When Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown launches next year, Bandai Namco emphasizes three primary modes of play; Campaign, Online Multiplayer, and VR.
The first two are accessible to players on any console, while VR is unique to the PS4 through the use of Playstation VR. Whether that’s the result of a deal with Sony is unclear, but what is plain about this new mode is that it has the potential to reshape what the Ace Combat franchise is capable of going forward.
In my hands-on time with Ace Combat 7 at the Tokyo Game Show (you can read my experience with the non-VR modes here), I played through part of the second of three VR missions present in Ace Combat 7. These are exclusive to the VR mode, with no crossover with the primary campaign. From what I’ve played, I’m unsure how the VR missions will fit into the story, but I do know that even without context, this is something special.
Mission #2 centers on a sudden enemy attack on a ground base. Jets swoop in close to the ground to fire off missles, explosions rock the runway, anti-aircraft guns fire at any enemy that comes into range, and planes crash into the ground with abandon. You start off in your jet, taxiing along the runway for roughly a minute before control is handed back to you and the mission begins in earnest.
Through this guided section, you’re able to look around with complete 360-degree rotation. You can glance back at the seat behind you, look at the very detailed cockpit, or gaze outside as your jet narrowly misses a crashing transport plane that slams into the ground. The spectacle of it all is impressive – due to crashing my plane early in my demo, I experienced this twice – but outside of the planes themselves, it all looks slightly off. The ground features a low resolution, and the aforementioned anti-aircraft guns are quite blocky and lack details. Of course, when your thousands of feet in the air, details such as this matter little.
When control was handed back to me, you are supposed to accelerate and pull off of the runway as a transport plane crashes in front of you. However, if you’re like me and several of the other people who experienced this demo, hitting the gas immediately will result in hitting that very plane that’s crashing. I’m not sure if that was intended, but lesson learned.
Up to the point where I took off, the VR in Ace Combat 7 felt fine but didn’t really stand out for me. That changed quickly, as the changed user interface made for a far more engaging experience. Compared to regular Ace Combat, almost all of the UI is implemented within the cockpit itself. The radar is a small screen on the bottom left of the instrument panel, and your current ammo count is displayed on the bottom right. This is very immersive and makes good use of the platform.
Similarly, locking onto enemies is also incorporated in a natural way. All you need to do is look at an enemy plane that is positioned in front of you, and if you can hold your gaze for a few seconds, you will lock on to them. Simple, yet it made me feel like I was in control of my fighter plane, and as silly as it sounds, I felt like a fighter pilot for the briefest of moments. Though my demo was timed, I really enjoyed the brief moments I spent in VR, and were it not for the long wait, I would have spent more time with it.
Outside of the UI and controls, little touches here and there make for a better experience. If you fly too high, ice will start to form on the canopy, while flying through clouds will leave behind droplets of water. Taking hits will cause warning lights to flash in the cockpit, and too much damage will cause smoke and fire to cloud your vision. They’re little details, but that can make all the difference in the long run.
While I only played the second mission, I do know that the first mission of the VR mode will feature a take off from an aircraft character that leads into a dogfight. As for the types of jets you can use here, the F/A-18F Super Hornet, the F-22A Raptor, and the Su-30M2 Flanker-F2, though I do not know the differences between them in how they operate in VR.
While the missions are the main focus of VR in Ace Combat 7, there are also several additional modes that add some variety to the proceedings. In the final product, you will be able to view each of the planes in a garage, changing your camera viewpoint to see all the details if you choose. There’s an air show that you can watch, which features 22 different aerial maneuvers, which you can use to create your own performance that can be set to music from earlier in the franchise. Lastly, there’s you can take any of the planes out for a spin in free flight, where there are no enemies around and where you can fly to your heart’s content.
This is the first time I’ve played a VR mode for a game where I’ve walked away thinking that this could be the future of a franchise. It’s got some rough edges to it, and I’m not sure that three missions will be enough to sate people’s hunger for the mode. Despite that, I want to play more Ace Combat 7’s VR, because the thrill of soaring through the clouds in my own cockpit is one that I want to dive into again and again.