It feels as though it’s been a long time since a decent flight game was available on consoles. It’s been a long time since Ace Combat: Horizon and even longer since Ace Combat 6 (way back in 2007 on the Xbox 360). We don’t talk about that free-to-play thing, Ace Combat Infinity. The only similar games in the meantime seem to have been the Tom Clancy’s HAWX series which, while a decent couple of titles, were short on story and on multiplayer. Thankfully, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is now here to make the very long wait worthwhile.
And it is very worthwhile, whether you’re a fan of the sometimes-weird Ace Combat storylines or just gorgeously tight in-air dogfighting in some of the world’s most iconic fighters. There are also multiplayer modes to explored, as well as VR missions, if you have the console (the PlayStation 4 and attendant bits) and the stomach for them.
The Ace Combat games are known for their stories, as well they should be. It’s hard to believe that, in Ace Combat 7, the story almost completely manages to steal the show here. Even as it manages to be confusing and obtuse at times. You are Trigger, an up-and-coming rookie fighter pilot who has some serious skillz. With a z.
Caught up in a sudden conflict between the fictional Erusean and Osean factions, players find themselves on the front-lines in a mission to save the president from a space elevator. Murphy, that friendly fella, does his thing and Trigger winds up ported over to a penal base. Forced to serve as a decoy for the ongoing war effort, first as a distraction and then as part of an expendable air squadron — which is even known as the Spare Squadron — players head on a little redemption arc populated by impossible missions. That you’ll totally execute, because you’re awesome. At least, that’s how Ace Combat 7 makes you feel.
That’s not the only story ongoing. There are a couple of threads that only really tie up towards the end of the game but it’s how AC7 handles its narrative that manages to impress here. The story never stops. From the gorgeous cut-scenes in between missions to the on-screen briefings — complete with the reflections of pilots in the display and a consistent menu system playing out — the tale that Ace Combat is weaving here is constant. It also continues through missions, with constant objective updates standing alongside additional story beats. The constant Japanese tropes (if you’ve ever watched a shōnen anime like Bleach or Naruto you’ll likely spot them) may be jarring to Western audiences but the folks at Namco have opted for excellent English voice acting. It minimises the culture shock and it helps the story along.
Story ain’t nothin’ if there’s no structure behind it. Here that structure is twofold — the available aircraft and then how those aircraft handle. Let’s start with the jet fighters. Ace Combat 7 features American, European and Russian fighters, an interesting trick considering the game takes place in a fictional world. Country affiliations aren’t mentioned but the planes themselves, from the A-10C Thunderbolt II (Brrrrrt!) to the F14-D Super Tomcat to the F-22A Raptor (with a stop over at the F-35C JSF), all look and feel (as much as we’re qualified to answer that) authentic. In a sim-lite kinda way. The Eurofighter Typhoon, Gripen E, and the Rafale M are examples of European craft, while Russia’s Mig-29A Fulcrum and their Su series (headed by the Su-57) represent that side of the world. All told, there are almost 30 planes to choose from.
Unlocking everything isn’t easy. There are item upgrades in between planes on the so-called Aircraft Tree, which need to be unlocked in order to get to the very end where the F-22A Raptor lives. Players need to use in-game currency, earned by completing missions and taking down targets, in order to unlock these planes. Once done, there’s the option to unlock new special weapons for each craft. Each player has three special weapons, allowing for multiple roles in combat. Want to turn your Tomcat into a bomber? Swap over to a guided bomb instead of short-range aerial missiles. Want to use the A-10C as an air superiority fighter? Weird choice but it can be done. Provided you’re good at dodging incoming fire.
There’s also a separate multiplayer tree attached to the main aircraft unlock system, dedicated to abilities designed to give you an edge online. These can’t be used in the campaign, just as some campaign items can’t be used online. Money you earn in single and multiplayer can be used to unlock planes, weapons and upgrades.
How the planes handle is another story. If you’re in the A-10C you’re flying a floaty bus with large guns attached. The F14-D handles like a dependable multi-role fighter and then the F-22A just feels like you can do a triple backflip before roundhouse-kicking your enemy in the face, Tony Jaa-style. But general plane handling is fantastic, even as each craft moves differently. There’s more to account for than just how hard you can bank away from bandits.
Handling has a touch of reality to it as well. Slow down or hit your ceiling and you risk a stall. Stall at low altitude and you’re going into the dirt or the drink. But there are also cloud mechanics at play. It’s harder to lock on to enemies in clouds, and you risk your plane icing up. There’s occasional turbulence, in clouds and just in adverse weather conditions, giving just the right amount of realism to a game about shooting… you’ll see what you’re shooting at soon enough.
Playing with the Boys
Available missions also matter. Players will find that there’s very little repetition involved in the main story, unless you count ‘blowing stuff up’ under the repetitive column. Some missions will call for deliberate stealth, hiding from radar or in cloud cover and only popping out to snipe enemy targets before hiding again. Others will see you defending bases and hardpoints, acting as an escort for some (apparently) important people, or just maintaining air superiority while ground troops take an objective. There’s always something different to do and most of those differences call for varied planes and loadouts.
The only complaint we have here is the existence of several difficulty spikes. You may come out of a mission feeling like a superhero, only to fail the next one several times in a row because the plane you’re escorting has armour made out of marshmallows. Or because you’ve suddenly got to blow up an entire naval base in under four minutes. It doesn’t help that sometimes your objectives are a little unclear. Should you focus on air or ground targets? Why did this mission just fail? Or, stranger, why did this mission just finish? These spikes aren’t insurmountable, just surprising. It also brings you a little closer to reality than your superhero fighter pilot ace fantasies up to that point have allowed you to see.
Through the Fire
If, after you’ve beaten the campaign with a series of S-ranks, you feel the need for more (and you have a PlayStation VR handy), Ace Combat 7 also has a few VR missions for you to try. More of an ‘at your own risk’ sort of presentation, the VR missions are best handled with a flight-stick instead of the DualShock. Highly immersive while they last, AC7‘s virtual reality missions have the potential to leave you feeling very sick — as whipping around in a jet in high-speed combat will leave you feeling.
The VR extends beyond just flight. You can stand in the hangar and see exactly how large your plane is, you can experience a carrier takeoff and landing, and if you can manage to hold onto your lunch, all the better. It’s not the reason for picking this one up but it’s a very nice optional extra.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Verdict
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown isn’t going to be everyone’s mug of jet fuel. Some people aren’t that fond of high-G dogfighting, attempting to get enemy pilots in their sights by doing things no sane person should be attempting. Those people can go and do something a little less stomach-flipping in that case. AC7 offers up an engaging, if sometimes confusing, story that only serves to augment the simple joy of getting into a multi-million dollar/pound/ruble jet fighter and seeing how fast you can go while 30 metres off the deck before whipping into a vertical climb and locking on a few enemy bandits. The plane selection is top-notch, handling is fun enough that just burning around an empty stage in Free Mode is fun, and that’s before you get to the tension of combat or the probable nausea of the few available VR missions. If you are an Ace Combat fan from days of yore or even looked at HAWX with mild interest in a shop once, get your hands on Skies Unknown. Your flight skills will thank you for it.