Ace Combat 7 Preview -- Among the Clouds in Virtual Reality
Playing Ace Combat 7 while using the PlayStation VR headset is a strange mixture of familiar and alien. Ace Combat 7 returns to the fictional world of Strangereal, dropping terms recognizable to fans of the numbered series. It is also a new way to be immersed within the cockpit of fighter pilots. You are free to look anywhere around you while flying, whether keeping track of the enemy and for locking on with a new special weapon.
There are small touches and advancements to the HUD layout, and the usage of clouds in a map. For most returning players like myself though, it will feel like returning home. It has been nearly a decade since Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation was released on Xbox 360. That game served as our last glimpse into the stories contained within Strangereal, so I am eager to jump back into that world.
The fictional tales told through Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War are some of my favorite in video games. The characters created and their arcs that are expanded in both radio chatter and cutscenes go to great lengths at humanizing both allied and opposing forces. Some of that is hinted to return here, as trailers have shown glimpses of the characters we will view, and the demo featured radio chatter spewing recognizable names for those with knowledge of this world.
Immediately apparent is how Ace Combat 7 controls exactly like previous entries. You have your yaw, accelerate, decelerate, fire gun, fire missile, switch weapons, and change the range of the mini-map. Controlling the airplane is simple enough. After all, this is an arcade flight-simulator and the challenge comes by quickly destroying the opposition, not in accurately flying the aircraft. This makes for a fun, more laid back air combat game, though you can always increase the difficulty for a challenge. You will never have to worry about wind velocity or complicated formulas for staying aloft, as simply holding on the throttle will keep you up. Even when stalling, it’s a simple matter to realign yourself and speed off into a safe airspace.
As a timed mission of three minutes, you are tasked with destroying the opposition in an air-to-air battle against manned, and then unmanned aircraft. You do so above a large island crater, most likely created during the fall of the Ulysses 1994XF04 asteroid prior to Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies. As this game takes place during a conflict between Erusea and Osea, we may very well be seeing locations visited during the campaigns of Shattered Skies and The Unsung War. It’s a simple map, as the island crater is really the only major landmass besides some smaller islands with buildings. Most the scenery here are scattered, dark clouds, and the flat ocean.
While very little information is given, it was nice to once again fly in the skies of a fictional, yet familiar, world. Complete with the AWACs talking into my ear to inform me about new fighters approaching. Destroying enemies requires the player to maneuver behind one, and either land two missile strikes, deal damage with the mounted gun, or utilize a special weapon that works wonderfully with the VR headset’s capabilities. This special missile requires only the player’s vision to lock onto an enemy, and can make sharp turns. The latter of which is required when you are firing at an enemy directly above or behind you. Effective almost to a fault, this weapon is great for any air-to-air combat, but you only receive so many of them.
Regular Ace Combat gameplay is still full of the usual tight turns, fast accelerations, and looking all around you to see which position the enemy will take next. Eliminating targets with the mounted gun is still more challenging than missiles, though the resulting explosion is much more satisfying thanks to VR. Motion sickness never came up, since I was a steady head within a moving aircraft. At one point I did feel my mind grappling with orientation as I rolled constantly to adjust my flight, but it was only ever a peripheral feeling. Hopefully motion sickness will not be an issue for this VR game, since you are inside a moving vehicle, which helps the brain cope with the trickery of movement. Instead of your body doing the moving, it is the vehicle you reside inside of where your body is still. This is why car racing games and space cockpits are great for VR, since you are stuck to one place while sitting, and Ace Combat is no different.
Visually the VR mode may not be as high a resolution as it running on a television screen, but it did keep a consistent frame rate. Clouds are different from previous entries, as they now are much more substantial, immersing a fighter in its thick, grey body and leaving a nice-looking water effect on the cockpit windows once you emerge. Due to their size and ability to hide a fighter jet, clouds can be utilized for sneaking behind an enemy your HUD is tracking, or simply to separate altitudes from each other. They can also be very disorienting. Unless you have a good situational awareness, you can easily get turned around or upside down while flying blind in a large cloud.
Using the PlayStation VR headset also meant I only had one option for view: the cockpit. Despite usually using a third person perspective during these games, both for its uncluttered HUD and to view my newest addition in the hanger in-action, I could adjust to a cockpit view quickly as I played the demo through to completion twice.
Everything surrounding Ace Combat 7 positions it as a return to form for the series. Strangereal is back, superweapons have been teased and talked about, the controls are easy to slip back into, and the VR feature really helps immerse you into the world. With both Kazutoki Kono and Sunao Katabuchi returning to lead development, I am also confident they can once again tell a touching story from conflict that isn’t that different from those of our own world.