The Ace Combat gaming series is one I have always been aware of but never actually played, so it is fitting that the next instalment in the now 20 year history of the series manages to elevate it even higher then before, especially on PS4 as it throws in some PlayStation VR missions as a bonus. I was not sure what to expect from it and in particular was actually a little worried about going into such an iconic series without any previous experience. Thankfully, this game ticked so many of my boxes that I was not expecting.
I do have to begin with just how visually stunning this game is and the blending of photo realistic graphics with standard gaming character models in the story mode truly makes this one of the best-looking games right now across both main consoles. I was really taken back by just how splendid each and every plane in the game looks against the backdrop of amazing environments the story missions and combat in the online multiplayer modes. Stunning does not do this justice and I was playing on a standard PlayStation 4, but taking the game to my friend’s PS4 Pro and his insane 60” 4K TV and Ace Combat 7 takes the award for most impressive visuals so far. The game is just so pretty I was often distracted during the story missions because I was spending too much time just taking in the view of everything.
Which brings me to the main mode of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, the story campaign. I should point out that the game is actually conscious that this title would have brought brand new players like me, to it and the series for the first time. So before actually getting into the game, players are offered two controls schemes to start with, more arcade style simplified controls or full on Expert level controls for those familiar with the series and for the super hardcore fan who can come in using flight sticks. I really appreciated this as for example you can take several driving racing sim games who do not take new players into account, so by immediately planning to give new players a less frustrating experience from the off is something I can both be thankful for and support.
The story campaign begins by introducing the player to Avril Mead, a mechanic who has built her own jet fighter from an old scrapyard. The player is introduced to the current state of the world which sees the two nations of Osean and Erusean forces, go to war following the surprise attack on Osean military locations by Erusean drone aircraft. Whilst taking her plane up for a flight, she is force to land and capture for flying illegally and sent to a prison where other criminally charged pilots and crew are kept. Throughout the campaign, the player is shown the impact of the war from the perspective of Avril whose story via cutscenes really drives the narrative whilst the player gets to focus on what is really important, gameplay via the missions.
Now as someone who was born and raised and lives in London, there was quite a surprise that hit me like a tonne of bricks the moment I stepped into the first mission. The player takes the role of a rookie pilot in the Osean airforce with the call sign ‘Trigger’, which for those unfamiliar with the greatest British sitcom of all time with ‘Only Fools and Horses’, is actually the name of a very lovable if slightly dim-witted character from that show. So, spending the entire campaign being called Trigger not only made me smile but was very entertaining for my UK audience when streaming this. But I digress. As a rookie pilot, we are part of the first response to the Erusean attack and run sortie missions to defend locations and battle to take back territory lost to Erusean forces.
The story itself is told via the cutscenes featuring Avril where the background and running commentary of the war after each completed mission and at first, as the player you can feel a little disconnected as Avril mentions events yet to play out so it is almost as if you are in flashback mode for a few missions until the narrative catches up with where Avril is, but the story is fun and adds the weight needed to compliment the sortie missions you are being sent to complete and are definitely worth listening too as they play out, and the campaign is very substantial with many twists and turns as you progress through it and even as someone new to the series, I never felt as though the story went over my head and filled with so much lore of the series that I was out of touch with what was happening.
Once aspect to the story missions I absolutely adored was the lack of hand holding the game will provide players once the player has been taught the basics of how to fly and use weapon systems. The first few missions are pretty run of the mill and full of dog fights and objectives to take out targets. But the difficulty spike after mission 3 was enough to grab my attention and stop me trying to play this like a generic arcade flying shooter. I paid the price for not paying attention to mission briefings which explained the objectives ahead that should have given me enough information to take the effort to picking the best plane and payload loadout for that mission. I was caught out simply thinking the one plane I was using was going to be good enough because it wasn’t. I was soon being outnumbered by attacking fighter planes and not completing objectives quickly enough due to relying on the basic set up.
