On January 18, Project Aces released Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, a new entry in their successful and long-running arcade-ish aerial dogfighting series. There have been close to 20 overall titles in the franchise, which began in 1995 with Ace Combat on the original PlayStation; games have released for each generation of consoles since – and that includes Game Boy Advance, 3DS, PSP and mobile. However, Ace Combat 7 marks the first game on current-gen consoles – and only the second title released for PC, following 2011’s Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.
Whew. So why did I describe it as “arcade-ish?” Well, if you’re new to Ace Combat, that’s what makes the games so brilliant. One the one hand, they offer simplified controls and straightforward objectives like an arcade plane combat video game. Take down bogies, bomb enemy bases, improvise when they throw a wrench into the works. Thumbsticks for steering and camera movement, triggers to accelerate and decelerate, X shoots machine guns, O fires missiles, Triangle toggles standard missiles or special weapons, and that’s pretty much it. But unlike other arcade flight series like After Burner (which I love, don’t get me wrong), Ace Combat offers a surprising amount of depth in every facet of its presentation.
First off, you earn in-game currency to spend on planes, special weapons and upgrade parts after each mission, and there is a lot to buy. Did your last briefing just mention annihilating a base or doing an escort mission? Time to buy a bomber and outfit it with guided air-to-surface rockets. Did the CO tell you you’re on a recon mission or intercepting a fleet of drones making a beeline for your headquarters? Grab a fighter jet and some multi-target air-to-air cluster missiles. No mission is unwinnable unless you pick the wrong plane for the job.
Second, instead of dropping you straight into the action, Ace Combat has an excellent tendency to start you off three to five minutes from the fight – sometimes more. These protracted openings are for friendly radio chatter and sightseeing, both of which you’ll want to do since this game is as well-written as it is gorgeous – but back to the visuals in a moment.
Third, let’s talk story. A lot of aircraft combat games tend to just tell you “these are the bad guys so blow them up.” Yawn. In the Ace Combat series, you find yourself involved in one of the many conflicts broiling on the fictional Earth-like world Strangereal. Taking a page from real-world politics, international relations are formed or broken, countries ally and create cooperative militaries, surprise bombings serve as declarations of war, boom-bust cycles in economies shape the story, occupations and reclamation of land incentivize troops. No fewer than a half-dozen unique and fleshed-out countries vie for peace and superiority over several decades, and any devotee of the series could tell you their history as well as a historian could our own. Even better, narration is often provided during cutscenes that play out between missions – and, intriguingly, told by characters only tangentially related to your pilot. You may play an 18-mission story only to find out in the end that your narrator was just a pilot who was saved by your actual character, or the whole game might be told from the perspective of a war reporter covering the conflict in which you fly.
I’m gonna segue this series overview into the newest title right here and say that in Ace Combat 7, a war wages between the continents of Osea and Erusea (names familiar to the overarching franchise story). You play as a pilot codenamed Trigger who rises to stardom in the Osean air force early on, only to be blamed for the death of a former president trying to escape hostile territory in a chopper. Trigger is then sent to a prison made to look like an airfield to distract enemy fleets, where he meets Avril Mead, a mechanic who’s been thrown in prison for accidentally flying her plane in restricted airspace. Trigger makes a play for redemption, flying as a decoy under strict prison restrictions and close watch by guards, and I won’t spoil any more for you except to say that another narrator simultaneously tells a story from the Erusean side of the conflict about a veteran pilot he works with while you’re in prison (don’t worry, no split personalities here). The series always feels as though its storytelling roots are in anime, and every title is made better for it. It straddles the line between direct and indirect, involved and watching from the sidelines, nearby and far away, but always engaging and personal and existential.
Gameplay is an absolute treat here. Simple, responsive, effective controls will make you a top-rank fighter in no time; meanwhile the fast-changing mission objectives will keep you on your toes from takeoff to landing. Sometimes what starts as a simple diversion mission will 180 and you’ll find yourself facing off waves of enemy bombers inching ever closer to your home base. Infiltrate a base only to have to turn around and defend an exfiltration without resupplying. The clever addition of drones as enemy targets adds a whole new dimension of challenge to gameplay, as you’ll struggle to keep up with the high-G turns and evasive maneuvers only possible in an unmanned craft. Every level is a multi-part adventure you’ll remember well after the end credits roll.
So how about those graphics? For starters, the series has always prided itself on its well above par terrain, with ultrarealistic snow-capped mountains and geological fissures stretching underneath you as you soar over them. Maps look better on current-gen systems than they ever have, often tempting you to check your surroundings on the way to a fight. Of course the aircraft are beautiful as well, with picture-perfect matte paint jobs, weathering and advanced real-time light and shadow play to make the planes look as real as real gets. Project Aces has often worked with aerospace firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to recreate dozens of real-life planes for their titles, and going this extra mile pays off with every aircraft in Ace Combat 7. F/A 18s Super Hornets, MiG 29A Fulcrums, F-4E Phantom IIs and countless others make their appearance in the title and any aircraft aficionado can pick them out in an instant.
