Growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was very much into computer flight sims. I’ve probably played all of the games that came out during that time, and have probably landed and crashed more planes that I could count doing so. From Top Gun: Fire at Will’s Hondo chastising me “You don’t know about planes, the taxpayers do!” in now aged, grainy FMV to the more modern Microsoft Flight Simulator entries, it was fun to see these games evolve over the years. One series, however, that I have little experience with is Ace Combat, so when the opportunity to check its newest entry out presented itself, I jumped on it, ready to relive my glorious Windows 95 times.
In a lot of ways, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown helped bring back those memories quite well. Mainly because it’s not an impossibly difficult flight sim to play, nor is it too dumbed down just for the sake of being arcade-y. It doesn’t pull any punches from the very get go, as it introduces you to a politically-charged campaign that sees your fighter jet group engaging the enemy right away, with two fictitious countries at eachothers’ throats and at war, culminating with the takeover of a space elevator which was constructed as a symbol of peaceful times years ago. As the newest member of the team, going by the tag ‘Trigger’, you’re put to the test, but ultimately get dropped off and sent to jail after a mission goes south.
For me, the story in Ace Combat 7 felt like the main thrust in getting through its single player mode. Not because it was especially memorable or good, but because it’s so ludicrous that I had to see where it would go from mission to mission. These engagements are broken up by some lengthy cutscenes featuring a female mechanic whose story you eventually get a full grasp of as the game progresses, but the cusp of Trigger’s own is mostly developed via the in-mission dialog and the briefings that come before them. It’s ludicrous to see that a jet pilot would get air time in jail, but you’ll definitely get a kick out of just how it all goes down. Trust me, it involves flying with a rag tag group of prisoners and having guards scream orders at you over the radio. I can’t help but love just how far things get in this game.
The missions themselves are the standard affair, including many scenarios that have you doing a variety of things, like escorting VIPs, destroying ground defenses, or just simply dog-fighting MIGs over gorgeous blue skies. There’s a lot of variety in terms of objectives, for sure. The thing that almost drove me up the wall is just how easy it is to hit and go over fail states, but the counter for that is that there are a lot of checkpoints throughout each of the missions. Even though I thought I was doing great protecting a base from an enemy drone attack, I got barked at that we failed, and had to restart. While it’s easy enough to reload and give it another go, it’s a little annoying having no idea just how well you’re doing until hitting a wall and having to start all over.
There’s a lot to unlock in Ace Combat 7, including a ton of different fighter jets and armaments, and you do so by spending points you earn by playing through the game, which are given to you after every mission, based on how well you do. Some missions are even worth playing more than once in order to unlock weapons that could help you do better and approach situations differently, such as the cluster missiles you get to buy early on in the tech tree. Every unlock is tied to a branch, and as you buy more upgrades and planes, more nodes can be bought, and so forth. It seems like Ace Combat took some notes from Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid and decided to create one of its own, but it’s not nearly as complex as that series, for sure. Eventually you’ll have enough cash so that you can unlock absolutely everything, the only thing standing in your way is time.
Visually, Skies Unknown is absolutely gorgeous. I would consider that a given considering that this is a game that takes place 99% in the air, but if there’s one thing videogames have proved over the years is that expectations can be shot down just as easily as a dust cropper going up against an F-22. I just loved the number of different environmental effects that are put to use during the game, from the frosting and water particles that result from it when you fly into a cloud, to the gamma of colors that spout out as the sun sets. One mission in particular has you fly under and around enemy radar while going through foggy yellow skies, an impressive visual effect that eventually breaks up into a wild blue, basically cloud-less arena where the main mission takes place in.
The planes themselves look darn authentic and are quite numerous, too. I was pleased to see some of my childhood favorites such as the F-14 and F-16, as well as a number of types that I never even heard of. They each pilot somewhat differently, and have different looking cockpits and visual tricks that come into play when switching between camera angles while playing. I’ll always get a kick seeing the brakes open up when making a tight bank in an F-14, and now getting to see it in high definition is an extra treat.
As for the music, that’s another part that Ace Combat 7 excels at, delivering a lot of great beats that play up the thrills of getting through some hairy fights against overwhelming odds. The only part of the sound presentation that I would probably pin a complaint against would be the voice acting, which is a little weak, especially during the info-heavy briefing screens. Still, if you’re into getting to listen to a lot of technical Japanese being spoken to you, you have the option to switching to that language’s audio track, but given that a lot of dialog takes place while having to pay attention at what you’re flying and shooting into, I prefered sticking with English, regardless of how unstellar it is.
Ace Combat 7 also offers a multiplayer mode, and to all intents and purposes, it works well, but frankly that’s not what I’m looking for in this game, so for the purposes of this review, I only stopped by and checked if there were any players taking their grief to the skies, and I can positively give a thumbs all Maverick-like in this regard, at least on PC, which is the system I got the review code for. Speaking of PC, I had to jump through some hoops in order to unlock the full graphical potential of the game in my home system, thanks to some barebones options from the video menu. After getting that done, though, the game ran beautifully.
As a guy who grew up tirelessly watching Iron Eagle reruns on TV and making my own adventures with a joystick and a (now ancient) computer, it’s exciting to see that flight sims are still a thing these days, and that Ace Combat is doing so well as a franchise. If Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is any indication, there’s still plenty of fuel left in the tank for this kind of game, and if more come out that are nearly as good or even better, I’ll be sure to jump into my imaginary jumpsuit and defend the skies yet again, as many times as needed.