Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Review
High altitude thrills
There's been a definite shortage of flight games in recent years, especially ones of triple-A quality, and particularly on consoles. Sure, there's the sim-focused Flight Sim World, or the free to play War Thunder, or the more casual and mixed-genre entries like Starlink, but the pickings are slim. The days when developers were interested in the flight genre seem to be behind us; it has been years since HAWX, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and indeed an Ace Combat game. For now, most of the genre lives on through occasional indie releases, but they rarely focus on realism. But fret not, as Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown aims to end this lengthy dry spell.
Ace Combat is a very long running series – marked not only by the number 7 in its title, but the fact that it began in 1995. However, fans have been waiting since 2006's Ace Combat 6 to continue on with this arcade flight franchise. The most recent spinoff, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, launched way back in 2011. Even if you're a diehard fan of the franchise, it's probably tough to remember the events and gameplay nuances of the past games. With Ace Combat 7 though, neither is necessary.
The game takes place in the same world as the previous mainline entries, called Strangereal. The fictional globe resembles Earth, but some of the geography and country names have been tweaked. Not much time is taken to introduce this setting – we simply learn that there are two big continents, each with a large nation, and they have been at war previously. But in recent years, they've kept peace with the help of an UN-like organization. However, one nation has seemingly had enough and launches a series of precision strikes using drones. From there, a global conflict begins, and as a pilot for one of the two warring sides, you take up the mantle of flying combat jets in the war.
It's not long, however, until you're falsely accused of shutting down an ex-President's transport, and sentenced to a prison term. As part of the Spare squadron, where pilots are so disposable they simply get assigned a number as a callsign, you set off to perform specific tasks given by the base – where you're often just meant to be a target for the enemy while the real airforce arrives later. Of course, as a skilled pilot, you prove yourself to be far more valuable than just a distraction, and eventually your status is restored and your record cleared.
The narrative is told through a couple of different perspectives on each side of the conflict, via story cutscenes. However, in the game you assume the role of a nameless and voiceless pilot with the call sign of Trigger. As such, in cutscenes, other characters only refer to you in third person and Trigger never makes an appearance or says a word. This type of narrative is a challenging endeavor, and unfortunately the game isn't really up to the task. After a surprisingly excellent opening, Ace Combat 7 settles into fairly predictable storytelling, with the quality of writing being all over the place. The voice acting remains good, but some of the lines are just too cheesy in a game that presents itself rather seriously.
Ace Combat 7 features far too much narrative detail, given how little it matters in the end. For example, the fictional game world is fully realized after so many games in the franchise, but for newcomers it's neigh impossible to discern. The names of the contents, nations, and regions are just too similar and confusing - Osean Federation, Osean continent, Usean continent, Federation of Central Usea, Kingdom of Erusea… it's just a little too much and it sounds the same, plus the game constantly uses the names interchangeably. Another case of too much detail is found in the support cast – you fly with many other pilots, and everyone absolutely loves to clog up the radio chatter with their personal stories. But you feel nothing when some of them get shot down as part of the story.
But many fans might argue that Ace Combat has always been about the gameplay first and foremost, and, in that, the seventh entry does deliver. It's a modern arcade flight game, which means flying with a gamepad (there is a basic and sim control options) is quite accessible and the feeling of handling a fast combat jet is purely enjoyable. If you've played previous games in the series, or any of the most recent flight titles mentioned earlier, not much adaptation is needed before you're comfortably strafing the skies. Pitching, yawing, and pulling off daredevil maneuvers above land and sea becomes almost second nature after just an hour. Soaring above the clouds is liberating, and getting into combat is stirring.
This is a war, after all, so there won't be much time to simply cruise around and enjoy the scenery. Ace Combat 7 has a good sense of scope and atmosphere, giving players plenty of width and altitude in which to engage. On Normal difficulty, dogfights offer just the right amount of challenge while still giving you a moment to exhale and enjoy the carnage at high altitudes. As for weaponry, all aircraft have a machine gun, a limited number of general missiles, and an even more limited special weapon. Players have to choose their plane and loadout carefully, depending on the scenario.
Ace Combat 7 offers a 20-mission single player campaign that aims to give you a reason to take off. While story missions start off fairly stock-standard - fly here, dogfight with this squadron, attack an objective, and so on - things soon start to get more unique. To avoid spoiling these surprises the details won't be mentioned here, but the game gets fairly clever with the ways it challenges the player and switches up the battle conditions. In additional to that, you'll have to face off against the environment itself; flying in the rain clouds for too long will cause your plane to ice up, strong gusts of wind can carry you wayward, and lighting strikes during storms will temporarily knock you out. And of course, there are stalls if you push the aircraft beyond its limits. There are also very brief and basic refueling and landing/takeoff moments, which can be skipped entirely if you wish. The campaign throws plenty of different battle conditions at you, resulting in a varied and fun gameplay on the whole.
But it's not all perfect. As seems to be an unfortunate expectation with the flight genre, friendly AI pilots are useless and don't seem to do much of anything. But perhaps the biggest issue is the difficulty spikes in some missions. Sometimes, the challenge is overcome by better strategy - you need to attempt a mission a few times in order to learn its parameters, enemy approaches, and so on. Picking the right airplane and loadout is also extremely important sometimes. You could be stuck on the same mission for a while because you've got the wrong plane; and switching makes it rather trivial.
