Like every little girl that grew up in the eighties, I wanted to be a Top Gun fighter pilot, and I probably would have been, if not for my crippling fear of heights and my inability to operate a moving vehicle. Since that was never in the cards for me, I found myself gravitating to games like Microsoft Flight Simulator, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat, and Ace Combat. Although none of these actually filled the void, I thought they did the trick well enough. Or at least I did until I got my hands on Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown for PSVR.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown puts its players in the pilot’s seat of one of a selection of aircraft, including the F-14D Super Tomcat, F-15C Eagle, F-22A Raptor, MiG-29A Fulcrum, A-10A Thunderbolt II, and Su-35 Flanker-E. Players take to the skies to engage in some intense dog-fighting action in the Stragereal universe familiar to fans of the franchise. The Osean Federation has built its space elevator in the Kingdom of Erusea. The story follows a brave pilot of Erusea named Trigger as he and the kingdom of Erusea try to repel this obvious violation of its sovereignty.
After 20 years of developing this franchise, the development team at Project and Bandai Namco have refined the pillars of combat and story that made Ace Combat the series it has become. And as expected, the latest console technology has yielded highly detailed environments, authentic aircraft, and now, weather elements that drastically affect gameplay.
In a short presentation by Bandai Namco at Gamescom 2017, I saw gameplay that showcased rain, icing, and cloud effects. During rain and stormy weather, players will experience intense turbulence and reduced visibility. As players enter higher altitudes with sub-zero temperatures after passing through a rainstorm, ice will begin to form on the wings, drastically changing their aerodynamics, making the controls sluggish and causing your performance – and your plane – to drop. Although the particular build I played didn’t exhibit ice or storm scenarios, I couldn’t imagine a more terrifying VR experience than suddenly losing control of your tens of thousands of feet up and suddenly plummeting to your death.
What I did get to check out were the cloud effects offered in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. As my pilot (and through him, me) boarded our aircraft and waited for our turn in the queue to take off from the aircraft carrier, I was able to get a full view of the landscape surrounding me: a stunning ocean, with misty islands off in the distance under the cover of a late afternoon sky smattered with fluffy pockets of clouds. As I took off, it didn’t take me long to pick up some enemies on my radar. I started my pursuit and, as is typical with my not-so-stealthy combat style, quickly had the tables turned on me, forcing me to beat a hasty retreat. I took my fighter up into the clouds in the hopes that I would be a little less sitting duck and a little more sky-fighter ninja-like. Hanging there in the centre of the cloud, my windows were absolutely useless – I couldn’t see a thing around me. But then again, neither could my enemy. I took that opportunity to gain altitude and become death from above, laying waste to my prey-turned-predator. It was a very satisfying experience, I must say. I can see a lot of potential for developing an attack strategy that uses the cloud effects, though that would mean some dangers to look out for as well, such as flying through a storm cloud or through low lying clouds that shroud dangerous ground hazards.
Now when you tackle the issue of playing a game in VR, there are a number of things you have to consider: is the gameplay a nauseous ride of gastrointestinal turmoil that will leave you heaving for the next 48 hours? How immersive is the world? Will your field of vision sometimes become so overwhelmed by the environment and the interface that you lose track of the goals you need to achieve? From the relatively short amount of time I spent with this latest Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown build, I can say that as long as your helmet is synched up correctly, your gameplay experience is very comfortable. But the key phrase here is “synched up correctly”. For my first couple of takeoffs, I was a little outside of the mapped regions. Even so, It was still easy to follow the enemy and lock on to them. I was still able to get a full 360-degree view of the game as well, including my pilot-VR-body (although at one point I was a little too far forward and found myself sitting on the headless pilot’s lap, which was an uncomfortable experience for a number of reasons). As for the VR stomach-churning factor, I personally didn’t find any problems with it, as the cockpit itself was stable enough that the movement around me felt as natural as looking through the window of a moving vehicle. That being said, it might be a completely different experience for someone who typically has trouble with that kind of motion while playing anything in VR.
I think the fact that Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is coming to PSVR holds a lot of potential to grow the audience of the franchise. Although it will be available sans-VR on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC via Steam, the fact that this particular experience on PSVR is so immersive and easy to play, with responsive controls and auto-lock aiming, means that newcomers who might not be all that interested in a flight simulator can, at the very least, get behind the fact that they can be Maverick for a little while. We’ll have to wait to wait until 2018 to see if the final product lives up to its potential.
Update: Edited for realistic flying height, grounded in reality.