Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
Winging its way back to consoles and PC after a significant absence, one of the longest running flight simulator franchises returns with a fresh lick of paint. Is it enough to fill a hole in the market for a genre that's been underrepresented as of late?
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown returns to the series alternate version of Earth (“Strangereal”) to tell the story of a rising tension between warring nations Erusea and Osea. After our protagonist Trigger is falsely accused of a crime, he is sentenced to “Spare Squadron” - essentially an aviation “Suicide Squad” of sorts.
While the main plot outline is full of tropes and flyboy banter, it never takes advantage of its fictional setting and vaguely absurd storyline to revel in its own silliness. Instead, it plays things seriously with some truly cringe-worthy dialogue - despite fairly strong voice-acting.
This story is paraded in front of the player at every opportunity, and while some will no doubt enjoy it’s reams of expositional dialogue, it’s general lack of character means that it won’t be long before you’re skipping dialogue during overlong mission briefings and doing your best to block it out when you’re hurtling through clouds and chasing bogeys.
Thankfully, where Ace Combat 7 does lay on the fun is in its gameplay. Missions are varied, comprising a solid mix of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, each combat scenario requiring tracking of multiple targets and use of incredibly effective special weaponry. These exciting missions, combined with the pin-sharp visuals, really allow for a new intensity for the franchise.
With detailed fighter jets, impressive landscapes and a phenomenally detailed weather system, Ace Combat 7 is a beautiful game, particularly on PlayStation 4 Pro. Flying through clouds not only causes droplets of precipitation to obscure your view, but also for the game’s audio and excellent “blockbuster movie” soundtrack to become muffled - really lending the idea that you’re in the eye of a storm. This serves a gameplay purpose too - missiles won’t lock onto obscured targets, and surprising an enemy squadron by rising from clouds before they realise you were there never gets old.
Throughout the sizeable campaign players will earn currency that can be used to purchase new modifications for aircraft or simply purchase new ones. While all are responsive, some planes and weapons are tailored to certain missions more than others. Making a note of objectives to pick a load out always felt like an important consideration, even if the game didn’t force me into a particular archetype. Simply picking your favourite plane and weapon is an option, but the game will be more challenging without the right tools for the job.
True to series form, Ace Combat 7 blurs the line between arcade and simulation, never feeling like too much of one or the other. While the game features two control modes, “Expert” is easily the highlight and allows for an impressively expanded range of control over rolling your fighter. While “Basic” is great for beginners, “Expert” means dodging of missiles is more responsive and this proves particularly useful in multiplayer where human pilots are a lot less susceptible to tried and true backflips and missile locks as the AI ones are.
That multiplayer allows for both free-for-all skirmishes or 4v4 action, and it runs smoothly even when you’re being chased by seven other human players. Kills aren’t a deciding factor, as hits on targets will help accrue some points. It’s still a challenging arena, but it makes newer players feel like they’re at least contributing. Currency earned here can be spent in the same way as in the campaign, which means it can be a good way to fill out your hangar or armoury and improve your chances in either mode.
One of the highlights of Ace Combat 7 on PlayStation 4 is it’s PlayStation VR functionality. While the campaign cannot be played in full (a la Resident Evil 7), it features an alternative, truncated campaign with its own set of missions as well as the option to fly aimlessly and take in the sights.
Flying an F16 upside down in VR can be just as nauseating as you’d expect, but plays exceptionally well. Head-tracking allows for a wider degree of vision, while the game’s already excellent sound design works just as well using the headsets earphones. The VR mode does require a significant visual downgrade (especially compared to the base game’s excellent visuals) but the tradeoff is worth it - if you can stomach the queasiness.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is an excellent package. Its overly-complex narrative bogs down so much of what makes the game a carefree thrill ride, but a great campaign structure, intense multiplayer and a VR tour de force make this the best game in the storied franchise and one every pilot should pick up.