Shaun Munro reviews Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown…
First things first – Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is my first experience with the hit combat flight franchise, and a game I was mostly drawn to because of Bandai Namco’s decision to include PSVR support. As a first-time flyer, my time with it will likely differ somewhat to that of the series’ faithful acolytes, who are more au fait with Ace Combat‘s various design quirks (or as is sometimes the case, its deficiencies).
And though Ace Combat 7 certainly isn’t an unqualified success, it does succeed in spite of its rough edges thanks to an addictive core gameplay loop which makes it easy to see why the franchise is such a low-key fan favourite. Was a better and more complete game possible, not to mention one which presented a more inviting welcome for new players? Sure, but from my research of prior entries, I suspect fans will largely embrace the series’ long-awaited debut on current-gen platforms.
It won’t be surprising to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the franchise that Ace Combat 7 braces itself firmly between pick-up-and-play arcade gameplay and the more punishing difficulty of a simulation, the latter appearing to be especially popular among the fanbase. More unexpected to me as a newcomer, however, is the effort put into presenting a cinematic story, with most of the campaign’s 20 missions being preceded by glossy cinematics (which are, unfortunately, heavily compressed videos).
Speaking with a friend who is an avid fan of the franchise, he described the narrative style of the series as akin to mating anime with Metal Gear Solid, and he’s absolutely right. The result is a shamelessly campy cross between an overwrought Final Fantasy plot and the heightened theatrics of a Michael Bay movie. Above all else, there is a giddy, empowering joy to seeing these characters – even though you won’t remember their names or mourn their inevitable deaths – viewing the player, callsign “Trigger”, with an increasing sense of awe throughout the campaign.
It’s all pretty much nonsense – and is too earnest to reach the wacky heights of, say, the Yakuza series – but thanks to genuinely solid voice acting, it’s never less than easy watching even with the reams of exposition on offer. The less said about the drier-than-sawdust pre-mission briefing videos, though – which are at least skippable – the better.
Missions are mostly drawn from a small, unvaried pool; blow up ground and air units, score x number of points within a time limit or escort a VIP through a warzone with a few boss fights scattered in-between.
Stand-out missions meanwhile include some mildly hilarious stealth levels – requiring you to fly within a narrow margin to avoid being spotted – an all-out war at Stonehenge, and an epic finale that fully embraces the silliness promised by the cartoonish story. A “less is more” approach probably would’ve been beneficial here by cutting a few of the samey earlier missions, but it at least offers up a substantial 10-12 hour play-time depending on your skill level.
As a new player, the second-biggest surprise was Ace Combat 7‘s steep learning curve; this is not a particularly welcoming game for those fresh to the series, lacking even a basic tutorial beyond a quick controls run-through in the opening mission. Furthermore, in a bizarre design decision, the only way to view a full diagram of the control scheme is to exit back to the main menu.
Indeed, it took a good few hours for Ace Combat 7‘s design philosophy to click with me, but when it did, I appreciated just why fans love the series so much, even if I didn’t quite become an evangelist myself. The intensity of steering a zero-G turn in order to finally sync a missile lock on the enemy is a visceral pleasure quite unlike anything else I’ve played recently.
It’s also worth nothing that the game’s difficulty can’t be changed mid-campaign, so choose carefully; even easy mode presents a lot of push-back with tight timed missions and quick Mission Failed screens awarded to players who don’t listen to their comrades and keep an eye on their map. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but sparse checkpointing – especially earlier on in the game – can prove frustrating, especially for new players. Failing at the tail-end of a 15-minute sequence and having to play it all over again just seems needlessly cruel, especially with the infuriatingly unskippable banter at the start of some checkpoints.
Visually speaking, the lack of HDR support is disappointing right out of the gate, but the game mostly does a basically decent job even if it’s ultimately nothing spectacular. Up-close terrain and objects can look quite ugly, yet clearly the bulk of the attention-to-detail has (rightly) been applied to the various fighter jets on offer.
You can practically smell the jet fuel coming off these things, and the heat haze emanating off your chosen engine is gorgeous, all while maintaining a (mostly) fluid 60 FPS or thereabouts (as is especially impressive in the game’s post-level replay mode). The introduction of weather systems – a first for the series – also results in some visually remarkable moments, especially the presence of lightning and clouds during already-intense shootouts.
