Review: Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

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Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC(Steam)
Price: $59,99 USD
Release Date: January 18th, 2019 on consoles, January 31th for PC

It’s no secret to those that know me that I’m a huge fan of this series. Everything about the series clicks with me and I frequently find myself replaying those games. It’s a lesson on world building, campaign structuring and story direction. Needless to say, I was hyped about this game ever since it was announced. Video Games seldom live up to their expectation but Ace Combat 7 has done not just that, it has also exceeded them at some points.

Story

The Ace Combat series takes place in an imaginary world very similar to ours, referred to by fans and its creators as Strangereal. Ace Combat 7’s story is centered on the war between Osea and Erusia. About twenty years before the events in AC7, the Earth was struck by an Asteroid called Ulysses 1994XF04. This event is the root cause for many of the wars and super-weapons that appear in the series.

Much of the population in the continent of Usea was killed and its infrastructure is in shambles, leading to a war. An array of railgun cannons named Stonehenge was built to protect the planet against the threat and successfully prevented the total destruction of the continent. Some time later, Erusia invades its neighboring countries over disputes concerning the refugee crisis caused by the asteroid, employing Stonehenge as an anti-air weapon, preventing other nations from fighting back against their assault. Those events are depicted in Ace Combat 4, on the Playstation 2.

The Osean Federation, a country in another continent, is one of the major powers in the world of Strangereal, with a large peacekeeping force in the Usean continent. Osea has built a large space elevator in the Usean continent, which Erusia claims is an act of aggression against their homeland, leading them to war against Osea and all Usean continent nations housing Osean forces. These are the events shown during Ace Combat 7.

First mission briefing

As with every Ace Combat game, it follows the story of a faceless, nameless pilot known only by his call sign. The silent protagonist begins as a rookie, following the war from the opening blows up to its conclusion, building up his legend as an ace pilot in the war. One of the best things about this franchise is how good it is at stroking the player’s ego, making you feel as if you’re the ultimate badass in the world while splashing countless enemy targets.

The plot and story of Ace Combat 7 has the same quality as the previous games, immersing the player in the events of the conflict. The war situation is explained through briefings given to the player’s character and with cutscenes narrated by other key characters. The visual and sound direction, the narrative, the voice acting, all of it has been worked to perfection.

Gameplay

The core Ace Combat gameplay has been the same since the Playstation 1. It sheds the annoying parts of a simulator and delivers a tight and polished experience. You see your targets on radar, you chase them and get kills. Doing lots of damage and completing the game quick awards you a higher score. If you’ve played a previous Ace Combat game, you already know how to play this one.

This time around, new planes will be unlocked through an Aircraft Tree. You will have to buy your way through increasingly better planes until you can reach the endgame ones such as the F-22. Equipable parts are also unlocked this way.

Unlocking Tree

Aircraft can equip up to 8 parts, improving the plane’s performance in many ways. Lower-grade planes will be able to stack more of a single type of upgrade, potentially adding more depth to the game’s multiplayer. These upgrades range from improving pitch/row/yaw performance, increasing payload or even improving stealth capabilities.

Equipping parts

A major change this entry brought to the series was the introduction of clouds as a factor in gameplay. Previous games had clouds but they had nearly no impact on the game. Skies Unknown’s clouds and weather are central to the game’s missions. Clouds cause missiles to lose tracking, impact negatively on your mobility, cause your wings to ice up, and you could even be struck by lightning. The wind also becomes a factor during bad weather, sometimes causing you to fly sideways.

Certain special segments are a staple of the series and many fans were looking forward to them. Flying inside a tunnel, fighting over Stonehenge, fighting against giant super weapons, flying into canyons. All of it made it to the new game.

Sound

Keiki Kobayashi is once again doing the music for Skies Unknown. Ever since he joined, the series has had a perfect track record for memorable, amazing music. While I feel that Ace Combat Zero’s soundtrack is still my favorite, 7’s music is on the same level as the PS2’s trilogy of games. Very much like the previous games, I believe we will come to enjoy Skies Unknown’s tracks more and more as we replay the game.

