The Latest Ace Combat Gets to the Choppah (and the Bombah)S

The aircraft of the venerable Ace Combat series all have been of the fixed-wing variety. The most notable variance in the latest installment Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is the inclusion of helicopters, as many saw when the game's first trailer showed an Apache Longbow used in gameplay.

"If we just wanted to make a jet fighter game, yes, we would have made that in a shorter time," Kazutoki Kono, the series director, said. When it releases this fall, four years will have passed since the last Ace Combat console release, the longest gap between sequels in the series' 16-year history.

This one will not be called Ace Combat 7, Kono said, because the game will represent a series reboot gamers have seen in other long-running franchises. "We're not calling it number 7 to call attention to the fact this marks the rebirth of the franchise," Kono told me, via translator. Kono said that, over the years, the numbering had lost its power, but not the Ace Combat name itself.

In Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, you will pilot the warplanes of four squadrons-fighter, bomber and two helicopter - in combat over real-world locations. The missions of the singleplayer campaign will be stitched together into a military narrative involving a rogue wing commander and your task force's efforts to put him down. What I saw at E3 2011 was gameplay only.

In a demonstration given by Kono, the series director, I saw a B1-B on a bombing mission over a military emplacement in a region I couldn't distinguish. Kono set his course using arrows in the heads-up display, crossing over waypoints that ultimately triggered his run.

When the bomb doors opened, the game switched to a top-down view, where the player is tasked with marking the targets with a crosshairs. It looked easy enough. A fully successful bombing run concludes with a follow-cam shot of the last shell.

The game seemed to warm you up with a couple easy, relatively undefended targets at first. Then things got tough. The third site launched surface-to-air missiles, which required evasive maneuvers and the use of anti-missile flares. The flare countermeasures were unlimited but required a brief recharge.

At the last site, the unescorted bomber was intercepted by a fighter group. Kono couldn't make it through an extended evasion sequence and was shot down, however. Before it augered in, the bomber showed a functional level of damage; the fuselage showed ragged holes and billowed smoke, the plane slowed and dragged through its evasive turns. Kono said a focus of this year's game, especially for multiplayer dogfighting, is on the presentation of the extensive damage one can take and dish out up to the end of the encounter.

The core gameplay upgrade is the Close Range Assault assault system, designed to make dogfighting more a challenging and personal affair. I saw it out on the show floor. As the fighter approached the enemy, the game switched into a close-camera mode - the "close range assault" system of the dogfighting and airstrike missions - that made acquiring missile lock a little more challenging. You didn't need to hold the enemy in your reticule for very long to achieve lock. But the wily AI urges you to be fast on the missile trigger once the crosshairs go red. Close Range Assault is used only in the fixed-wing dogfighting and airstrike encounters.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon has always depicted real-world aircraft under license. This year, Kono said, it is being developed in conjunction with U.S. Air Force consultants to give tactics and mission objectives a more authentic feel. There will be more than 40 aircraft in the game, which will include the aforementioned Apache Longbow as well as the AH-1 Cobra and, in a gunner-only mission, a UH-60 Black Hawk.

In multiplayer, Kono said Ace Combat will pit players against each other in a contest called "Capital Conquest," in which players' bases will be situated around real-world cities such as Miami, Dubai and Paris. No actual city features will be damaged or targeted; the skylines are there for show only. The objectives will be to blow up everyone else's base or defend your own.

The game releases Oct. 11 in North America.