|System: PS4, Xbox One, PC|
|Dev: Bandai Namco Studios|
|Pub: Bandai Namco|
|Intial Release: January 18, 2019|
|Later Release (PC): February 1, 2019|
|Players: 1-8 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Violence, Mild Blood, Language, Users Interact, In-Game Purchases|
by Lucas White
Everyone has their gaming blind spots, and every now and again decides it’s finally time to fill one in. Ace Combat is one of mine, and with Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, I’ve faced that gap in my knowledge head-on. What I discovered lays far beyond the scope of what I could have imagined. Not only is Ace Combat 7 a semi-realistic air combat game, it’s also the most anime-ass version of that concept. Despite some big gameplay hurdles that are valuable, but barriers to newcomers, the overall package is just as intense and compelling as its bombastic box art suggests.
I was practically shocked to discover that not only has Ace Combat been in action since the days of the original PlayStation, it has carried with it a consistent, growing and evolving narrative that has grown to become a huge part of the series. That works both for and against any given entry in the series, but especially this one since it has been over a decade since the previous title. There are terms and situations that absolutely inform the story here, and unless you’re an Ace Combat expert, you might have some homework to do. The payoff is worth it though, as the anime-like story beats are full of intriguing twists and takes on geopolitics.
While the names and places are all fictional, the world of Ace Combat exists in thematic parallel to our own. In Ace Combat 7, a conflict explodes between a nation that is basically a stand-in for the United States (Osea), and a vaguely European kingdom (Erusea). One of the interesting facets of Ace Combat is its real world parallels, and that extends to the technology. Drone warfare has taken off in the past decade, and a key aspect of the conflict here is the smaller Erusea utilizing drone technology to fend off the Osea superpower on a nearly even playing field. But what seems to start as a story of man vs. machine quickly descends into grittier populist territory, as the uglier side of Osea’s America-like excess is gradually exposed.
While the protagonist is a quiet, nameless avatar for the player, the scenarios they live through take them from the glamour and glory of the Osean air force to the population of a horrific military prison used by Osea as a decoy to draw enemy fire. The protagonist, known as Trigger, is roped into a much more complex conflict at this point, and how that develops in parallel to the air combat action is super compelling. Meanwhile on the Erusean side, we do get the man vs. machine conflict in spades, so that itch gets thoroughly scratched as well. A lot of the storytelling feels disjointed and takes a while to come together, but its Gundam-like “war is bizarre, messy, and something that needs to stop, but also war tech is cool” confidence shines through.
When it comes to actually playing Ace Combat 7, it’s good that the story is as fun to ride through as it is. Ace Combat 7 is a thoroughly hardcore game, and despite its casual/hardcore controls choice is still, by nature, partially a flight sim. It’s more of an action game, but you still need to be vaguely familiar with concepts and jargon as you’re going in or else you’ll be fumbling. I fumbled, naturally, but I’ve also played games like Star Fox, which is almost a solid foundation. If Star Fox was rooted in real life technology, you’d have something like Ace Combat. You have to deal with the elements, such as wind and ice, avoid collisions, and consider things like drop and distance when aiming your shots. You have to be fast, accurate, and knowledgeable in order to truly succeed, which means this is not a pick up and play kind of experience.
It took me a while for things to click, but once they did, man did they click. Once I got used to eyeballing missile shots, sharp turns, and avoiding missiles with risky maneuvers, I was ready to go and racking up the kills like something resembling an ace pilot. That said, some mission types, such as those that demand you reach a certain score before time runs out, offered very little room for error and you don’t exactly get a lot of checkpoints. While most of Ace Combat involves being rewarded as a result of perseverance and learning, it’s never fun when a sudden mistake sets you back over ten or more minutes of play time. This is a gatekeeping kind of hardcore action game, and you’ll want to know that going in if you’re trying Ace Combat out for the first time. If you aren’t new, well, this is the new high point of the series.
In terms of the bells and whistles, Ace Combat 7 is a fantastic visual and audio experience. The music ranges from energetic orchestral arrangements during combat to some real rustic guitar plucking in those grungy prison sequences. There’s a lot in-between as well, showing tangible effort and care was put into Ace Combat 7’s soundtrack. Visually, while often low on extreme detail, Ace Combat 7 is just as pleasing, with tons of bright, deep, natural blues and greens contrasting with the sleek whites and silvers of the technology. The HUD is as unobtrusive and useful as it can be in a game about using your HUD to aim missiles, although it can get really obnoxious when the game is screaming at you about incoming missiles.
Ace Combat 7 also introduces its upgrades and progression in a system called the Aircraft Tree. Basically, it resembles a giant skill tree you’d find in a RPG, but it’s all about paying money earned in missions to unlock new planes, parts, and weapons. Kitting out your loadouts is a seriously important part of the game, as making sure your parts, weapons and even plane are appropriately matched to individual mission scenarios can make the difference between a struggle and a good time. The Aircraft tree is the premiere part of Ace Combat 7 that breaks up the normal gameplay loop, but there are a few other extras as well.
Obviously there’s multiplayer, although the servers weren’t live for the purposes of this review. Getting online will embed you in the Ace Combat community, which is a dedicated one. So, keep that in mind before jumping in, if you’re still working on getting your wings. If you’re playing the PlayStation 4 version, there’s also a VR mode with a handful of exclusive missions. If motion sickness is a thing that you deal with, this will absolutely bring that on. If it doesn’t though, it’s actually a prequel of sorts to the main campaign. It adds more substance and value to the game, and it is also a VR component that totally justifies the form and the PSVR hardware itself.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is another entry in a long and storied franchise, one that doesn’t appear to miss a beat despite being over ten years removed from its predecessor. Its hardcore action/flight sim gameplay is complemented by an equally hardcore, yet delightfully complex and bizarre, story that has also been built up over the years. While it’s not a very newcomer-friendly series, both in terms of gameplay and catching up with the story, it’s so well-constructed and compelling that I didn’t have much trouble being motivated to play and learn, even after dismal failures that sent me all the way to the beginning of some missions. Fans of Ace Combat will no doubt be all over this big return, and while anyone on the outside looking in won’t be able to just hit the ground running, there is enough substance here to make that daunting journey worthwhile.
Writing Team Lead