Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown makes you feel like the greatest pilot to ever live. Granted, most Ace Combat games conjure a similar feeling, but Bandai Namco has gone the extra distance in the latest installment in its classic dogfighting franchise. With some spectacular mission design and a solid if unsurprising story, Ace Combat 7 is the combat flight simulator I’ve been waiting for over a decade.
Ace Combat 7 returns the series to the franchise’s fictional universe of Strangereal, this time focusing on a war between Osea and Erusea that erupts following the construction of a space elevator near the Erusean border. You play as Trigger, a blank slate of a pilot who soon gets shipped off to a penal unit for reasons best left unexplained. Over the course of 20 missions, you’ll fly through diverse theatres of war as you strike back against Erusea, deal with an onslaught of drones, and fight to end the conflict before it boils over.
The story is primarily told in two ways, only one of which is particularly compelling. In-between missions, there are semi-frequent cutscenes that give you the point-of-view of characters not directly involved in the fighting, including a talented mechanic stuck in your penal unit, a scientist creating drones for the enemy, and the princess of Erusea. These cutscenes are dull, featuring characters that provide little emotional weight and who do uninteresting things that don’t truly matter until the last quarter of the game. On the opposite spectrum are the briefings and in-flight chatter, which provide character, levity, and most importantly made me actually invested in the events of the war. The way your briefing officer sounds more and more tired as the war drags on, or how your wingman Count slowly comes to respect his squadron leader do more to make the story interesting than any pre rendered cutscene does.
You’re not going to be surprised by the story of Ace Combat 7, which features all the superweapons, defectors, and under-the-radar ambushes that have become hallmarks of the series. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the franchise’s melodramatic stories are as iconic as it’s dogfighting. At its best, Ace Combat’s brand of melodrama strikes hard at your emotions through overt yet well executed set pieces. At its worst, it becomes impossible to not recoil from the barrage of awkward dialogue that attempts to convey some sort of deeper meaning about peace or unity. Ace Combat 7 straddles the line between those two points, being neither particularly awkward nor particularly emotional. There’s little time to examine issues such as drone warfare or whether it’s possible to fight a clean war without civilian casualties, both of which the story brings up briefly before shuffling along to the next mission.
Substantially less awkward is the actual act of flying a plane. In each mission, you’ll fly one of over two dozen planes that come equipped with a machine gun, a host of basic missiles, and one of several different types of special weapons that include missiles designed to explode when they’re near a plane, large scale unguided bombs, and an actual railgun. Regardless of what plane you choose, flying is simply superb, no matter if you use the simple controls that are designed for beginners or a scheme that gives veterans greater control. The ability to control Post Stall Maneuvers, where you can purposely stall and sharply turn your aircraft around, adds greater depth to the usual assortment of dogfighting maneuvers.
One of the much touted features that’s incorporated here for the first time in Ace Combat history is the inclusion of clouds and dynamic weather as a gameplay element. When you enter a cloud your vision is obscured, moisture clings to your canopy, and you run the danger of either stalling due to ice build up or crashing into obscured terrain and aircraft. It becomes more difficult to gain a lock on an enemy target, which conversely makes flying into a cloud a viable defensive option in a dogfight. As simple of an addition as it is, it also creates some of the most memorable missions I’ve played in the entire franchise. One mission tasks you with flying back under cloud cover to avoid satellite tracking, while another conjures up a sandstorm that significantly lowers your ability to hunt down ground targets. Yet my favorite mission involves dogfighting in the middle of a lightning storm in a valley, which both knocks out your on-board systems and makes it much more difficult to fly around the mountainous pillars that reach up into the sky around you.
Ace Combat 7’s greatest strength lies in how well designed most of the missions are. With one major exception, the campaign features missions that run the gamut from furballs filled with enemy and allied planes, to a massive raid on an oil refinery, to a tight stealth mission through a heavily guarded ravine. Yet most missions feature changing objectives that force you to stay on your toes and prepare for the unexpected. As an example, the aforementioned stealth mission changes into a large scale raid partway through, and other missions will continually test your skills as you change from offense to defense, air to ground, and vice-versa.
Outside of the campaign, multiplayer returns in limited form with two player-versus-player modes, Team Deathmatch and Battle Royale, the latter of which is better described as a normal free-for-all mode. They’re both straightforward in execution, as you take part in simple dogfights with fully customizable aircraft at your disposal, but neither are they particularly interesting. A co-op mode, or at least more types of PvP outside of the two modes provided would have given me greater reason to come back and play it for more than a handful of matches.
If you’re playing Ace Combat 7 on the PS4, there is also an exclusive VR mode that features three missions, an air show that you can control, and a hangar to examine each of the aircraft up close. But just like the multiplayer, the small number of missions and modes holds it back. Which is a shame, because even though the visuals are scaled back, the three VR missions are impressive and engaging in a way that rivals the best missions in the campaign itself. As it stands however, it’s a fun sideshow that will likely bear more fruit in future Ace Combat titles than it does here.
As much as I wish that the modes outside of the campaign were more fleshed out, Ace Combat 7 is a return to form for Bandai Namco’s long running franchise. The beauty in flying, the sheer scale and breadth to the campaign, and the small yet impactful additions to the gameplay formula makes Ace Combat 7 feel fresh, even if the systems behind it haven’t changed all that much over the years. It’s high time for Ace Combat to make its return, and fortunately, the skies are clear for it to come back soaring further than it ever did before.