have what it takes to be called an “Ace”?