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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Sticks The Landing
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Genre: Arcade Flight Simulator, Action, Vehicular Combat
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown brings back a genre long-lost in the steady stream of mindless battle royales and MOBAs saturating the market; the arcade flight sim. It’s been a whopping 12 years since the last major numbered entry in Ace Combat franchise, excluding the horrid spinoffs (Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and Ace Combat: Infinity, I’m looking at you).
For gamers not familiar with the Ace Combat franchise, here’s a simple analogy for you; it’s essentially Konami’s Metal Gear with fighter jets, rife with the same melodramatic political and war themes permeating throughout the convoluted and oft-times confusing story. Oh, and don’t forget the ominous-sounding weapons of mass destruction present in practically every title.
Before I get off-course, let me just reassure veteran fans that Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is indeed a return to form for the franchise; a true sequel to the Strangereal world which consisted of Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, Ace Combat 5: Unsung War and the underrated prequel Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War (which remains my all-time favorite). However, the bigger question should be: Does it revitalize the entire genre for a new generation of arcade flight sim games? Yes, and no.
If the last Ace Combat game you played was any of the three I mentioned above (or even the Xbox 360 exclusive Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation), you’ll feel like you never left the cockpit all those years ago. What I mean by that is the gameplay is almost exactly the same as it was more than a decade ago, up to the identical UI and HUD utilized in those games.
That said, the combat does feel a tad too simplified at times, as the wingman commands from past games are not present in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. No longer is the player the leader of a ragtag badass squadron of aces like the Demons of Razgriz in Ace Combat 5: Unsung War, issuing directives in the heat of battle. Frankly, I miss that mechanic, which really helped sell the immersive experience of being an ace pilot even more, as well as making the gameplay more dynamic at times.
Don’t get me wrong, the core gameplay is still very much classic Ace Combat, making the player feel like an ace pilot defying physics, chasing down other jets in intense dogfights.
Every single time my missile hits and the target destroyed notification pops never fails to make my adrenaline pump, especially when I’ve just narrowly escaped close calls myself.
Despite the regrettable loss of wingman commands, Bandai Namco has managed to spice up the core combat cycle of locking on enemies and firing missiles with additional elements. This includes dynamic weather effects that actually affected my jet during gameplay, as well as clouds that provide cover and opportunities to launch surprise attacks but also stall my jet’s engine and leave me incapacitated for a few precious seconds that will leave me vulnerable to enemy projectiles.
Getting struck by thunder can disrupt my jet’s radar and weapon systems, and flying through sandstorms or heavy winds can sway my jet off-course (if I’m flying too low or too slow) and crash if I’m not careful.
All of this adds to the immersive experience of flying a jet, making Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown the most dynamic and realistic (to a point) than the franchise has ever been.
I do have to warn new players though, as Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown only offers the simplest of tutorials during its early missions in campaign mode by teaching you the game’s controls once and never again. I consider myself a long-time Ace Combat fan and it still took me a mission or two to reorient myself to the controls. Newcomers will definitely struggle (and crash a lot) while learning the controls in their attempt to become an ace pilot.
Look, I know no one plays Ace Combat games for their story. However, past Ace Combat games, especially Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War (in my opinion), had endearing characters that you actually cared for and narratives that make enough sense to be somewhat epic (no matter how corny it can be). Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown doesn’t have any of those in its plot.
The game’s story takes place on an Earth where factions called the Osean Federation and Erusea exist are at conflict with each other. Amidst the war between these two, a mechanic named Avril Mead, who narrates the whole AC7 story through her perspective, ends up arrested and is forced to work at the 444th Osean Air Base. You play one of the unlucky soldiers stuck at that air base who goes by the callsign Trigger, doing thankless flight missions under the Spare Squadron.
I tried following the narrative at the beginning, but the terrible pacing and the messy plot made me give up halfway through. All these nations seem like carbon copies of each other, albeit being at opposing sides. It seems that the game’s story is trying to tell me that there are no true bad guys in war and that the opportunists (those who profit from war) are to blame.
Honestly, I don’t even really know who the antagonists are in the end, or maybe that’s the point? I have no idea.
I cared for my wingmen and fellow aces in previous games; I did not in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. I didn’t care if they lived or died, and the fact that the game’s friendly AIs suck is another matter altogether. My squadron was useless and unreliable, only attacking enemies occasionally and even then, it seemed like their missiles do little to no damage.
In fact, I grew to resent and hate them throughout the game’s campaign, which was the opposite of what was supposed to happen.
I mentioned earlier in my review that Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War was my favourite game in the franchise, and the biggest reason for that is due to the game’s focus on delivering intense dogfights with enemy aces (boss fights) in almost every mission. I loved that, and I looked forward to seeing what else the game could throw at me since I enjoyed it immensely.
One other major problem I encountered with Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is the frustrating level designs and mission objectives, that led to many unnecessary deaths due to annoying unavoidable circumstances and not because of difficulty (although I did choose to play at hard).
It also didn’t help that checkpoints are sparse (only one in the middle of each mission) and deaths will often mean I had to start again from the beginning.
In one mission, I had to destroy moving trucks in a freaking sandstorm which was disrupting my radar capabilities while hordes of autonomous drones are chasing me down. In another mission, I had to precisely mark missile launch silos (do you know how tiny they are from the air?!!) for bombers to hit them in real-time, which means I had to steadily maintain my reticule while hordes of autonomous drones are chasing me down.
In fact, the game’s solution to providing me with a challenge was forcing me to do impossibly mundane yet tedious tasks in a fighter jet while being chased by hordes of autonomous drones. This is all made worse by the previously-mentioned atrocious friendly AI of my allies.
Thankfully, these missions are few and far in between, with the majority of missions featuring classic Ace Combat-style objectives (racking up points from kills or pure dogfights).
I rarely play online multiplayer games, and I especially dislike the fact that many developers choose to shoehorn in multiplayer into traditionally single-player games. While many games suffer from that problem, I’m glad to say that Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown does not.
Although I usually abhor multiplayer games and modes, I found the multiplayer in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown to be fun and great for short bursts of intense dogfighting when I’m not in the mood for the game’s nonsensical campaign. There are only two multiplayer modes available as of now: battle royal and team deathmatch.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown‘s battle royale mode pits up to 8 players in a single match. You can set a limit to the strength of usable jets and/or disable special weapons to level the playing field and make it fairer for less-skilled players. You can also go all out and leave the rules open for anything and everything to truly challenge yourselves as ace pilots.
I’ve played a considerable amount of battle royale matches thus far, and results have been varied. Sometimes I would come out first and other times, last. Nothing can compare to the thrill of successfully shooting down other players. It’s also great that the MRP (in-game currency) received in multiplayer accumulates with the MRP received in the game’s story campaign.
Speaking of MRP, I like unlocking new jets and new parts (to enhance stats of jets) as it feels satisfying. Each jet is painstakingly rendered in Unreal Engine 4, as are the environments and everything else in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. Add smooth 60 FPS to that on the PS4 Pro and the game moves like an anything you see in Top Gun. The free flight mode is there for any player who wants to just soar through the skies in any of the game’s levels without worrying about time limits, enemies or completing mission objectives.
All in all, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is the furious comeback that we’ve all been waiting for. It may have its flaws, but the core gameplay and sheer fun of its intense dogfighting make up for everything else.
Where else can you find a superb arcade flight sim like this in the current age of games saturated with battle royales and MOBAs?
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown was reviewed on the PlayStation 4 Pro, via a review copy courtesy of Bandai Namco Entertainment.
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