Games 10/18/11: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, Spider-Man: Edge of Time, Orcs Must Die!

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, blood, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

Have a seat, “Ace Combat” fans, because this might hurt.

“Ace Combat: Assault Horizon” is a startling departure that trades in the series’ mild-mannered temperament and fictional universe for a crank-it-to-11 summer blockbuster set in our world, and the change of pace — along with how effectively “Horizon” pulls it off — will shock and thrill many who play it expecting the same old aerial dogfighting game.

Problem is, the series’ most ardent fans may not be among that many.

Before we get carried away, let’s clarify: “Horizon” isn’t completely unrecognizable. Most of its missions still take place in a wide-open sky in which the objective is to track, chase and shoot down enemy aircraft. The campaign offers a nice selection of planes to fly, and a few special weapons complement the standard-issue machine gun and homing missiles.

But “Horizon” has a taste for theater that far exceeds that of its predecessors, and it comes frantically alive during dogfight mode, which radically transforms (and, if you’re a series purist, potentially ruins) the tenor of its air combat.

Though you’re free to shoot down most planes using traditional tactics, you also (if you’re quick enough) can toggle dogfight mode when in close pursuit of enemy aircraft. Upon activating it, the action zooms in and speeds up, and instead of freely controlling your plane’s flight path, you’re handling the aiming reticule while the game handles flight duties.

On paper, it sounds like dogfighting for dummies, but in practice — at breakneck speed and seamlessly integrated with traditional seek-and-destroy play — it’s surprisingly exciting. It also works both ways: Enemies can lock onto you, at which point you can eat it, evade or pull off an exhilarating reversal and turn the hunter into the hunted.

With that said, “Horizon” periodically falls a little too in love with dogfight mode’s ability to feed into scripted events. Certain special enemies will perish only via dogfight mode, and only when you’ve chased them long enough to reach a special set piece that participates in their demise. Along with some ill-timed cutaways that disrupt your focus without reason or warning, “Horizon’s” occasional inability to moderate its theatrics will annoy new and old fans alike.

Other shifts will prove more polarizing. Sacrificing fantastical planes and weaponry for real-world counterparts is disappointing. But “Horizon” at least tells a more coherent story than modern combat games typically spin, and the visually impressive chance to buzz past the Washington Monument and conduct air raids in front of the Kremlin will plenty justify the change for some.

“Horizon” also hops aboard the “Modern Warfare” bandwagon by inserting diversionary missions in which you attack ground units from a chopper, man a door gun, engage in semi-scripted bombing runs and even pick off enemies from high above in an AC-130.

These diversions come fast and furious early on, and they’re certainly proficient. But “Horizon’s” second-half shift back to air combat is welcome nonetheless, because dogfighting is still what it does best. In fact, the best diversion of all — a stealth run where you must avoid radar detection — takes place in a jet.

The same holds true for “Horizon’s” online multiplayer (16 players), which incorporates dogfight mode perfectly by letting players pull reversals on each other without worrying about scripted intrusions. Standard match types are available, with the star being eight-on-eight territorial team battles, and a game-wide points system allows you to unlock new weapons and aircraft as you progress. (“Horizon” also supports online co-op, but only for missions you’ve completed on your own first.)


Spider-Man: Edge of Time
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS
From: Beenox/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

When last year’s “Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions” scrapped the usual open-world setup in favor of contained but large and visually diverse levels starring four different Spider-Men and a wild array of colorful villains, the result was an exciting, fun and funny validation of how to add by subtracting.

“Spider-Man: Edge of Time,” on the other hand, is what happens when you simply take too much away.

“Time” plays the multidimensional card once again, but this time the rift is purely chronological, and only two Spider-Men — Amazing and 2099 — are involved. The two Spideys have slight differences in their combat repertoires, but they’re more similar than not, and some of the curveballs from “Dimensions” — namely, Noir Spidey and his stealthy problem-solving approach — are quickly missed here.

But no absence in “Time” is felt more painfully than that of the sky.

Bafflingly, and in a move akin to making a racing game set entirely inside a parking garage, “Time” takes place exclusively indoors, grounding both Spider-Men inside a single building that, while massive, offers precious few opportunities to let our heroes do what they do best. The occasional large room allows Spidey to sling and swing, but only one room boasts the square footage needed to truly swing freely, and even that room pales in comparison to the freedom “Dimensions” and its even more wide-open predecessors offered.

Without the unbridled joy of movement for which “Spider-Man” games are known, the burden of gameplay falls on brawling.

Per usual, it’s satisfactory, but not much more than that. Taking down enemies awards experience points that eventually unlock new moves, and “Time’s” speed and control responsiveness are respectively high and polished enough that even simple button-mashing combos are fun to string together. Those who fight intelligently and defensively are rewarded as well — even if evasion in “Time” is pretty simple and rarely requires anything more than remotely decent reaction time.

But if that all reads like faint praise, that’s because it is. Previous games benefited from an ability to break up the combat with freewheeling movement that no other game ever quite matched, and “Time’s” cramped surroundings prevent that from happening here. Instead, you’re looking for keys and activating switches like you would in any number of other beat-’em-up games. The only notable diversion — diving down elevator shafts of what must be the tallest building in human history — isn’t significant enough to chase away the sense of repetition that creeps in way too early in “Time’s” brisk six-hour lifespan.

It doesn’t help that “Time” is hurting for inspiration everywhere else as well. Impressive in stature though the Alchemax building may be, it’s an architectural eyesore, crawling with futuristically generic corridors that rarely deviate in terms of structure and design. “Time’s” villain quotient is similarly vanilla, with Alchemax mad scientist Walker Sloan getting most of the attention and “Dimensions'” colorful cast going mostly missing (and settling for bit parts when they do show). The two Spideys certainly make a likable team despite the time rift, and “Time” keeps up with “Dimensions” in terms of fielding an enjoyable voice cast, but voice acting can’t carry a story if the gameplay isn’t there to lend a hand.


Orcs Must Die!
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Robot Entertainment/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: iiiiiiiiii
Price: $15

The recent marriage between tower defense and third-person action games has been a rather blissful one, and the absolutely manic “Orcs Must Die!” will only prolong the honeymoon. As the title suggests, it’s your job — as the deeply likable and fully playable guy known only as the War Mage apprentice — to kill the band of orcs (among other creatures) descending on your fortress. You can take the hands-on approach with your sword, bow and (eventually) spell-casting amulets. But the real fun in “OMD” comes from delegating the destruction to traps you can set around the level. The game gives you something new to play with every time you complete a level, and as the environments increase in size and intricacy, so do the weapons and means — sticky floor tiles, springboards that launch enemies into nearby pits, spike-shooting wall contraptions, hirable archers — at your disposal. Though your funds for purchasing defenses are limited, “OMD” lets you construct whatever combination of terror you can dream up, and the options are vast. All you have to do is work fast: Brief breaks between enemy waves afford some breathing room, but most of them are mercilessly short, so you’ll often have to build defenses while simultaneously getting your hands (and weapons) dirty. The combination of frantic action and flexible strategy makes “OMD” an absolute blast to play, and while there’s no multiplayer or co-op option, a lengthy campaign and some good reasons to play it again — namely, revisiting harder versions of levels with traps you hadn’t unlocked the first time through — provide an easy return on investment.