Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown delivers the supremely satisfying air combat players crave and the melodramatic narrative we’ve come to expect. There’s nothing quite like shooting down drones while your squadron calls you “murderer.”
Ace Combat has been serving the arcade-style dogfight loving public for more than two decades. Since 1995’s Air Combat for the PlayStation, the series has weaved a story most players would be completely content without around some of the best aerial warfare available on consoles. The only truly unpleasant entry in the series thus far is 2014’s Ace Combat Infinity for the PlayStation 3, a free-to-play experiment that fell flat.
Which makes Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, the first new game in the series’ primary continuity since 2007's Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, a return to form. Following Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and Infinity’s trips to the real world, Skies Unknown returns to the fictional world of Strangereal. The Osean Federation and the Kingdom of Erusea are at war. The player character, callsign “Trigger,” is a promising young rookie in the Osean Air Defense. Or he is until he kills the former president.
Was it on purpose? An accident? Who knows. Murder is bad, so Trigger is sent to prison. Fortunately, that prison is also a faux airbase, where an attractive young prisoner (and sometimes star of the game’s gorgeous cinematic cutscenes) has been getting battered old fighter planes air ready. Trigger becomes part of an outlaw squadron, battling for the Osean Federation in order to atone for his sins.
It’s a ridiculous storyline that’s woven together with Ace Combat’s signature flair. The game opens with the young mechanic reminiscing about her grandfather, explaining how she and her grandfather’s friends rebuilt an old airplane, which she then flew into the middle of a conflict, which got her tossed in prison. Several missions into the game, Trigger winds up at the same prison. Now, instead of being a promising rookie, Trigger is a “murderer!” Other pilots are betting on his demise. Instead of encouraging him to fight, control is saying things like, “Don’t worry about dying, worry about your sins.” Those guys.
Threads slowly come together in a compelling fashion. It’s a pity many players will skip all of it just to get to the dogfighting. They won’t be disappointed: The dogfighting in Ace Combat 7 is quite nice. The scenery is splendid. The planes look outstanding. I don’t know if it’s a result of the game moving to Unreal Engine 4 or some other subtle tweak to the formula, but machine guns feel a lot more viable as an air-to-air weapon this time around. They’re so viable that I often find myself crashing into other planes because I think I am a hotshot machine-gunner.
I crash into planes, sure. I also crash into cliff walls. I get so overzealous about taking out ground targets that I often find myself slamming my expensive warplane into the ground. Despite nifty new mechanics like muffled audio when flying into dense clouds capable of ruining missile aim or icing over wings, I have been known to stall out, which can lead to more crashing.
But that’s okay, because Ace Combat 7 has plenty of planes. So many planes. An entire plane tree of planes. As I complete missions, I earn points to spend on expanding the plane tree, unlocking new weapons, vehicles and upgrade parts. Things like increased missile capacity or a tighter turning radius can make all the difference when flying the unfriendly skies. Plus, unlocking everything on the expansive tree is an excellent reason to play both the single-player campaign and online multiplayer.
I’ve only played a couple rounds online, mind you, and I am timid about playing more. Not because I am not good at it. To the contrary, aerial combat is entirely my cup of multiplayer tea. In the rounds I’ve played I’ve been MVP twice. I went an entire bout without dying once. I don’t want to let that glory slip away as more skilled fighters take to the skies.
While I work up my nerve to potentially end my winning streak, there’s plenty of stuff to do in campaign mode. So far the handful of missions I’ve run have had a nice variety of objectives. The first mission is a simple shoot-all-the-planes deal to get players acclimated with the flight and combat controls. Then we move on to some ground-based objectives, taking out a radar truck convoy. There’s a very cool mission that begins with a tense bit of enemy radar dodging, as Trigger attempts to make it to his objective undetected.
Things get really interesting once our pilot falls from grace, and we start getting missions the Oseans would only give to convicted felons. Like flying unarmed planes to make it seem like a fake airbase is a real one. Or being sent to gauge enemy ground defenses by being a target for enemy ground defenses. Things get much more exciting once there’s nothing left to lose.
The only thing that’s missing for me from Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown so far is a flight stick. My PlayStation 4 controller works fine, and there’s an option for expert controls that give players more control of yaw and pitch. But nothing beats a good flight stick. Unfortunately the only stick I own is for the PC, so I have to wait until that version comes out February 1.
Again, not a problem. Ace Combat is the sort of series one can play again and again, approaching missions from different angles with different loadouts, and Skies Unknown is no exception. Not a mission has gone by that hasn’t left me wondering how it would have gone had I done things differently. Maybe if I’d flown high and dropped down on ground targets instead of coming in low. Or if I’d loaded up weak missiles capable of targeting multiple enemies instead of slower, more powerful ordinance. Hell, sometimes I just use the mission replay’s “free flight” option and fly through a level with no mission or objective, just for the joy of it.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a joy. It’s a triumphant return for a series that’s spent a couple of years flying in the wrong direction. Minutes into my first mission, after watching the first of many melodramatic cutscenes, I settled back into my chair and smiled, because this is the stuff right here.