On the base PS4 Ace Combat 7 does struggle with explosions, though, and launching a carpet bombing close to the ground can often cause the frame-rate to temporarily dip to atrociously low levels, even if this is usually for only a second or two.
Another mildly baffling aesthetic decision sees much of the game’s HUD and subtitled dialogue appearing in white or other light colours, which given the abundance of time you’ll spend in the clouds often renders it invisible. While you can certainly argue this is in the stead of creating a more immersive experience tantamount to the hardships of real aerial combat, would it have killed Bandai Namco to at least make the subtitles yellow?
Aurally, the music is mostly in one ear and out the other, but the game otherwise rustles up a compelling soundscape, from the appealing purr of the various fighter jets to the satisfying whizz as rival aircraft fly past your face, while the explosions pack the requisite punch. After about 20 hours of play, the missile alert sound effect is a bit irritating, but with a missile salvo heading straight for your cockpit, why wouldn’t it be?
Bandai Namco claimed that it would take even committed players about 50 hours to 100% the game, and much of this time will surely be spent hoovering up the unlockables inside the game’s aircraft tree. This upgrade table presents a large swathe of new vessels and aircraft parts for players to work their way through, which while intimidating at first is actually agreeably straight-forward, and is further offset by the generous currency you’re awarded after campaign missions and multiplayer matches. 50 hours still feels a touch optimistic, but there’s enough here to make replaying missions plenty appealing.
And speaking of multiplayer, up to 8 players can duke it out online in the form of two modes – Team Deathmatch and Battle Royale. The former is exactly what you’d expect; 4v4 dogfights, where you’ll likely spend most of your time running rings around an opponent who is doing exactly the same to you. Whether that’s fun or frustrating will surely vary between players, but the satisfaction of finally obliterating an evasive opponent after a multi-minute chase speaks for itself.
Battle Royale is meanwhile a little different than you might be expecting, and is pretty much just a bait-and-switch in order to cash-in on the mode’s popularity. “Battle Royale” here is really an 8-player Free-For-All mode and even includes respawns, so that’s that.
The online play is an overall decent if ultimately unremarkable part of the package, allowing players to slug it out with fellow humans albeit lacking the depth or variety of modes you might hope for. Even accepting the absence of a true Battle Royale mode with dozens of players in the same space, some more creative match types wouldn’t have gone amiss. Still, what’s here is snappily entertaining, with slick menus ensuring the downtime between matches is at an absolute minimum.
And finally, we have the disappointingly scant yet largely enthralling VR component. Though there are sadly only three VR missions on offer lasting around an hour in total, they do offer up an uncompromising experience that feels exactly how you’d expect a verbatim, full-fat translation of the core game into this medium to feel.
To that end, beware that this is in no way a VR mode for newcomers to the tech; you’ll need a sturdy pair of VR legs to cope with the obviously vertiginous nature of aerial dogfighting, and even with two solid years of constant VR play under my belt, I still felt a little queasy after a lengthy session. Furthermore, there are no comfort settings to speak of – this is pure “vomit mode” VR, presumably in an attempt to create the most authentically immersive experience possible.
The visuals are typically beholden to PSVR’s low resolution, but the feeling of presence is really quite incredible; soaring through the air is tangible in the very best way VR can be, and a near-miss with a fellow pilot proves genuinely pulse-quickening. The missions on offer aren’t particularly outstanding and the lack of multiplayer is a bummer, but the VR mini-campaign does serve as a thrilling proof-of-concept for what a complete VR Ace Combat game could be.
It’s worth reiterating, though, that there’s disappointingly little here, so if you’re largely aiming to purchase the game with VR in mind, even multiple playthroughs probably won’t bring this beyond the 5-hour mark. There is also some mildly amusing Free Flight and Air Show modes in the bargain, but if VR is your primary motivation for playing, you’d be better off renting the game or hoping that Bandai Namco carves out the VR suite as a standalone offering later on.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a stubbornly old-fashioned title in some areas and to that end does little to roll out the red carpet for newbies, but if you can stomach some of its more peculiar design choices, there is a tenaciously addictive and entertaining game underneath.
+ Lengthy, cinematic campaign should please fans.
+ Slick and intense core gameplay.
+ VR mode is insanely immersive.
– Steep difficulty curve isn’t newbie-friendly.
– Campaign is too repetitive at times.
– Not enough VR content.
– Multiplayer suite is incredibly basic.
Reviewed on PS4 (also available now for Xbox One and PC on February 1).
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more video game rambling.