At first when I failed, I did feel that the game was cheating me a little as every enemy fighter focused on me and every missile launched just seemed to lock on to me and none of the other AI pilots that were supposedly in my squad to help. But once I stopped tripping over my own ego and accepted that I was failing because I was screwing up, the game opened up in a whole new way. The game had not become suddenly too difficult, it simply evolved at a pace that I should have also been evolving my gameplay with. I finally took the time to look at the Plane Tree, which is where you can unlock new planes and weapon types and system upgrades using the MRP earned during missions. Once I began to look at improving the fighter plane that I was flying but especially the weapon loadouts it changed everything. If the mission had objectives for taking out ground targets then it was pointless having anti-aircraft missiles in my loadout. So, once I learned and began to refine my loadout to what the objective of the missions was, I instantly began to understand and appreciate the game more.
Once I had a handle on this and was still failing the mission, I had to then look at my own skill and how I was trying to play the objectives and for the most part it was trial and error but I loved it, even when the frustration of messing up kicked in, I knew the fault was mine and not the game. The game gives you all the tools and information the player needs to get the job done, so If I am spending too much time trying to take out the drone air fighters instead of focusing on the ground targets the mission wants me to take out so ran out of time to complete the mission, that blame landed on me, and I relished it. Ace Combat 7 is constantly forcing me to improve whether it be mission planning and execution but also in dog fighting, which is something players need to get to grips with not just for the story campaign but for the online multiplayer I will come to a bit later on.
I am a big fan of fighting games because I am constantly made to up my game and I am learning from every win and every loss and Ace Combat 7 did the same thing. When I messed up it was my fault, so each attempt at the mission was becomes a training lesson for me and changing how I approached the mission in order to get it right gave me real satisfaction when completing the mission. So much so that where in other games the story campaign is something you just experience for the story, in Ace Combat 7 it really is the go-to mode and I happily replayed missions to see if I could improve my score or completion time with the lessons I had learned and improvements made to my gameplay. The story campaign is thoroughly entertaining and as the meat and potatoes to the game which I will be more than happy to dine on again and again.
The competitive online comes in two modes consisting of Battle Royale and Team Deathmatch and this is just a joyful dogfighting session that can feel really chaotic and often overwhelming if you end up against hardcore and more expert players. Match Lobbies can limit the value of planes used to try and make it a more level playing field but I would suggest taking the time to find a very good plane and system upgrades to give you more of a fighting chance before stepping into the multiplayer as getting your butt handed to you can be rather demoralising. But this is true airplane dog fighting and once you find your groove it can be an exhilarating experience which compliments the story campaign wonderfully in terms of putting your skills to the test.
The PlayStation VR bonus missions are a fantastic bonus for PlayStation 4 users with the VR headset. I don’t as sadly motion sickness is a problem for me using PSVR however taking this game to my friend who has it and watching the gameplay and his reaction to it as one of the best VR experiences you can have right now with PSVR and just the fact it is a natural inclusion to the game at no extra cost. It is the truest way to play Ace Combat 7 as you are in cockpit view with the VR, looking from that viewpoint must feel insanely gratifying and I can only imagine how expert players with flight sticks and PS VR can take to this mode.
Ace Combat 7: Unknown Skies is a whole lot of gaming in just one title and is so impressive I want to actually go back and look at earlier titles in the series. It welcomed me in as a newcomer but then made me get better at the game naturally which I feel more games should do and follow the methods used in this game to do so. The story is solid and major highlight comes when you complete a story mission and are instantly treated to a cinematic replay of that mission with the player in control of the camera which is amazing, especially if you want to make your own gameplay content which is yet another example of how amazing the visuals are in this game along with the audio and soundtrack which elevate the action even more. The Multiplayer I can really take or leave it, right now my skills are not good enough to really make the most of it but challenging other players in a dogfight is still exciting even if I am really just canon fodder at this point. All capped off the bonus PS VR content for those with the kit making this a really complete experience on PS4.
This is a game I was not expecting to win me over just how easily as it did and it is really not hard to see how it has lived as long as it has at over 20 years as a gaming series. I felt challenged and rewarded as much as I felt excited by playing it and can easily see myself diving back in time and time again to experience it all over again.