I've been a fan of Ace Combat for quite some time. Ever since I read Game Informer's review of Ace Combat 5 and ran to a local Blockbuster to check it out, I've been hooked. I also owned the original PS1 Ace Combat, back when it was still called Air Combat. Though I don't think I quite understood it as a kid, I've played a lot of the entries since, and I've been gleefully waiting for Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown to release. As I mentioned in my impressions, I was already in love with the game. So now that I've finished it all, am I still so gleeful?
Ace Combat 7's story kicks off when the country of Erusea launches a surprise attack on Osean. You play as Trigger, a pilot for the Osena army. Early on, he's accused of killing President Harling and sent to prison. However, when Osean desperately needs pilots, he once again finds himself drafted into the war. While Trigger attempts to end the war by flying in his jet and shooting people down, we also get to see from the perspective of several others. It all comes together in a plot that is, at best, mildly interesting and, at worst, kind of confusing.
Part of the problem is that the missions often have nothing to do with the cutscenes. Characters not involved in the gameplay segments often take the focus, including a mechanic who works on airplanes. They'll talk about going to one place, then you'll play a seemingly unrelated mission that involves a totally different section of the world. The storytelling comes off as choppy, which leads to confusion. It doesn't help that many of the cutscenes consist of little more than characters giving long-winded monologues about nothing. Then, halfway through the campaign, a good chunk of the characters drop out of the plot, never to be seen again.
Thankfully, this is Ace Combat, and you're only partially here for the story. When it comes to actual gameplay, that's where the series is shining stronger than it ever has. Those who have played past entries in the series should feel right at home at first. You'll have to pick an aircraft and a special weapon. There's a good chunk of variety here, with aircraft made for specific roles. It's worth listening to each briefing closely just so you know what you're up against and can decide on the best counter for them. In some missions, I found myself lugging around guided bombs. Another had me sporting missiles that locked onto eight targets. A third saw me utilizing an entire railgun. There's a lot of variety in Ace Combat 7, and not just in the arsenal.
Mission objectives shift wildly across the campaign. One level had me defend a car as it drives through a city in the middle of a warzone. Another had me flying close to enemy planes to determine if they're friendly due to a disabled satellite. Unfortunately, as the game advances into later stages, some of these levels aren't quite as great. One forced stealth level sees you flying through a canyon and dodging searchlights. I quickly discovered this isn't really that fun. Especially when one of the last turns is so sharp, it's nearly impossible to make.
The worst offenders are the annihilation missions. The idea is that you earn points by destroying enemies. Your goal is to earn enough points before the timer runs out. Generally, there's very little to these missions other than jetting towards a field of targets and shooting them down. It doesn't help that they're often twenty minutes or longer with no way to shorten the timer by hitting the goal early. The rather harsh checkpoint system doesn't help either. It often requires you to repeat the entire mission even if you fail within the last minute or two. Thankfully, of the twenty missions, there's only about four of these.
Just because you're in the air doesn't mean terrain isn't important. Clouds play a central role in Ace Combat 7. It's harder for missiles to get a lock on anyone flying through clouds, and missiles in the air tend to lose their targets. This holds true for both you and enemies, meaning you'll always want to be aware of where any surrounding clouds. Both so you can duck into them and so you can change tactics and lure enemies out of them. However, you can't stay in clouds forever.
Your airplane will eventually ice over, reducing mobility and speed over time along with making it very difficult to see. It's a fantastic risk and reward system, and such a simple little thing can totally change the dynamics during combat. The longer you play the more effects you'll see. Strong winds can push your aircraft around, sandstorms can kill radar and visibility, and lightning strikes can shut off your HUD.
By combining all of these skills and environmental elements, you can take on some of Ace Combat 7's biggest threats. This includes giant drone deploying autonomous airplanes and extremely talented pilots who can dodge your missiles like its nothing. These are some great fights, and I really felt every bit of my skill being put to the test. It just left me wishing I got to fight more of these enemies. Still, what's here is brilliant, and each of these major fights is a treat both visually and gameplay-wise.
After every level, you receive points that you can spend to purchase new items. There are new aircraft, special weapons, and passive upgrades you can unlock. It's a pretty meaty tree, and just finishing the ten-hour campaign wasn't enough to unlock everything. If you're going to want to be a completionist, you're looking into either several playthroughs or dipping your toes into Ace Combat 7's online modes.
If you choose to do the latter, Ace Combat 7 lets you either play team deathmatches or "battle royales." This isn't Apex Legends, it's just regular deathmatches with a fancy name. Your effectiveness ties into both your multiplayer and single player progress, so frustration comes easily. Simply put, players who've put in more hours have better airplanes and upgrades. Skill can still get around this, but the difference is noticeable. As for the actual gameplay, they're basic deathmatches. Fun, but not notable in any particular way.
Thankfully, no matter what mode you pick, you get a helping of amazing music. The Ace Combat series has always had legendary tunes, and Skies Unknown is no exception. From upbeat guitar tracks to choir heavy boss themes, there are a ton of fantastic tracks. The multiplayer also uses tracks from other entries in the series, giving even more for fans to love. Let's face it, Zero can make even the blandest of fights fantastic. Graphically, Ace Combat 7 is a lovely game that really shows off just how impressive the series is. The CGIs are also fantastic, with the exception of one strange time where a .jpg of a dog takes the place of a CGI. It almost reminds me of the infamous scene from American Sniper that used a clearly fake baby.
If you chose to grab Ace Combat 7 on the PlayStation 4 then you get an additional bonus: a short VR campaign. It's only three missions long, but it's an exhilarating bonus that more than manages to make up for its short length. It doesn't play too differently from the main game outside of using look aiming rather than a joystick. I would suggest getting your VR legs before trying this mini-campaign out though. It's very fast paced, and it's quite easy to get motion sick if you're not used to VR movements. Still, it's a fantastic bonus, and one well worth experiencing.
By the end of the campaign, I was very happy with Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. It may fall a bit short of replacing The Unsung War as my series favorite, but it came quite close. Fans should be over the moon (jets can't go there, please don't try to actually fly over the moon) with how the series manages to find its roots while still changing things up, and newcomers have a very solid entry point for the series. Here's hoping we won't be waiting nearly ten years for the next one.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown has a few annoying elements, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's exactly what the series needed for a great comeback.
- Phenomenal Gameplay
- Fantastic Weather System
- Great Boss Fights
- Wonderful Soundtrack
- Great Use of PSVR
- Iffy Story
- Terrible Checkpoints
- A Few Boring Missions
- Forgettable Multiplayer