“When I close my eyes, the sky in my dreams. . . is a deep, dark blue”
The past few months have been an absolute treat for me as I continue to relive the glory days and fond memories that encompassed some of my favorite games of my childhood on the Playstation 2. What started with Insomniac’s Spider-man is now carrying on with Bandai Namco’s new Ace Combat game – Skies Unknown.
My introduction and only entry into the Ace Combat series started with Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. It’s hard for me to remember exactly how or why I decided to pick up this game as it’s been almost 14 years since I first played it. I can only assume I saw it in the local GameStop and decided to pick it up on a whim, maybe due to the cover art or the gameplay advertised on the back (those days you never knew what you were going to get with a game you picked off the shelf). Nevertheless, Ace Combat 5 somehow made its way home and booted up on my Playstation 2. And thus, my Ace Combat fandom was born.
When a specific style of gameplay is the primary driving point of a game (in this case, a mix between arcade flight and authentic flight simulation), many times the story will take on a secondary role that results in a loss of creativity or meaning all together. Its only purpose is to serve as a backdrop upon which the primary gameplay can project itself. This however, couldn’t be any farther from the truth when it comes to the Ace Combat series. Even as a child, the game pulled me in, hooked me, and immersed me in ways that I never expected. The lore and history of the game is surprisingly rich, yet easy to understand. The plot was gripping and tense, and I found myself emotionally attached to the other members of my squadron. And the game holds true to its name as you slowly emerge into an Ace pilot that’s revered by your allies and feared by your enemies – to the point that it sends chills down your spine. To this day, it’s one of my favorite stories in gaming and overall favorite games of my childhood. I even utilized the moniker “Razgriz” several times over the years as it was that impactful. All of these things made me all the more excited for Ace Combat 7.
The lore and history of the game is surprisingly rich, yet easy to understand.
Since the Unsung War, Ace Combat has had mixed success with their subsequent titles. Because of this, I’ve never felt the urge to continue pursuing the series, but it seemed like Ace Combat 7 was set to buck that trend. Even though the game was delayed at one point, everything seemed to be pointing in the direction of a title that would be a return to form with modern graphics and satisfying dogfights, especially since we were returning to an area and time period that most Ace Combat fans were incredibly familiar with and fond of. So – did Ace Combat 7 deliver? Ultimately the answer to this question is what you’ve most likely heard at this point – in some ways yes, and in other ways no.
Make no mistake – Ace Combat 7 feels like an Ace Combat game. For those who are familiar with the series, once you jump into that first mission it’ll be like meeting up with a long lost friend. The in-depth briefings detailing your mission objective from your commander, the upbeat, uptempo music that plays as you prep your aircraft and prepare to sortie is everything that encompasses the traditional Ace Combat experience. It had been years since I had played Ace Combat, but once I was a few missions in – it was like I had never put the game down. I could see how the barrier to entry might be a bit high to someone who’s unfamiliar with the series as there’s no real training or tutorial mode, but I think in most instances intuition is enough to carry the player through. The first mission is also a significant cushion that allows the player to get their bearings. It may be a bit of a struggle at first and a lot of crashing may be involved, but it shouldn’t be difficult for someone to pick up and adjust. And sometimes, that can be a good thing – all we want to do is really jump right into the action and in this case, Ace Combat is the perfect platform to support that methodology.
Not much of the formula has changed; and that’s not a bad thing.
When considering the gameplay of Ace Combat 7, not much of the formula has changed; and that’s not a bad thing. The HUD/UI is still incredibly clean and provides you with all the information you need to handle your aircraft and tackle your objectives. The top left of the screen identifies your time remaining (for time sensitive missions), potential score for target takedowns, and overall score totals (which again, are important in certain score based mission scenarios). Your speed and altitude are displayed in the middle of the screen to help make sure you don’t find yourself stalling at an inopportune time or suddenly careening into the ground while making a flight maneuver. The map is displayed to the bottom left of your screen and can provide you with three different views that allow you to take note of who’s on your tail, where an incoming missile might be angled from, and where your objectives are located in regards to the entirety of the map. And finally, your armaments and health are displayed on the bottom right of your screen which assist you in rationing your munitions throughout the mission. All together, this adds for a seamless flight simulation experience that isn’t too cumbersome or overwhelming. This also plays great benefit to the perspective preferences of the user. Whether you’re playing a third-person perspective from behind the plane or a first-person cockpit perspective, the game still shines. You can seamlessly transfer between the three during your mission (this includes a 1st-person, non-cockpit perspective) without suffering from any gameplay inhibitions.
The flight combat, visuals, and sound still remain as some of, if not the greatest strengths of this series. The graphics are not only an improvement from its predecessors, but Project Aces definitely raised the stakes when it comes to dealing with the elements and effects of battle. Flying through cloud cover will leave slight rain drops running down the exterior of your canopy, shooting down an enemy right on their tail will send you through an explosion of fire, and certain unexpected weather changes might end up playing hazard with your instruments. All in all, it definitely raises the stakes and adds to the overall immersion of the game. I will say that there will be times where you fly close to the ground to take out a certain objective and may observe that some of the assets in this area can be considered a bit dated. I can only assume though that a highly detailed landscape with vehicles, foliage, and so on would only serve to weigh the game down from a performance perspective, especially since the focus of the game mostly revolves around the air. But again, there’s no doubt that this game truly shines when you find yourself in the sky.
The soundtrack is … one of the greatest strengths of the game.
