Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown marks the grand return for Bandai Namco’s flight-sim series.
The combat flight-simulator franchise has been lying dormant ever since the Free-To-Play spin-off from Project Aces back in 2014. It has been even longer than that since players have had the chance to sit in the cockpit in a core-entry to the series. As Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is Bandai Namco’s only Ace Combat title to hit the current generation of consoles, fans have been eagerly awaiting the new installment. Low and behold, Bandai Namco did not pull any punches.
After being delayed out of 2017 and 2018 respectively, it became known that Bandai Namco wanted to rejuvenate the game and use Unreal Engine 4 to its fullest potential. This allowed the studio to develop one of the smoothest flight experiences imaginable.
Return To Strangereal
To set the stage, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown returns to the fictional universe of Strangereal in 2019. The story is told through the eyes of different characters caught in the middle of a war between the Osean Air Defense Force and the Kingdom of Erusea.
One of our protagonists involved is Avril Mead. Mead has a long lineage of pilots in her family. Through an unfortunate series of events taking place after a test-flight gone wrong, Mead is arrested and placed in the 444th airbase.
During this time, a pilot under the callsign Trigger also finds himself placed in the 444th. Trigger acts as the avatar during each mission and we follow him as he fights against the Erusea air force. Trigger is a silent protagonist, so the story revolves around him with other characters filling in the radio with status updates and context to the mission.
We meet other characters involved in the war during interstitial cutscenes. It is here that we see a lot of the beauty laid out by Unreal Engine 4. Character models and vehicles look beautiful. Many characters stand stoic, not revealing a lot of emotion, but the voice actors involved do help inject some emotion throughout.
The story itself does beg for a little more punch. Outside of the cinematics, each mission debriefing is accompanied by an overly dry voiceover. In addition, the radio-coms throughout each mission are just as bland. However, it’s easy to ignore the dialogue when the world around you looks as brilliant as it does.
Inside The Cockpit
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown features controls that are buttery smooth. It is all too common that the pilot’s field of view is too limited, making hard to follow enemy units. Bandai Namco amended this by placing the camera far enough that the FOV was wide open. Turning on a dime without losing sight of your target is very intuitive.
The entire flight experience is very manageable, even for novice flight-sim players. The difficulty levels allow a more comprehensive control scheme to be used for newer players while adding more simulation to the harder difficulties. The missions themselves offer a fair amount of challenge. However, the checkpoint system can be frustrating. A simple mistake, or finding yourself shot down can result in having to redo the majority of the mission due to not having checkpoints activated after each objective. Thankfully, each mission is only 10-15 minutes long.
There is a certain level of detail included that any Ace Combat fan can appreciate. Small rumbles can be felt on the controller whilst flying through a cloud. During those same moments, droplets will begin to form on the windows of the cockpit. The tense moments when you have a lock on an enemy and the music begins to swell leading to a satisfying takedown is always a satisfying experience.
The HUD itself is super clean and easy to manage. On the left side of the screen, you have a fixed radar. Each enemy unit is highlighted as white and red. White enemy units are your basic cannon-fodder, the more you kill, the higher your score will be. Red enemies are your primary targets. Effectively killing each will update your objective. On your right, you’ll have your ammunition. Each fighter plane is given unlimited ammo for their primary machine gun. As you progress through the story you will unlock additional secondary rockets and missiles. The ammo remaining is displayed as well. Some projectiles will auto-lock on multiple enemy aircrafts, while some will single out only one, and some focus on ground-units. During the course of the campaign, you’ll have the option to swap out which weapon suits the objective.
Getting to know your plane is important, but don’t get too attached. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown has a beefy Aircraft Tree. During your playthrough, you’ll begin collecting MP, which is the currency for unlocking new weapons, planes and perks.
There are many, many planes to unlock from X-02S Strike Wyvern to an F-15E Strike Eagle. Each plane has its own stats that fanatics of aviation can pore over. You can continue to unlock perks that will increase your rate of altitude, or ammo capacity –– Bandai Namco included quite a lot for completionists to dig through. For players looking at Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown at their premier flight-sim experience, you’re in luck! The game is chock full of reasons to keep you playing. Aside from tackling the campaign on the various difficulty modes, Ace Combat 7 features a multiplayer mode competitive players can sink their teeth into.
Two separate multiplayer modes are available; Team Deathmatch and Battle Royale. Before you get carried away, Battle Royale is more akin to a Free For All game mode than what Battle Royale is known for these days. Each mode allows up to eight players to participate in a dogfight match. The maps themselves will place players in an environment where not only do enemy fighters stand in the way of victory but mountain and weather conditions too. Winning matches will allow you to unlock multiplayer-exclusive gear to customize your aircraft. Multiplayer is great side-offering, but the campaign mode was the main attraction.
A Free Play mode is also available so players can fly freely in the open skies.
Take Flight In VR
For PlayStation 4 players, you receive the exclusive PSVR content included in the game. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown features a small handful of missions to play through with the PSVR headset and DualShock 4 controller.
PSVR experiences are usually very subjective based on the person playing as motion sickness can be a key factor. As a blanket statement for anyone prone to motion sickness from VR: it’s going to be a pretty bumpy ride. As someone who does not tend to feel the effects of locomotion, even I felt distorted from the spins and quick movements felt during the VR missions. Which was quite a shame, because those missions offer a lot of entertainment.
As expected, the graphics are downgraded. The beautiful shimmer environments have in the core game get replaced by some fairly rough edges. That being said, the gameplay itself is fluid and quite operational. As with the majority of missions, you’re tasked with destroying a few enemy units in the air. With the headset, you can track all enemies with your head movements, while the plane and other controls remain the same on the DualShock 4.
As the missions unfold, there is a magical feeling throughout. You are thrown into the cockpit and get to stare in awe as your craft takes off. Felling a small kick of adrenaline as you cut too close to the ground, or hearing the bullets zoom by the window of your cockpit –– it’s all a phenomenal experience. The PSVR exclusive missions are a must play, though maybe in smaller doses for some players. Here’s hoping that flight-stick controls become available for further immersion.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is an accessible entry to a franchise dearly missed. After not receiving a core title for 12 years, Bandai Namco put a lot of polish into the game. Whether you are a long time fan of the flight-sim genre or not, Ace Combat deserves your attention. Certain aspects of the story and dialogue are fairly one-note. But it never drags Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown down from being the technical treat that it is.
[A copy of the game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]