To say that Ace Combat has been on a bit of a hiatus would be an understatement to say the very least. All told, proper numbered installments in the franchise have been on ice for over a decade. That is really saying something in this risk-averse era of franchise binging. Thanks to the release of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, the PlayStation 4 will finally get its own batch of approachable flight sim action. Is this a welcome return to form for the series, or will explode in a fiery ball before it even leaves the runway?
Flying the (not so) Friendly Skies
Set in the alternate version of Earth that has consistently ran through the main-line Ace Combat series, Skies Unknown features a dual-protagonist campaign, staring a couple members of the Osean Penal forces. Avril Mead, a gifted flight mechanic, and “Trigger,” an unnamed former ace pilot, both end up behind bars due to no fault of their own, and through their parallel paths, attempt to bring an end to the conflict between the Erusean and Osean forces.
The underlying crux of the conflict is the introduction of super-intelligent drones to the battlefield. Utilizing AI constructed from the mental mapping of a former-elite pilot name Mihaly A, Shilage, these drones have been wreaking havoc across skies. Oddly enough, for some reason, the automated killing machines seem to have met their match between Trigger’s crosshairs. Confused as to why the AI isn’t as effective as it once was and with the war at its peak intensity, Mihaly once again takes to the skies after many years grounded.
Ace Combat 7 Review - Up in the Air (PS4)
These solid storytelling elements, along with plenty of political intrigue to boot, help to build out the impressively well fleshed out campaign. Honestly, it feels far more substantial than it has any right to be. Despite the fact that players only get to play as Trigger, the game utilizes Avril in a way that helps better explain the context for each stage in the conflict, as well as provide valuable additional narrative commentary. It may not win any awards for achievements in storytelling, but it goes far beyond what should be necessary for what amounts to 20 missions of garden-variety flight combat.
Throughout the campaign there are different jets that can be purchased using the accrued currency. As the strength and stats of your crafts improve, so too does your ability to bomb ne’er-do-wells back to the Stone Age. The real key to making full use of the unlockable arsenal is understanding what kinds of special weapons will be best utilized for an upcoming mission. It’s important to understand that there’s a dramatic difference between the ways that air-to-air versus air-to-surface missiles perform. Ultimately, as the storyline progresses, being able to acquire more advanced weaponry is what helps to level the playing field and combat the campaign’s increasingly complex AI.
That’s No Yoke
As a long-lapsed Ace Combat player, I found the control scheme to be shockingly very approachable, when using the noob-tastic, non-advanced controls. Using the right and left triggers to accelerate and brake are about as straightforward as it comes, along with using the left stick for controlling the aircraft in flight. Holding down both triggers while turning allows for pitching the ship in a way that allows for a far sharper turn. This ultimately ends up being the most critical maneuver to perfect, especially when fighting the hyper-nimble drone units.
Missions take a variety of different forms consisting of standard air-to-air dogfighting, combat against grounded targets or a hybrid of the two. While the predictable mid-air conflicts prove to be where Ace Combat 7 thrives, there were special fifteen minute raid missions that completely derailed the entire experience. During these campaign speedbumps the goal would be to cause a certain amount of damage over the course of a quarter hour. Points could be accrued by either shooting down enemies in the sky or going after the opposition’s facilities on the ground. If you didn’t manage to reach the damage goal in time or were gunned down before the clock ran out, you were transported back to the beginning of the mission all over again. While the game had some missions with very generous checkpointing, here it was nowhere to be found. As a result I burned almost two hours of my life on a single mission, not to mention nearly turned my PS4 controller into a Move controller.
While some of the campaign’s objectives left something be desired, I actually found the multiplayer to be just what I was looking for. Don’t let the fact that one mode is called “Battle Royal” (yes, without the “e”) fool you, because it’s actually a straightforward eight-person free-for-all. That might not seem like many players, but once you’re zipping around the sky hunting for targets, it ends up feeling like more than enough high-powered gliders in the unfriendly skies.
One last piece of the puzzle is the VR experience, which is exclusive to the PSVR for the next year. It’s a fairly limited example of how impressive a true Ace Combat VR experience could be, complete with nausea-inducing moments at every pitch of the jet. Utilizing the second, more advanced control scheme and using the visor to aim the weaponry was an interesting touch that felt both engaging and authentic. Though its runtime felt far briefer than I would’ve desired, it certainly whetted my craving for an all-encompassing virtual reality experience in this world. Ultimately this ends up being the dessert for an already satisfying gaming meal.
A Crash Landing
One last key elements that’s worthy of touching on are the stellar voice-overs and soundtrack. Damn near the entire cast does a fantastic job of taking what amount to disembodied voices in Trigger’s ear and transitioning them into fleshed out, believable, and in some cases, likable characters. The solid narrative is also complimented by the interestingly eclectic score. The developers were not afraid to go all-in in order to set their desired mood and tone effectively, as evidenced by the rapid transitions from guitar ballads to an orchestral choir. It didn’t feel like these sorts of far-reaching genre shifts should’ve mixed well, but for some reason the cognitive dissonance balanced out in my head.
Aside from my earlier complaints about the inconsistent checkpointing, there were only a couple of other elements that rubbed me the wrong way. The chief among this was the mediocre environmental art. Without question, the map looked fantastic from thousands of feet in the air, while simultaneously traveling at hundreds of miles per hour. I cannot argue that by any stretch of the imagination. However, if you slowed down and rode closely along the ground, it didn’t take long to realize that the texture work and design of barracks, ground mounted weaponry and even massive fuel tanks looked like nuked-over canine excrement.
This was made worse by the fact that if you’re paying attention, I’m pretty sure most structures’ scales were also way off. Why is my plane bigger than an entire hangar? It makes no sense whatsoever. And yes, I realize that this is extremely nitpicky, but if the designers are going to make missions where it necessitates getting close to the ground, you best believe that they should try to deliver the same level of realism at 2000 feet that they do at 20 feet.
My one final criticism is the way in which they deliver mission objectives. At times the battlefield will be swarming with opposition targets, just waiting to get battered by the world’s most explosive, not to mention expensive, fly swatter. The problem is that there are only two or three of these possible targets that are actually objectives to clobber at any given moment. The button that is used to cycle through the units being tracked by the HUD will frequently just select the nearest fighter instead of the actual objective targets. Thanks to this, it’s very easy to still be successful downing plenty of planes, yet still end up failing a mission because you didn’t dispatch the correct enemies.
After a lengthy layoff, a franchise’s odds of a successful return can be dicey at best. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, however, has managed to effortlessly fly back into battle without missing a shot. Everything that you loved about the old iterations has evolved with the times and delivered a solid new combat flight simulation experience. Anyone who has been eagerly awaiting the return will not be disappointed. You can rest assured that this is far from their maiden voyage, and hopefully there are far more battles to come.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.