How many franchises celebrate their 25th anniversary successfully? Ace Combat has been close to not making it, as with some game that happen to be in development. Tracing the roots, we go all the way back to a coin-op classic, beloved by fans since before its console debut on the original PlayStation. This seems like quite the achievement, considering not many brands can support that kind of lineage. Just try to name a few – it isn’t easy.
The stage is set again in the game’s alternate universe Strangereal, a world in which you’ll encounter loads of fantapolitics, sprinkled with an occasional dose of subtle, self-referential humor. Players, be advised: Don’t take all of the speeches or plot elements in this game too seriously.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown manages to get the job done even if it’s clearly grasping to hang in there. People’s mixed feelings about the game, usually not hardcore fans of the genre, all seem to come down to its arcade roots, as well at the jumble of excitement and disappointment appearing all over the place.
In the first mission, you’re brought right into the cockpit, rushing to take off. This is an immersive way to start a campaign and a nice taste of what you’re getting yourself into. Later on, you’re given the opportunity to perform the same basic operations with some very silly interactions. Mind you, its developers recognized it’s just filler, so they’ve enabled you to skip these moments with the press of a button. This is lucky since many seem like wastes of time, and really aren’t all that funny.
One of the biggest problems with this kind of game (and probably the reason it’s a unique product with such a limited audience) is that it is seriously constrained as far as innovation goes. For real flight simulation, players have the option of DCS World. For something cheap and ready to play, they have Ace Combat. Ever since they first appeared on the scene, combat flight games have suffered from a lack of evolution in their gameplay department, forced by their very nature to rely on the same routine. It is a shame that in 25 years, take-off and landing has not become an integral part of a player’s flight experience.
While all the action happens in the sky, this sky drama trudges along on land with 60 minutes of cutscenes. Most of its event sequences are slow-paced and on the boring side, in case you were expecting something different. Throughout these scenes, the characters’ thoughts revolve heavily around political intrigues and the war-time conflicts that define their lives. For long-time fans who appreciated previous chapters, the game includes a number of references as well as a familiar backdrop to expand on. For those who aren’t well-primed, the plot will transpire with notable weirdness, making not always sense as a self-contained chapter.
From a technical and artistic point of view, any Japanese trait or characterization that inevitably shines through is well-accepted in Strangereal. Frankly though, several of the game’s animations, particularly its unnatural glances and unrealistic eyes, produce on-screen awkwardness and characters that are difficult to relate to. And the dogs… The dogs in Strangereal… they don’t move. At all!
Cutscenes aside, the main story flies by extremely fast if you squeeze through the red targets required to proceed to the tightly scripted, sequenced missions. The game doesn’t feel difficult at all, but there are Hard and Ace modes available for players who want to take on proper, challenging enemies or further explore their in-game flight technique. Contrary to what you might expect, the possibilities are greater than firing on standard enemies in Normal mode.
When it comes the variety of scenarios the game throws your way, needing to reach a certain score within a given time limit can’t exactly be described as galvanizing. Retrying a 20-minute mission after being barely too late to hit a useless warehouse nobody cares about, but that is worth the 30 points you were missing, just screams one word: Nope. BandaiNamco got it right by avoiding repetitive gameplay instances, and by not milking the content to increase playtime.
Instead of rushing straight to main targets, the game encourages you to take care of side targets first, which are represented on your radar with white markings. Everything you destroy increases your mission’s final score, improves your final rank, and adds to points you can spend on new planes and enhancements in the Aircraft Tree.
While the interface here matches the typical, futuristic style of modern games, it’s still quite uncomfortable to navigate. Performing even basic operations in this screen, such as exploring different branches to see which upgrades are available, just doesn’t feel intuitive. There are three main areas: one for the American planes, one for the Russians, and a third for the parts only available in multiplayer. So, how is multiplayer?
Choose a plane, put some parts on it, fly high, blast everything, progress in the unlocking system, and then rinse and repeat: this is Ace Combat. Is it fun? Yes it is. The controls are immediate and responsive according to each plane’s capabilities, and amid real action, the game benefits a lot from its use of Unreal Engine 4 technology. There’s an intense sensation of speed during critical dog-fighting moments, testing the limits of players who are sensitive to vertigo.
