Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is the first entry in the franchise in seven years, over a decade if you count when Ace Combat 6 was released.
Within minutes of sitting down and jumping into a short, 20-minute demo, my fears evaporated. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an Ace Combat game, but it still feels right at home all these years later.
Set in the world of Strangereal, the setting of nearly every previous Ace Combat title, this edition focuses on a war between the Kingdom of Erusea, the antagonists of Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, and the Osean Federation. You play as a pilot under the callsign ‘Trigger’who flies for Osea, but you’re soon sent to a penal unit after being accused of murdering a former president. I can only imagine how poorly the Osean’s are faring if they retain the services of an accused murder, but this is Ace Combat I’m talking about; melodrama goes hand-in-hand with arcade flying in a strange marriage.
What this means in gameplay in terms of gameplay is unclear. The two missions that I played featured some banter between your penal squad and command, with references to how you will be lacking support, but I never saw if that translated directly into mission changes such as being unable to return to your base to reload. Fleeting as my time with the game was, the story and dialogue took a backseat.
At the forefront was the flying itself, which will feel very familiar to fans of the franchise. The controls are straightforward for newcomers, which primarily means that turns are as easy as pushing the joystick to the right or left. There is the option to turn on an advanced controller scheme, where must perform part of a barrel roll in order to turn, which is more in line with earlier titles in the series.
You enter each mission by choosing your aircraft and loadout, which in the demo was severely limited, though each of the planes I tried felt noticeably different from one another. The first mission I played featured an assault on a trio of Erusean ground bases, with some small air support backing up a large of anti-aircraft guns and SAM units. Apart from being told that you should hit all three, the order in which you attack them is entirely up to you. In attacking one base that was hidden amongst a canyon, I allowed more enemy planes to take off from a separate base that served as an airfield.
Starfing the bases was an easy task and one that felt empowering. The act of unloading a machine gun into an oil tanker, switching to air-to-air missiles to fire at an approaching chopper, before strafing a runway is certainly far from realistic, but it’s classic Ace Combat. As per usual, the game cares less about absolute realism in how you fly and fight using a variety of real-world and fictional planes, than it does in making you feel like the ultimate fighter pilot. Attacking a series of bases is a standard mission, though my demo timed out before I could find out if there was more to it than a simple attack.
As for the second mission I played, this is where Ace Combat 7 showed just how much had changed in the intervening years since the previous title. Here, the objective is to attack a number of SAM sites that are stationed along the path of some allied planes, before Erusean drones arrive to harass you. Compared to the relatively flat desert of the previous mission, here you fly amongst a series of titanic pillars that rise into the sky and frequently obscured by clouds. Moisture covered the canopy as I darted in and out of the clouds, and combination of towering earth and low-flying clouds showcased the massive technological improvements that are being used to their full effect here.
It also transformed what would have been a simple mission into one that felt unique despite the straightforward objective. Flying in and out of the rainforest covered mountains was a challenge, as it required tight turns and caused many missiles to miss their target due to the fog obscuring your vision. This made for really fun dogfights, as it tested my skills as a pilot and forced me to pay attention to my surroundings. Of the two missions I played, this was my personal favorite, and it’s the one that made my confident that Bandai Namco hasn’t lost their aerial touch all these years later.
Ace Combat 7 is one of my most anticipated titles of 2019, even it is set for release on January 19th. There has not been a game that has filled the hole that Ace Combat left open for years, and based on what I’ve seen, this will have been well worth the long wait.