The game’s sound design and OST is another area of strength for Ace Combat 7. One of the greatest feelings you’ll encounter in this game is when you are flying dead on towards an enemy fighter, locked on and hovering over the missile trigger only to have them pass you overhead. The sound of the fighter booming past you and screeching above just instills the sense of dog fighting and adds to the weight of your surroundings. The soundtrack is again, one of the greatest strengths of the game and the one thing that may honestly tie the entire series together. Tracks such as “Charge Assault” and “Faceless Soldier” just encapsulate what Ace Combat is all about – a game of stakes, of skill, of loss, triumph, and legend.
Mission design overall is something that I would classify a passing grade, but definitely caused me some reservation at times. Most of the air-to-ground assault missions in this game became a huge sour point for me, requiring you to hit a certain score before time expires. I often found myself exasperated with some missions as this is no easy task, and I found myself being taken out of the game a bit as I was solely focused on racing the clock. Not only that, but each of these missions was usually a lengthy investment – meaning that if you didn’t find total success, you’d have to start completely from the beginning. These missions could run 15-20 minutes at times, meaning that you could find yourself easily spending over an hour just trying to figure out a strategy to take out as many objectives as you can in the allotted time frame (different planes, different special munitions, prioritizing certain targets, etc.) I would’ve encouraged difficulty in other ways, as this just drew me away from what was occurring in the story and left me feeling more frustrated than anything.
With around 20 missions total, you won’t be able to stop and won’t be able to get ‘missile…missile’ out of your head.
The aircraft tree gives you a chance to experiment with different types of planes, weaponry, and loadouts that can provide you with a multitude of benefits. This allows you a satisfactory level of personalization and exposes you to the many different types of aircraft the series has to offer. While I do wish there were more ways to customize your plane throughout the campaign in terms of color schemes, insignias, and more, the overall progression system is balanced in a way that you don’t feel as if you’re getting too strong too quickly. However, there are plenty of missions in this game that play to the series’ traditional strengths. There are a slew of stealth based missions, missions that place you against the terrain and elements, missions that involve taking down huge objectives, and missions that involve tense combat with a single fighter. With around 20 missions total, you won’t be able to stop and won’t be able to get “missile…missile” out of your head (trust me).
When it comes to the story of the game, there’s a bit to unpack. You play the role of Trigger, a novice pilot in the Osean Federation that finds himself thrust into combat after the IUN peacekeeping force suddenly finds themselves dissolved under the renewed threat of the Kingdom of Erusea. Utilizing new technology, Erusea has launched a surprise offensive against the Osean federation and inspired chaos throughout the entire continent of Usea. As a veteran Ace Combat player, the plot is pretty simple to pick up and doesn’t move too far from the norm for the series. However, I could see how a new player could suddenly find themselves lost and confused if 7 were to be their first entry into the series. There were plenty of times where I found myself struggling to understand or connect with what was going, when it was happening, or where it was happening, especially considering the fact that it had been years since I played my last entry in the series. The game places a lot of confidence in you understanding the history of the Strangereal universe, a mistake that left me a bit disappointed and I think will drive potential new recruits away from the series.
The plot also suffers from significant pacing issues at times and struggles with meaningful character development. A large selection of the cast seems to exist without any meaningful rhyme or reason other than to move the plot along at a sometimes jarring pace. Sometimes you’ll find yourself unsure of how you’re supposed to feel or be reacting to a particular cutscene. Motivations, alliances, and personal progression will change so quickly that you’ll be puzzled why this character was acting a certain way in the first place. I think the greatest misstep by far is that the game does a pretty weak job of developing your squad and your team, which is absolutely supposed to be one of the strengths of the story and of the entire series. By the end of Ace Combat 5 I was completely attached to all the people who served beside me – I knew their personalities, their motivations, their strengths and weaknesses, how they’d most likely react in any combat situations. They were separate individuals, but we were all part of one squadron. Unfortunately that feeling of camaraderie comes and goes throughout Ace Combat 7, but ultimately falls flat. The series has historically done a great job at developing your character and the plot-through-mission-based radio chatter, but unfortunately this iteration of the series more or less missed the mark.
Becoming a legendary pilot is one of the most rewarding and fun moments of the series
However, there are without a doubt some incredibly high moments in this traditional Ace Combat story. There will be moments that give you the rush and thrill you always yearn for as you strive to become an Ace pilot and build a name for yourself on the battlefield. Becoming a legendary pilot is one of the most rewarding and fun moments of the series, as your name begins to inspire awe and fear across allied and enemy chatter alike. There’s also the traditional mix of modern weaponry and advanced super weapons that you’ve come to love and expect from the series, creating a fun and challenging experience.
All in all, Ace Combat 7 represents not a progression but a return to form for the Ace Combat series. While the plot suffers from pacing issues and doesn’t really push beyond the traditional series setup or structure, it’s just enough to allow you to enjoy the elements that make this series incredibly enjoyable and (in this writer’s humble opinion) underrated. The UI, sound design, and gameplay are top notch and still provide the thrill and enjoyment of aerial combat that you crave from any game in the series. While the game definitely favors veteran players of the series, I believe that if new players are patient and give the game a chance, they’ll discover an experience and style of gameplay that’s not entirely common in games today.
Yes, if you:
- Are a fan of, or have previously experienced the Ace Combat series
- Enjoy a mix between arcade flight and authentic flight simulation
- Thrive on adrenaline-fueled gameplay
No, if you:
- Are looking for a complex plot or story
- Are interested in a hardcore flight simulator
- Dislike silent protagonists and desire intense RPG elements
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown released on January 18th, 2019 for PC, Xbox One, and PS4 (Reviewed)