The game’s weather effects are simply remarkable. Its maps are often specifically designed to draw your attention towards the sun, the sea, or the lighting system. The rain hugs your HUD, and thrill levels go through the roof as you’re forced to engage in skirmishes in the midst of a shadowy storm. And the lightning is not just for show. It interferes and factors in as you dodge the enemies hunting you down.
As far as graphics are concerned, your ride is solid even if it’s not that detailed or jaw-clenching. The planes could have been more accomplished in terms of characterization and customization. In relation to the landscape you’re moving across, you may at times get the impression that you’re just watching paper toys inside a box, especially when the Unreal Engine drops in its level of detail. That being said, the clouds have a satisfying voluminous effect, granting a strategic purpose to flying in and out of them. Another nice touch is the panning of music throughout the game, which is a simple but creative way to improve the player’s experience.
On the other hand, when approaching altitudes closer to the ground, you can see how low poly the assets are in these parts of the map. Crashing makes it especially evident just how sparingly the fire elements were crafted by the game’s artists. Sure, we could spend time debating how essential these aspects of the game actually are, but the reality remains that players can and will go there, so having to deal with PS2-level graphics is likely to disappoint.
At its highest difficulties, Ace Combat 7 shows both its triumphs and its excesses. Enemies are ravenous and aggressive. If you’re a rookie, missiles don’t give you many chances to make mistakes. And it also needs to be pointed out that unfortunately sprinting between tight spaces like Hollywood always teaches you isn’t a great option for defending yourself. When pressured by missiles, double twisting to evade them doesn’t work well and instead has the opposite effect, leaving you vulnerable. Given the way the system was designed, you should use your plane’s maneuverability to keep on rolling in the same direction.
Plane handling in-game will push you to learn advanced moves like Post Stalling Maneuvers, which are highly choreographed staples of air combat in any media. Negative points to consider are lack of binding controls and poor flight controllers support.
Bothersome gaps in an otherwise good package are cause to question the future of this franchise. For instance, replay of your sortie is available after each mission you accomplish. But, like many other features in this game, its state is something you could only justify two decades ago: you can’t navigate through the video decently and you can’t save it. It’s like they lifted playback from the PS1 version. A story that spans gaming generations needs linearity for the purposes of narrative coherence. However, combat flight games offer narrow gameplay and inherently limited creativity, and as such need to compensate with something more if they want to keep their niche attractive.
The third chapter of Ace Combat, released in Japan in 1999, nailed it with a system of in-flight decisions that would direct players to a series of different narratives. It’s still one of the most acclaimed chapters of the franchise to date. Unfortunately, for budgeting reasons, the Western version was dumbed down to a mere sequence of missions without any real meaning for the player. As far as the West is concerned, it’s like the best installment of the game never existed and his soul is what this franchise needs.
Project Aces has already shown off its mastery many times over. Even so, the potential of multiplayer gaming has always been left unmet, despite their being dedicated to Infinity. These game developers are able to mix inspired, high-altitude poetry with relentless, lightning-fast action. But while their highs can be nearly orbital, their lows are enough to quell players’ every dream.
One last example is the whole sound department. Saying that the 100-track orchestral score is staggering would not give the sound designers enough credit. It really is a paragon in the business and undoubtedly deserves a 2019 Score & Music Award. Daredevil alone might be worth one point alone in the evaluation as the game release has been halted not only for its coming, but for it to be synchronized in the radio chatter before the chorus for the proper climax. Still, the audio mixing throughout gameplay is questionable.
Regardless of any degree of realism you’d like to argue in the matter, in the middle of missile alerts, you are left woefully unable to understand what’s being said over the radio. It’s also incredibly hard to tell what speed you’re turning at whilst evading said missiles thanks to the music pumping in the background. As a result, players feel overwhelmed and alienated, rather than absorbed and integrated into the circumstances, as they should.
All sound in the game is laid out in three simple layers, all of which are maxed out by default. The issue with Ace Combat is that you need be able to hear the sound effects to know what’s happening. You have to listen to the radio chat to understand how your mission is developing. Sure, as a player you want to hear the music, but in this case, it’s unrealistic and interferes with gameplay in critical moments. The unfortunate outcome of this is that you’re annihilated as your cutting-edge engine begins to stall inaudibly. You cannot focus on catching radio information because the music is drowning it out. Then again, perhaps this is all just part of the fun in playing Skies Unknown.