Does the color of the sky mean anything special to you?
I’ll be brutally honest here; I had scoffed this off when I first heard it in the official trailer. Like why the friggin’ color of the sky be so important? The reason―I hadn’t played any Ace Combat game before. In fact, I first heard of Ace Combat when Assault Horizon (the apparent black sheep of the franchise) was announced way back in 2010. I knew it’s an aerial battle game―pilots fighting a war similar to those on-rails dog fight missions from various mainstream FPS―why would anyone pay attention to the color of the sky when a pilot’s first priority is to take down enemy bogeys!
But boy! I was in grave delusion! I honestly never knew how beautiful the open sky could be, to break the cloud surface and soar, sunbeams reflecting off your plane’s glass and metal hull, glistening halos on the horizon blinding your eyes. I’d played so many games, but they all had skyboxes―a mere photograph I would say that moves only slightly. Don’t get me wrong, skybox still exists here but Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown turned that photograph into an effin’ sandbox!
War is a cruel parent
Let’s start with the best aspect―you don’t need to play any previous Ace Combat to play Skies Unknown even though almost all Ace Combat games take place in the same fictional world of Strangereal. There are very minor references and callbacks to previous titles but the only thing you need to remember is “the Belkans are up to something shady again!” That said, Skies Unknown acts as a cautionary tale of mankind’s overdependence on A.I.’s to wage wars especially when it is hard to determine who’s your friend or foe. The plot is told via pre-rendered cutscenes narrated by Avril, a scrap mechanic who accidentally got embroiled in the global conflict, and by Dr. Schroeder, a Belkan scientist who is feeding A.I. drones advanced flight data to advance the war further.
However, you play as an unknown (*insert badass) pilot, callsign Trigger, who is assigned to a penal squadron following the accusation of murder in the midst of a war between the countries of Osea and Erusea. Your mission briefings and the radio chatters between various characters are how you’ll understand the plot. That said you’ve to pay attention to every single dialogue to know exactly what is happening or else the plot might feel a wee bit disjointed. Speaking broadly, the Kingdom of Erusea has declared war on the Osean Federation as it sees their Space Elevator as a symbol of Osean military might and encroachment upon their lands. And then, fighter jets and bombers are involved followed by huge guns, planes with railguns, nuclear submarines and flying Metal Gears deploying hundreds of automated drones at once! Things explode, intense dog fights happen, alarms blare on your HUD, and your AWACS cracks food puns mid-combat.
That said, the entire cast keeps hyping you up at every turn―”Trigger’s taking the beast head-on!” “Stick to Trigger and you’ll make it!“―because why not? The insane post-stall maneuvers Trigger pulls up unfazed by the insane amount of G’s ramming his bloodstream. But it’s a videogame and therefore you can. However, there’s one more person that can as well, one who’s hyped up by every NPC even more than Trigger as the legendary Ace―your arch nemesis, callsign Archange. Rarely you’ll find a videogame boss sticking true to the hype that the world creates. But believe me, the very dialogues in Ace Combat 7, the way both Trigger and Archange and everything else happening in the world are described―”there are pilots like you in every generation… and I felled every last one of them”, you’ll feel your blood pumping faster! Makes me wonder why there’s no anime based on Ace Combat series yet (this is the closest thing you’ll find on YouTube).
At the beginning I mentioned that Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown makes the skies look ‘sandboxy’ even with a skybox. That illusion is due to the various terrain you fly over. Missions take place all across the globe―from island groups to populated plains and cities, to stormy deserts and narrow canyons and forests rocked by lightning storms―each mission adds an extra variety to the existing gameplay. For example, there’s one mission where you’ve to destroy Erusean oil facilities and then hunt and destroy escaping fuel trucks inside a sandstorm with UAVs hot on your tail. In another mission, you’re flying inside cloud cover to destroy Erusean radar sites―fly too high and the radar detects you, fly too low and fall prey to enemy SAMs and Anti-Air guns. In another you’re defending a cargo plane across a cloudy mountainous zone with hidden SAM sites, and the only way to track them is by watching the launched missiles’s smoke trails. Not to mention the epic dogfights with Mimic Squadron, Archange and his Sol Squadron, and the massive boss battles with a nuclear submarine codenamed Alicorn and two flying Metal Gears called Arsenal Birds (which might be a reference to Arsenal Gear from Metal Gear Solid 2).
