Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: Jan. 31, 2019


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PC Review - 'Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown'

by Cody Medellin on April 11, 2019 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Ace Combat 7 delivers the fiercest air combat experience ever through photorealistic visuals, intense dog-fighting action, a multitude of authentic and futuristic aircraft to fly, and an immersive storyline.

Buy Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

For decades, the Ace Combat series has been exclusive to consoles. Each entry was exclusive to the platform it debuted on, and the only entry to go multiplatform and also appear on the PC was Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, a title that's been divisive amongst fans. The absence of this series led to indie developers picking up the slack, so PC-only players could still get an Ace Combat-like experience with titles like Vector Thrust and RaidersSphere4th. After more than a decade, the seventh main entry in the series, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, has arrived on the PC as well as the PS4 and Xbox One.

From the moment the first cut scene appears, longtime fans will recognize that the series has returned to familiar territory, particularly the realm of Strangereal, where the countries of Erusea and Osea were at war with one another. The game opens with narration from Avril, a young woman who was born into a family of pilots. She's fixing up her plane in the hopes of breaking the sound barrier, but on her maiden flight, she inadvertently gets caught up in the start of a new war between Osea and Erusea, and she's taken prisoner to a decoy air base. Meanwhile, most of the mission has you playing someone with the callsign Trigger, a rookie pilot who's also been caught up in the war. Separately and eventually together, the duo works to stop the war from escalating.

The initial disconnect between the cut scene narrative and the tale being told through gameplay can be jarring, but series veterans will recognize it as being par for the course. All of the scenes are overly dramatic, but the location names and the dialogue can make the tale seem less serious and more goofy. The story is easy to get into, and even though most players will ignore it since it rarely has anything to do with the missions, the players who do follow the series' lore will feel rewarded.

If you're new to the Ace Combat series, you'll find this to be a flight game with more emphasis on action than simulation. Some missions start off with you at the runway, but most begin with you in mid-flight, and none of the missions ask you to land. Most missions have you engaging in aerial dogfights, but there are quite a number that feature bombing runs, and there's even a stealth mission or two. The missions are also dynamic; for example, a stealth mission quickly explodes into an all-out sortie with multiple planes on both sides weaving through machine gun and missile fire. More importantly, each of the game's 20 missions spends a significant amount of time on action, with the actual flight segments lasting for only a minute or two. Compared to most flight simulators, where there's more flying and only a smidgen of action, you have a game that can be described as being more arcade-like but without the negative connotations.

That arcade designation also applies to the controls. The default control scheme almost makes flying planes similar to driving a car; you use triggers for the gas and brake, the face buttons handle targeting and weapon firing, and the shoulder buttons handle strafing. The scheme works well if you want to do wide turns and stalls, and you can do some of the more advanced moves with a combination of gas and brake pulled at different times. For those wanting a finer level of control, you have the option to select a scheme that lets you enter precise pitch and yaw to get more maneuvers out of your plane, but no matter which scheme you choose, the controls remain responsive and easy to remember.

The combat may be immediately familiar to series veterans, but the team added something new in the form of weather. Some missions feature strong winds that push your plane around. Another mission may feature an electrical storm that disrupts your instruments, while yet another makes it difficult to see the ground due to fog. Almost all of the missions let you hide in the clouds, which comes with some benefits, such as being able to mess up heat-seeking missiles or making the radar go off-kilter. Of course, there are drawbacks, like having ice form on your wings to quicken the time it takes for your plane to stall. All of these elements give the missions some dynamism to add some excitement to standard dogfights.

This makes for an experience that is both thrilling and challenging. Enemy AI is quite good at evading most of your shots when you select the normal difficulty or higher. The terrain variety and the different mission types mean that you'll sometimes duck under falling debris or have to hover above the tree line so your shots can land well. Fans will appreciate the removal of the dogfight mode that was introduced in Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, so sky chases aren't automatic and plane health doesn't magically regenerate. The only complaint is that your AI wingmen are terrible shots, so expect to kill all of the targets by yourself.

Though flight sim fans may feel left out by the game's arcade approach, they can take solace in knowing that the game bookends all of this action with plenty of data. Things start out with a 3D tactical map with target locations and starting positions. Completing the mission gets you a complete replay of your flight from a variety of camera angles, complete with the ability to fast-forward and rewind to reach the good parts. Finish that, and you get another replay — this time in graph form, complete with flight patterns, elevation, and precisely when a target was destroyed. There's so much detail that you may wish other flight games went into this much detail in their post-mission reports.

Most elements of the side games of the series have been ignored, but one feature is included from Ace Combat Infinity: the Aircraft Tree. Every mission you partake in gives you points, and the points let you unlock new planes and new ordnance. The different planes prove to be useful for certain missions, so the large craft roster is invaluable in making the game easier to tackle should you run into a really tough mission. The good news is that the Aircraft Tree is a universal thing, so the unlocks done from campaign mode also affect multiplayer mode and vice versa.

While the series is making its PC debut, don't expect it to support everything that PC flight sim players may be accustomed to. Ultrawide and triple monitor support, for example, require the player to start messing with ini and configuration files instead of simply having the option present in the options menu. Beyond keyboard, mouse, and console controller support, the game only recognizes four HOTAS setups, two of which are made specifically for consoles. For those who want to take advantage of their beefy flight sim setups, Ace Combat 7 isn't the game for them.

Beyond the game's 20-mission campaign and subsequent free flight modes is multiplayer, which comes in two different flavors, both of which support eight players per match. Team Deathmatch splits the crowd into teams of four, while Battle Royal has all eight players fend for themselves. Both match types are based on either time or score, and while kills net you the most points, getting hits is good enough to get you on the board. Compared to other big-name games, the community here isn't that large, but the overall performance is good, as matches started rather quickly and no lag was present. The only disappointment comes from the fact that the PC doesn't have the VR mode that's currently exclusive to the PS4. Even though that mode only contains a handful of missions from Ace Combat 5, it would've been nice to see it running on VR headsets capable of higher resolutions.

The Ace Combat series has always provided players with excellent visuals, and this entry is no exception. Bandai Namco's move to Unreal Engine 4 pays off once more, with planes that are insanely detailed — right down to the rivets in the metal and the scuffs in the cockpit. Particle effects, like the smoke from an exploded plane and the clouds themselves, look stunning, and the environments look much more detailed in the larger play areas. The ground is no longer just a completely flat texture, and the flat areas don't have muddy textures. For series fans, the most important detail comes from the game's return to 60fps, a feature abandoned in the last few games, where the immense detail forced frame rates to lock to 30fps instead.

Sound-wise, the cheesy story works thanks to the strong voice acting, and the effects shine best when you're using a surround-sound system. Hearing missiles and other planes zoom right by you is thrilling every time it happens. It's the soundtrack that stands out the most here, as it ends up complementing both the action and the story. Interestingly, the cut scenes offer up almost Western fare, with twangy guitars and low-key instrument use, while the action segments take on more orchestral and inspirational cues. One nice touch about the soundtrack is that cloud cover muffles the sound, so the eventual emergence and accompanying rise in volume and clarity makes the moment more powerful.

Provided you don't approach this game as a strict flight sim, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown does everything that fans love about the series. The easy-to-grasp control scheme and reliance on arcade physics and sensibilities make for a good action platform, while the missions do a good job of keeping things varied. The story aims rather high on the melodrama scale, but the overall plot remains endearing, even if some things land on the silly side. The content is plentiful, replayability remains high, and the presentation easily makes Ace Combat 7 one of the better arcade-style flight games on the PC. It has been a long time coming, but action flight fans and those who love the series won't be disappointed by Ace Combat 7.

Score: 8.5/10

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