Still, at other times, the objectives are suddenly just too challenging. For example, midway through a mission you can go from ground-based to mostly aerial targets, making your original airplane choice a poor fit. But easily the most annoying aspect are the annihilation missions, where you're tasked with destroying a large amount of targets to beat a specific score. And, oh yeah, there is a very tight time limit that doesn't even make sense in the context of the story. These missions are challenging largely because of the timer, and they stand out as frustrating peaks across an otherwise smooth and enjoyable campaign. They also feature no checkpoints, understandably, unlike other missions which usually have a few separate objectives.
After beating the 15 or so hour campaign, there are reasons to return. Every mission is scored, so bringing back a better equipped craft will net you better results. You can also tweak the difficulty, and earn medals, callsigns, and plane skins for special tasks. Further, you'll want to earn more MRP, the game's currency. MRP is earned for almost everything you do, from simply beating missions to achieving certain bonus goals. This MRP is needed to purchase new aircraft and upgrade parts.
All aircraft carry a set of stats, such as speed, stability, defense, and more; they also fall into a category of Fighter, Multirole, or Attacker. You'll want to unlock new planes with better stats through the course of the campaign (and long after it), and you can do so via a large tech unlock tree. The tree is split into roughly two sections, one for American and one for Soviet based aircraft, as well as other smaller sidepaths further down. After making the purchase, you can also buy two more special weapons for each, to increase their versatility. As mentioned earlier, the special weapons are very limited in ammo and fall into either air-to-air or air-to-ground roles; their functions and behavior vary wildly, from guided anti-air rockets of up to 8 targets, to devastating ground bombs and anti-naval missiles. There is really a ton of options here.
The Aircraft tree also includes modification unlocks, from weapon to the aircraft itself. These affect your stats, so you could add to your plan's maneuverability and speed, and boost its special weapon power. To keep a sense of balance, the planes can only equip a limited number of upgrade parts and each part comes with a rating that cannot exceed the plane's maximum in the specific upgrade type. While there's plenty to unlock, it does cost quite a bit of MRP, but finishing the story should get you down to near the end of one upgrade path and an end-game airplane. This RPG-like aspect adds a great sense of progress to your time spent with the game.
Further, you can earn MRP in Ace Combat 7's multiplayer, as there is actually a third path to the unlock tree, which features multiplayer-only modifications, and they are quite expensive. The game uses a player-created lobby system, so there's no matchmaking. You input a few search parameters and join a room that looks good, or create your own. Parameters include a specific map, number of players, and being able to switch sides or join a match in progress. To keep things competitive, you can also apply a "performance score" limit on players who join, so nobody’s aircraft is overwhelmingly more powerful.
The online play offers two modes: team deathmatch and Battle Royal (free for all). Both multiplayer modes see up to 8 players participate, and while that number may seem low, it actually makes for some great action. Team deathmatch is stock standard, with the side dealing the most damage winning. Battle Royal mode is a little more tricky with its scoring, as the individuals that are performing the best will get a visible bounty on their name, and if you shoot them down, you can end up grabbing a ton of bonus points.
Flying online is smooth, though the game uses peer-to-peer connections, and there are definitely incidents of lag. Matches don't last very long, and on the whole the multiplayer modes are rather enjoyable, mostly thanks to the engaging dogfighting gameplay that's turned up a notch due to human opponents. It’s worth noting that the player population on Xbox Live is not that large at launch, and there aren’t a ton of rooms to choose from.
Being the only such game of its kind for this console generation, Ace Combat 7 doesn't have much to compare against, but its presentation matches the modern console standards. On the Xbox One X, the sky and clouds look lovely, as do the visual effects, with a steady 60fps framerate to keep the action visceral and the midair maneuvers enthralling. The planes are well detailed inside and out, from the F15, Mirage 2000-5, and F-104C, to Su-34, Su-47, and Su-57. The ground is usually the key talking point for flight games, and it looks pretty good here. Don't expect a huge level of detail for terrain or buildings, but it looks nice enough from a distance not to break immersion. Loading times are very quick as well.
The audio design is solid, with a rather great mixed-instrument soundtrack, but it is often drowned out by the AI's excessive radio chatter in the campaign. Perhaps the biggest annoyance is with the UI - whether you're browsing the tech tree for new unlocks, or scrolling through the list of aircraft you already have in the hangar, the game offers no way to compare them directly. The planes that are in the same price range have very similar stats, and special weapons and mission parameters are probably more important - but still, in a game with such RPG concepts, it's an irritation.
Whatever its shortcomings may be, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a fun title for anyone looking for a big budget arcade flight game. The controls are great, the missions are highly varied, and the gameplay never gets old. There is some turbulence in the form of difficulty balance and endless AI chatter, along with a convoluted story, but taking off and soaring high above great looking distant scenery and clouds almost makes you forget all the troubles below. The multiplayer is enjoyable and functional, if not overly big on variety. If you've been starved for a new entry in this genre, Ace Combat 7 is a welcome addition that fans will appreciate.