The number of planes that Ace Combat 7 has will absolutely blow your mind! You literally have planes for every letter of the English alphabet, including enemy experimental stealth fighters and those from the Top Gun: Maverick DLC. After all, even though Ace Combat 7 takes place in a fictional world, the planes are all from the real-world, including those flown by Maverick himself! And don’t get me started on the various weaponry you can equip your planes with. 10 different Air-to-Air missiles with various effects ranging from long range tracking to air bursts, 10 different Air-to-Ground missiles and bombs some of which are exceedingly devastating. And apart from that you’ve got pulse lasers, EMP railguns, rockets, and even UAVs deployed from your plane! Wait, did I mention the numerous parts that you can equip? From increasing basic parameters like speed, maneuverability, defense etc., you’ve got upgrades to reduce icing of controls at high altitudes, multi enemy tracking, increased missile tracking range and power, automated fire extinguishers and what not. The Aircraft tree takes care of everything, and even though I admit, it was pretty overwhelming at first, it started growing on me as I pushed through the campaign. The mechanics is simple―you grind in the campaign or multiplayer and earn money to buy new stuffs in the tree.
For an air combat game this detailed, needless to say that the immersion it provides is top notch. It all begins with an extremely detailed briefing using visuals and holographic topographical maps similar to those during the Call of Duty loading screens. And after that you even get the option to check out the whole holographic map to know enemy placements and your squad mates’ positions. The aircraft designs are extremely detailed, and we even get the option to see them up-close at the hanger. To increase the immersion further even some extra optional tasks are added in some missions like mid-air refueling, battleship and runway takeoff and landings etc. And after every mission you get the option to watch your gameplay like a movie, maybe even capture the awesome moments and post it on your channel.
The only point breaking the immersion is perhaps the infinite standard ammo. But then, Ace Combat ain’t a flight sim, it’s an arcade air combat game. Like you’ve got infinite bullets, however the standard bullets can reach zero and then very slowly start to fill up. The best way to bypass this is to reload last checkpoint and you’re back with filled ammunition, flares and 0% damage. But this option is not available everywhere, only in those missions where objectives change progressively. In some missions you get the option to refuel and repair mid-combat for which you’ve to fly to the edge of the combat zone. However, remember that every mission has to be completed under a certain duration exceeding which the mission fails. So, fly carefully and don’t get your wings clipped.
The visuals are impressive and especially after you increase the draw distance, you can see all the different structures below you. If you’re flying over a city, you won’t just see rows of low-poly blocks, but tall buildings, suburbs, bridges, schools, churches, ports and even stadiums, along with several tiny trucks, tanks, SAM launchers, AA guns etc. The volumetric fog, realistic cloud and rain and the sunset glare are one of the beautiful things I’ve seen in the game. However, the glare becomes a disadvantage when the enemy is right on your plane’s nose, but you can’t see it as you’re too blinded by the glare. But it’s a sacrifice I was willing to make while playing the campaign. The multiplayer, sadly, is a different story.
As per the soundtrack… oomph… ABSOLUTE EARGASM! Literally every track from every mission is an absolute banger―Daredevil, Siren’s Song, Faceless Soldier, Archange―just to name a few. I admit, I literally listen to Daredevil and Archange on loop and I’m a complete sucker for music that plays in the trailer and exists in the game as well especially during all the epic moments. Even the sound effects are top notch. The numerous ‘stall warnings’ or ‘missile alert’, that I might have heard countless times over the course of the campaign, have been imprinted unto my brain. The voice acting is phenomenal even if you’ll mostly hear it as radio chatters. Only sad thing is the gameplay is so frantic that you might not pay attention to half of the radio chatters.
Heart of Gold
Fun fact: Ace Combat 7 went through development hell for years and was on the verge of cancellation. The producer virtually begged Bandai to let them finish because they cared for it so much. And look what we’ve now! The game’s official trailer alone is enough to induce goosebumps so you can imagine how the game would be. Ace Combat is the Metal Gear Solid of the skies with such amazing plotlines, characters, gameplay and soundtracks―the best franchise among all air combat franchises (HAWX, Project Wingman etc.). If this isn’t enough evidence to show that the developers of this game have a heart of gold, then I don’t know what is. Heck, even the development team was assisted by Japan Air Self-Defense Force and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force who provided technical advisors and aircraft information! After all, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is the first true sequel to the first mainline Ace Combat game since 2007―Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation.