Recurrently, players have felt the temptation of chasing a secondary objective across the Ace Combat series. While you’re doggedly chasing a bandit and angling to get a solid lock, a tertiary target will streak across your HUD. If you’re not completely focused, chasing after this easy target can be quite seductive. Sometimes the detraction proves detrimental.
A similar enticement was faced by the series developer Project Aces. For 2011’s Ace Combat: Assault Horizon the team was lured by the thrill of cinematic spectacle. The end result wasn’t completely embarrassing, but several decision decisions didn’t go over well with long-time franchise fans. The sequel’s shift from a fictious universe to a real-world setting certainly alienated those devoted to the franchise’s overacting narrative.
Others were disheartened by the title’s ‘Close Range Assault’ system. This mechanic shunned the series’ trademark 2000+ meter duels, sporadically requiring players to get unrealistically near to opponents. Assault Horizon also tried to mix things up by requiring players to pilot Apache helicopters and also work as door gunners. While chasing the addition of new mechanics, Project Aces seemed to lose track of their primary purpose. 2014’s Ace Combat Infinity revealed the team quizzically chasing another far-flung bogey, resulting in a free-to-play experience that prodded players into paying for fuel.
A Return to Form for the Approachable Dogfighting Series
Pleasingly, the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and now, PC release of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown demonstrates Project Aces returning to their primary objective. Offering accessible dogfighting that eschews the punctilious details of flight simulation, the title provides players with aircraft capable of carrying an entire squadron’s payload. But save for this long-established quirk, survival in the skies requires the type of razor-sharp reflexes and strategies employed by real-life fighter pilots without the burden of attending flight school.
Head into the game’s main campaign and you’ll travel back to the alternate universe of Strangereal, first conceptualized in Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies. Although most aviation games embrace verisimilitude, Ace Combat has worked best when it doesn’t attempt to recreate real-world tensions. Here, you’ll witness continuing geopolitical conflict between continental Osean and the smaller, Erusean forces, by viewing events through the perspective of a few characters. Avril Mead, built an aircraft by salvaging the parts of downed jets. But on her craft’s maiden voyage, she ventures into restricted airspace and is forced to serve time at an Osean Air Base.
Give in to Sunao Katabuchi’s Storytelling
Players adopt the role of a character whose callsign is “Trigger”, who is assigned to the same prison for seemingly shooting down a jet with Vincent Harling, who preserved as Osea’s president in 2004’s Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. Told through attractive anime sequences, Skies Unknown’ storyline is poised to be a bit contentious.
The concept of prisoners in ramshackle jets ending up as cannon fodder might seem implausible to some. But turn on the Japanese voice-overs (with English subtitles as necessary) read up on franchise lore, and the game’s melodramatic beats can be enigmatically moving. Even if you have no idea what’s going on, some of the narration can be exquisitely poetic. When coupled with Keiki Kobayashi’s stirring soundtrack, you might just find your heart rebelling against a sense of reason.
Two Ways to Fly, But You’ll Only Want One
As with previous Ace Combat outings, Skies Unknown provides players with two control schemes. Standard controls confiscate roll and pitch, two axes of rotation from your arsenal. Effectively, that simplifies flight, leveling your craft when you let go of the stick. Although it makes navigation toward the next groups of targets easy, but it also removes some of your maneuverability. As such, tackling the game with this input method inadvertently makes some things more difficult, especially when you’re attempting some missile evading maneuver or flying through confined spaces.
Expert on the other hand, isn’t as convoluted as the title suggests. Here, you’ll be able to lithely soar through the air with the agility of a hawk plunging toward its oblivious prey. But given Skies Unknown’s targeting cursor, you’ll be able to stalk foes with deadly efficiency after just an hour or so of practice.
Tango, (Thanks) Mission Control!
Many dogfighting games can descend into tedium long before the credits roll. Fortunately, Skies Unknown’s twenty-mission campaign resists monotony, extending a nice range of undertakings that have a tendency to throw some gratifying surprises at the mid-points. Checkpointing is undoubtedly an issue and you’ll undoubtedly lose fifteen-minute increments of time during the latter half of the game. But beyond this blemish, the game serves up a succession of varying objectives.
Naturally, the game’s showcase moments are the battled against other aces. But here, Skies Unknown manages to mix things up, with imaginative showdown against enemies like an aircraft carrier that releases dozens of deadly drones. Undoubtedly, the level of difficulty is rather high, but the ability to grind for new aircraft parts can help balance the odds.
Multiplayer That is Aces
Even for strongminded individualists, Ace Combat 7’s online multiplayer is a compelling component. With two modes to select from (Team Deathmatch and Battle Royal), up to seven other competitors, fleeting five-minute matches, these rivalries prove to be a lot of fun. Much of the credit does toward Project Aces injecting intriguing risk/reward elements into the dogfights. Sure, you can hunt down regular peers for points, but tracking down a match’s dominating force can catapult you up the ranks.
Agreeably, won’t have to eliminate opponents to gain experience. Every single missile hit provides experience that can be spent to unlock new aircraft, weapons, and parts. That said, you won’t have to battle with foes that have the best hardware. Rules can be established to ensure a level field, much like Gran Turismo’s Class system.
Built on the fourth iteration of the Unreal Engine, Skies Unknown offers an often-dazzling recreation of real and imaginary military hardware. Unsurprisingly, the game’s squadron of aircraft are all impeccably detailed. Rudders and ailerons move realistically, while firing up the afterburners creates a convincing display of shimmering refraction. This time out, clouds are voluminous and affect gameplay, disrupting visuals, laser weapons, and occasionally releasing lightning.
The only sticking point are the fluidity of ground textures. When you are careering across land, you’ll notice homogeneity when it comes to assets, and the reduced sensation of speed. Fortunately, you’ll be in the skies a majority of the time, having little time to notice the game’s sole graphical imperfection.
Across the last decade, the once domineering Ace Combat series seems to have lost its direction. With Skies Unknown the franchise appears back on track, adding another engaging and accessible dogfighting simulation. Mercifully, it’s a comprehensive package. Between the game’s protracted campaign, collecting new aircraft, weapons, and parts, and popping in for some multiplayer showdowns, pilots can expect no less than forty hours of playtime from Project Aces latest.