Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (actually the 15th game in the series) is a throwback to a gameplay style that is extinct. It’s not a perfect take off, but it’s worth putting up with slight turbulence for an experience that harkens back to the days of Rogue Squadron and Star Fox 64.
Ace Combat isn’t radically different than the 14 games preceding it. The Bandai-Namco developed title has around 20 missions, each one featuring dogfighting, bombing runs, and other tasks frequent fliers expect. The controls are easy to pick up, though the lack of a tutorial will create hangups for first-time fliers. Players select from a variety of confusingly named airplanes before each mission, each one having unique strengths and weaknesses to consider – but picking the coolest looking aircraft is also a valid strategy. Missions are linear in the best sense. A mission may start with players dipping diving through tight canyons to bomb radar stations and end with them dogfighting an ace through a thunderstorm. There are duds mixed in with the better missions, most of which revolve around players blowing up a set number of enemies in a time limit. But, for the most part, Ace Combat 7 cuts the fat, focusing on giving pilots levels that (at their best) feel like great Disneyland rides. Add-on a standard multiplayer mode for aces looking to truly test their skills and it’s a great package, if a short one.
The focused approach to gameplay keeps the campaign quick by modern standards. Pilots playing on easy (not the recommended difficulty) can knock the game out in as little as 10 hours. Beating missions once is only half the challenge. Bandai Namco is the house of Pac-Man, Galaga, and countless other 80’s quarter suckers. Those arcade classics’ “high score” approach to games returns in Ace Combat 7’s grading system. Players are ranked on their performances in missions, adding incentive to revisit earlier sorties. On top of their skills being calculated during debriefings, pilots can re-watch their performances via instant-replays or more stylish and simplistic recaps that use only arrows to convey the carnage of the previous sortie. Players are motivated to attack missions again and not settle for the grade they earned during their first flythrough. Missions also include a free-flight mode, where the scenic vistas can be enjoyed without enemy gunfire.
Those vistas are with revisiting because of the excellent presentation. Ace Combat 7 is the first title in the series to allow the weather to affect gamer’s flight-plans. Inclement weather forces players to adapt due to the risk of icing up in clouds or being struck by lightning (which is treated like the airplane equivalent of stubbing a toe). It’s an obvious addition, but a big one. Opponent’s wreckage is also a stellar part of the presentation. Destroyed planes don’t explode, they burst and gush oil, metal, and the inner mechanical guts of the planes they used to belong to. There’s no greater satisfaction than tearing a pesky pilot to shreds and flying through his wreck to glimpse the enemy pilot himself go bye, flailing for life like a bug on an F-22’s windshield. Everything in Ace Combat 7 sounds great, from the sound of machine guns dull rumbling to the crisp noise of turbulence bouncing off your fighter’s tail. The voice acting is fun if cheesy. Fellow pilots spout quotes about the nature of war and life when they should be focused on evading missile locks. The grating dialog is somewhat softened by the wonderful Metal Gear Solid-style pilot portraits that accompany their audio transmissions. Fans of Star Fox’s endlessly quotable squadmates may get a kick out of them, but for most, the radio chatter will be a distraction. These elements are dragged down by the story, which often knocks the game off-course.
Ace Combat 7 continues to chronicle the fictional wars it’s been detailing for most of its 14 game run. This time around there’s a shooting war between the kingdom’s of Erusia and Ocsea (both winners of the fakest sounding country name award). Players hop into the role of “Trigger,” the lone mute pilot always stuck in squadrons filled with chatterboxes. Trigger’s journey takes place in a variety of locals and changing circumstances that help keep things fresh, even having him fly in a jet-fighter chain gang (Think Suicide Squad with F-16s). The story is conveyed through decent-looking cutscenes and briefing sequences, but the convoluted narrative leaks into everything. The story is so important to the experience that players will probably be scratching their heads over certain objectives, which often tie into the story. This would be okay if the story was only cheesy, but anybody who isn’t an Ace Combat historian is going to be lost. Events of previous games play a huge part in 7’s story. It’s clear this game’s story is one small part of a much larger tale Bandai-Namco is insisting on telling.
Story flaws aside, Ace Combat 7 is worth playing because of its ability to slice through the fat most modern games pile on and get to the fun in an efficient manner. Save for some less than stellar missions and the bumbling narrative, it’s the modern high flying ride fans have been begging for on modern consoles. Whether you’re a rookie or a grizzled vet, Ace Combat 7 is a sortie worth joining.
Will Barboza is a freelance writer hailing from Kansas City, living and working in LA. He’s been featured in Playboy, IGN, and VICE. His hobbies include yelling about the Packers and petting his roommate’s dog. Find more of his words on Twitter: @WBarboza_Writes and on Instagram: wbarbwrites.