Another improvement for the visuals is Ace Combat 7‘s dynamic weather system. Clouds ice over your plane and reduce targeting range. Strong wind currents blow your aircraft off course. Rain spatters on your canopy, brilliantly affecting your view. Lightning strikes interfere with your HUD and weapons systems. Strong gusts cause fired missiles to lurch around on their flight path like drunks as they close in on their targets. It’s one of the many little things that help bring the game to life.
Of course the game sounds great as well, from the blistering hiss of turbines to the machine gun fire and fighter jet explosions. Voice acting is crisp and lively – you’ll get to know your team personally, which leads you to feel genuinely proud when they compliment you or smug when they complain about losing their shirts betting against you. In one early mission, one of your wingmen dies mid-mission and the blame is passed around like a hot potato; I found myself genuinely pissed off at the characters for shirking responsibility. The music is a fittingly slightly-cheesy guitar rock soundtrack that would feel right at home in a late ’80s flick like Top Gun. Of course, in another article, I recommended muting any Ace Combat soundtrack and listening to Godspeed, You Black Emperor! as its 15-to-20-minute missions unfold, but if for some reason you don’t have any GYBE! in your home (or Mono or any other long-form post-rock), this is a fun stand-in.
Of course, multiplayer returns as well, offering two modes: Battle Royale and Team Deathmatch. Players can join or create matches with any set of parameters, including restricting the amount of in-game currency each player can spend on upgrades to his/her aircraft in the match, in a kind of almost-nerfing. This way, if a new or non-campaign player wants to dive straight into the multiplayer action, they won’t be incessantly trounced by someone who has completed the campaign and done some grinding and unlocked the best planes with the best gear. Nice touch. Other parameters include whether players can manually change their teams, which map will be played, the number of players, whether or not new players can join the match once the action has started and enabling or disabling special weapons. I wouldn’t exactly call it robust, but there is one more component that helps round out the package.
Among the aforementioned gameplay debuts in Ace Combat 7, there’s also a frickin’ VR mode and it’s amazing. I haven’t been this excited to use my PSVR since the X-Wing mission in Star Wars: Battlefront. Obviously its viewpoint is first-person/in-cockpit only, but it’s a whole different game than the other modes. From the moment you find yourself on the aircraft carrier runway in the first mission and look around to check your surroundings, you feel like you’re in a rollercoaster at the top of a large drop with a tangible “Holy shit; what have I gotten myself into?” feeling. Then you take off and you’re thousands of feet in the air with the terrifying thrill of a horror movie or haunted house that’s just a bit too scary, being in the passenger seat with someone driving 30 over the limit. In combat, the usual HUD info of my preferred third-person view is plainly shown on the cockpit displays – radar, ammo count, ship condition, etc. If an enemy gets out of view by soaring above or around you, you can use your freelook to see where they went. Look to your 4 or 8 o’clock and fire a missile and you’ll see it shoot out of your wings. When you take damage and things get hairy…well, this picture pretty much says it all.
Aside from the missions in VR mode, you can also unlock Free Flight mode and cruise around a map for as long as you please, or Air Show mode, in which you stand on an aircraft carrier and choose and direct planes to perform insane stunts in the air above. It’s clear that the VR mode here isn’t a mere afterthought and it’s much appreciated, especially since the multiplayer feels a little thin.
There are other little niceties strewn about the game as well, which I won’t spend too much time on. There’s a data/stats viewer, a hangar where you can view your unlocked aircraft and skins, replayable cutscenes and so on. They’re not going to sell the game on their own, but they’re cool little add-ons to have – especially the virtual hangar, because hey, why not?
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown already appears to be breaking sales records in both Japan and the UK, and with good cause. It’s another stellar entry in a time-tested franchise that has endured nearly 25 years and four generations of consoles. Usually I’m not one to go in for military-style games or plane combat games – there’s nothing wrong with them; they’re just not my thing – and I’m telling you that if you’re saying the same thing, you need to buy this game. It’s fun, beautiful, intuitive, challenging (without being overly frustrating), rewarding, expansive and well thought-out. With a review this glowing, it may be tempting for you to assume Project Aces or Bandai Namco saved me $60 and gave me a free copy, but they didn’t. I bought it outright and I can tell you it’s easily worth the money. I’m calling Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown a 9.5 out of 10. See you in the skies, pilot.