Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown‘s title is pretty much a paradox. The skies of the game are definitely familiar to those who have followed the series for a long time, and have loved the fictional world of Strangereal that has been its main setting.
On the other hand, the unknown skies were those of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, regrettably set in the boring and dull real world, with equally boring and dull characters that seriously hindered the game’s quality, since the Ace Combat series has always been based on great storytelling that made you actually care about completing the mission.
Not only Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is back to the world of Strangereal, but it also brings back Ace Combat 4 and 5 writer Sunao Katabuchi, traditional composer Keiki Kobayashi and more members of the old team who made the series great. It’s indeed “familiar skies” for old Ace Combat fans, and that’s fantastic.
At Gamescom I tried the game extensively, playing a campaign mission multiple times, and giving a try to the PlayStation VR feature.
This is rather unfortunate labeling, because standard controls are as far as they could be from the “standard” way of piloting an aircraft. If they called them “dumbed down,” it would have been more appropriate.
Normally, a fighter’s center stick controls pitch and roll, and turning is achieved by rolling in the direction of the turn and pitching up. The standard controls place pitch and yaw on the left stick, while limited and unwieldy roll control is on the bumpers.
This means that most of the turning is done with the aircraft flat, by controlling the yaw via the rudder. This is slow, awkward, it looks and feels terrible, and it ultimately has nothing to do with flying a plane. The only advantage is that it’s much less likely to maneuver into positions that are difficult to recover from, or would possibly make novices lose their bearing.
Luckily, this isn’t a game breaking flaw, as you can simply select Expert mode (which should really be renamed “standard”) and your stick will correctly control pitch and roll, with the rudder put on the bumpers. This is the natural way to control a fighter aircraft, and it’s simply the only way to go if you really want to enjoy the game.
Once you picked the only correct control setting, you can finally fly, and what a pleasure it is. Ace Combat 7 certainly isn’t a simulator by any stretch of the imagination, but it features just the right balance of believably, flexibility and fun, to be beautifully enjoyable.
There has always been a bit of suspension of disbelief necessary in Ace Combat games, including maneuvers that might be a little bit over the G limit for a certain aircraft, or the nearly-infinite supply of missiles appearing from thin air under your wings. Purists may wrinkle their noses at that, but it has always worked well with the arcade nature of the title, and it still does.
I do have one personal pet peeve, though: once more the development team did not think of updating the damage model. For the longest time, in Ace Combat games two standard air-to-air missiles have killed a standard enemy. No more, no less. It doesn’t matter where you hit, and there is no difference between direct hits and splash damage.
A system considering hit locations, direct hits and near misses, and actual damage to the plane’s equipment and aerodynamics, would improve the game tenfold, but unless something happens from here to release, we’ll have to wait until Ace Combat 8 for that.
The demo included two aircraft, the F-14D Super Tomcat and the F/A-18F Super Hornet. The former is a pure fighter, focusing on battling airborne enemies, the latter is a multirole fighter that can also double as an attacker against ground targets.
Besides differences in flight model, this also determine the advanced armament that you can carry. The two kinds available in the demo were the QAAM and the LAAM. QAAM are agile short-range missiles that will attack with a higher degree of precision compared to standard ones, while LAAM have a longer range. Both types, of course, come in much more limited supply than your standard payload, so you need to make them count.
Visuals are really charming, with highly detailed planes and terrain that took a serious step ahead compared to the past chapters of the franchise. The real clincher, though, are the clouds, created with a custom implementation of the TrueSky tech that was also used in Driveclub. They’re absolutely beautiful, but they can be lethal.
What’s interesting is that, since they’re fully modeled in 3D, they also have very relevant gameplay effects. Dense clouds will block your radar and the enemy’s, but flying within them can be tricky. Water droplets will form on your canopy, and overstaying your welcome will cause them to freeze, seriously hampering your visibility.
That isn’t even the worst effect, because ice will also accumulate on your wings, altering their aerodynamic profile and making them “dirty,” as pilots call this effect. In real life, this can literally make you drop from the sky and crash in the worst cases (and it actually happened to a few airliners in the past few decades), but in the game it’s limited to negatively affect your controls.
Add to this turbulence and dense fog that can make low-altitude dogfights really exciting, and you have a great recipe for a ton of fun and exhilaration.
The PlayStation VR feature is less story-driven, and simply prompts the player to shoot down all of the enemy planes. It’s certainly immersive and fun, even if I found the opposing force really easy. This is probably due to the fact that it was a press demo set at the lowest possible level of difficulty. The final game will have more challenging missions, and I look forward to try those.
If you’re worried that something as hectic as flying a jet fighter in virtual reality could affect you too much, I purposely tried to make myself sick by pulling the most hazardous maneuvers I could think of: loops, immelman, barrel rolls, steep dives almost into the ground… nothing really caused me any form of discomfort. Of course results may vary among different people, but my unwise (I just had a rather abundant breakfast) attempt should at least reassure some of you.
Ultimately, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown promises to be a return to form for the franchise, back to the glory days of Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies, and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War.
The story is promising, the flying is a ton of fun, and the fighting will most probably be as hectic as ever. All I can say is: “welcome back, Ace Combat. I missed you.”
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown releases in 2018 for PS4, Xbox One and PC.