The rest of the sound effects are reused from previous games. Missile warnings, mission upgrades, the actual gameplay sounds are exactly the same.

Graphics

Every model in the game was remade for 8th gen consoles. The game will not support 4K or HDR on consoles, although it will run up to 60 frames-per-second on base model PS4 and Xbox One. Running on Unreal Engine 4, players will notice a large improvement over the graphics featured in Ace Combat 6 and Infinity. Droplets forming on the canopy and wind effects forming over the wings are on a completely different level. On PC, it will have unlocked framerate and support supersampling up to 8K resolution.

Ground textures and models are also a major improvement. In flying games, having a good ground reference is critical, so this is very important. Below are several screenshots I’ve taken. As usual, it’s all been taking from a base PS4 with the Share button function.

Multiplayer

Two game modes will be available at launch: 4×4 Squad Battles and Battle Royale Mode. Quite simple and straight forward, at least for now. Rooms may be configured to limit the cost of airplanes, forcing players to leverage planes with parts. An entire arm of the Aircraft Tree is dedicated to multiplayer parts. Additionally, the multiplayer mode features its own list of musical tracks.

Virtual Reality

VR Mode was described by Bandai Namco as being PSVR exclusive for 1 year. It features 3 missions separate from the main campaign. You play as Mobius 1, the player character from Ace Combat 4 and the biggest ace of the franchise. This separate campaign is very much like Arcade Mode in Ac Combat 5.

Creating the entire game in VR would have required downgrading the entire experience. The PS4 just isn’t capable and I can understand that. What does make me upset is that the number of VR missions has been cut many times since it was originally announced. In the end, only 3 missions and about 100 minutes of content made it to the final game.

Despite its shortcomings, I was very excited to sit in Mobius 1’s cockpit and experiencing the game in 360°. The very first thing I did, even before the campaign, was to hook up my cables and play VR mode. First impression: this is my new favorite PSVR game.

It’s more than just Ace Combat with VR mode enabled, it was a completely upgraded experience with new mechanics and a new learning curve. Being able to actually track enemy planes by looking up and and around, watching the battlefield unfold in front of you, and aiming weapons with your gaze sealed the deal for me. I’m still upset about the short campaign but I still believe it was well worth waiting for it.

Downsides

The biggest issue I’ve taken with the game was how neutered VR mode ended up. Down from 12 missions, 3/4 of the VR campaign was dropped from the game. Many fans of the series have also taken issue with certain airplanes missing from the game, such as the F-117 Nighthawk, the Tornado and the Prowler. The F4 Phantom as well being locked behind the pre-order bonus. Speaking of pre-orders, Bandai Namco offered a sweet deal for PS4 and Xbox One owners, with Ace Combat 5 and Ace Combat 6 respectively being offered as bonus for reserving the game. Two reasons to be upset: the first being that the games won’t be put Playstation and Xbox online stores and the other because PC pre-orders didn’t receive a free bonus game, on top of being delayed. Steam buyers will also be burdened with Denuvo.

Also I couldn’t overlook the fact that Bandai Namco thought it would be a good idea to lock the music player behind a season’s pass. It was a pointless move that only reflected badly on them.

Overall

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown delivers on its promise, to create a modern entry in the series that was faithful to the original. The franchise has a legion of dedicated fans that have long been waiting for it and I’m sure that, like me, most of them will approve of the new game. While VR mode had its shortcomings and multiplayer might be a little barebones, I believe we will see both the fans and developers support the game for some time to come.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

8.9

Final Grade

9/10

    Pros

    • Amazing music
    • Improved Graphics
    • Same old experience as PS2 games
    • No framerate lock on PC
    • VR mode is great

    Cons

    • Very short VR content
    • No 4K and HDR on consoles
    • Lacking a few plans from prev. games