Wednesday, January 23, 2019.
by Brent Roberts

ACE COMBAT 7: SKIES UNKNOWN Box art It has been over a decade since Bandai Namco allowed us to take to the skies and engage in non-stop air combat over fictional terrain set in a time of absolute war. Ace Combat 6 was Bandai Namco's attempt to bring about a quality flight/air combat simulator, and their Project Aces team excelled. Then as quickly as it appeared above the clouds, it vanished... for over 10 years. During this drought, the Ace Combat badge did resurface, but the thrill of the experience disappeared as it was put on hold for a more arcade type experience; however, the spiritual successor has been released, and once again we take to the skies in Ace Combat 7. Now grab your flight suit because it's time to earn your wings pilot.

As we taxi to the runway, Ace Combat 7 opens up to us and delivers a simplistic, yet beautifully designed layout. The options and menu are very simplistic, yet designed in a way that makes navigation through multiple options very manageable. You will make selections to play in the main campaign that consists of 20 missions (more on that here in a bit), multiplayer, go to the Microsoft store, game options and more. I started by going over the flight controls and found that if you're an Ace Combat veteran, then setting the flight controls to "advanced" allows for way more control over your aircraft. I also noted that there is an extensive flight control setup for those who should be lucky enough to have flight stick and throttle (I always wanted the old Ace Combat 6 flight stick bundle).

After going through the setup, it was nice to see that Bandai Namco and the Project Aces team kept a lot of the controls very similar to those of Ace Combat 6. The 'Y' button switches targets (though it should be pointed out that pressing 'Y' may not select the target immediately in front of you) through a sort of "list" of prioritized 'bogeys'. The B button is what you press if you want to unleash hell. The A button fires your guns. You can see where the rest of this is going, but I am very pleased to report that everything that was wonderful about the gameplay mechanics of Ace Combat 6 (AC6) made their return, but this time everything was tweaked to be better in every way.

If you've played AC6, then it should be no surprise that the same style of story follows here in Ace Combat 7. There's a war that breaks out between two rival nations and you are tasked with essentially bringing that war to an end. To do that, you'll have to essentially shoot everything down that you can. The story is hands down the weakest part of the game and provides little enjoyment except for the fact that you get to watch lengthy cinematics done in amazing quality and detail. Other than that, you fly and shoot things. It really doesn't get more simplistic than that. While I'm glad that the story does exist, the cinematics will sometimes go on for a long time, that your controller will actually turn off from non-use. I wish though the story was done in a manner that made more of an emotional connection, but sadly I wasn't involved in the writing process.

Trying to find innovation in any game is challenging; however, when you talk innovation in an air combat simulator, then you're going to have an even bigger challenge ahead. Ace Combat 7 put this challenge in their sights and blew it out of the sky thanks to one thing; weather. While you're flying, you'll notice things like rain, lightning, and even wind will make a dramatic impact on your aircraft. Lightning will temporarily short out your electronics (good strategy if you're looking to evade a lock on your tail), while you'll find that the wind will actually push your plane around so you will find yourself having to adjust your controls accordingly. This added realism was a much-welcomed blessing for this game, but what really took me by surprise was the new and innovative Aircraft Tree.

Think of the Aircraft Tree like your typical skill/character tree(s) that we find in most games today. This one, however, deals with planes, upgrades and weaponry on a colossal scale. Starting with an F-16, you will accumulate points/currency by each multiplayer mission you compete in, as well as each campaign mission you finish. This currency is used to unlock new aircraft, special weaponry and upgraded parts. YOU CAN NOT RESPEC YOUR POINTS USED, so be VERY careful as to how you decide to spend them. I find that it's best to plan by seeing what aircraft are on the path you initially want to take and then look for other upgrades that you wish to unlock at a later time.

When you purchase a new plane from the Aircraft Tree, you will automatically get one special weapon unlocked for that plane, but you will need to spend more currency to unlock the other weapons. For example, if you want to unlock the F-22A Raptor at the end of the tree, not only will you need to buy your way to it, but at the same time it will set you back 920,000 credits, and each special weapon you unlock can cost over 100,000 credits each one, so get ready to spend like crazy. This method allows you to feel like there are goals to reach and progress to be made while you grind away hours of your life flying in multiplayer.

Not only will you unlock new planes and ordinance, but you'll also unlock new parts which is another new innovation for the Ace Combat series. You'll be able to equip your plane with various parts that fit into the slots that impact different aspects of your aircraft. The first tab allows you to focus on things like maneuverability, stability and so forth. Your second tab relates to your armaments, and it's here you can tailor things like increased or standard missile homing, reload speed, etc. Your third and final tab deals with what I'm calling the technology aspect of your plane, by allowing you such options as enhanced deicing, decrease in enemy lock on and more.

Each plane has the same number of slots that you can use to equip these new parts (or as I call them "plane perks"), however, there are costs that are involved with each plane and part and that can impact what you face in multiplayer. You see, in multiplayer you can set up what types of planes you want to fly against. Not by type of plane, but rather by cost. Case in point, when you setup a multiplayer match, you can create your room with restrictions on aircraft cost, and there's options such as under 2000, unlimited and more, but here is how this works:

Let's say you join a room and its cost restriction is 2000 or less. An F/A-18 can cost a little over 1900, and each part that you put on the plane (not weapon but parts) costs between 20-50 credits, so you'll have to choose wisely if you want to maximize your aircraft under the 2000 limit. Or you can take a less expensive plane and load it up with tons of parts, so the decision is totally up to you on how you wish to approach multiplayer.

Graphically speaking, Ace Combat 7 is stellar. It takes everything from AC6 and enhances it in every way. The cut scenes are jaw dropping beautiful and the environments you fly in seem to be straight out of photographs. There was some screen tearing though, but it was incredibly minimal and didn't detract from the overall aesthetic of the game. There is one issue that I have to mention, and that is that I was hoping for a way to save some of the replays to watch later, or find some way to make clips of my flights, but the camera system was average at best in the replay sector and no such option exists to actually save your replays. A minor gripe, but when you're playing at such intense speeds, having to record your own manual clips can be a bit disorientating since you shift your focus to record some moment that went flying by you at 1000 mph... virtually of course.

Just as the graphics deliver an experience that makes your jaw drop, the audio surpasses any of the games that came before it and stands in a class on its own. Sure, the audio from the cockpit returns in its classic glory, but the actual soundtrack is what surprised me the most. Classical harmonies and a symphony of melodies bombarded my ears, while the tempo and direction of the music changed dramatically when the action became intense.

Without a doubt this IS the Ace Combat experience fans around the globe have waited over a decade for. Bandai Namco and Project Aces have done an incredible job delivering a truly remarkable flight combat experience that shouldn't be missed. With 20 story missions and a multiplayer that will leave you wondering where all those hours went, Ace Combat 7 deserves a medal of commendation for the execution of a near perfect flying gaming experience. If you're a fan of the Ace Combat series, or just flight games in general, then Ace Combat 7 should be on your radar to purchase.

Please do not wait over 10 years for another entry like this. This is the version of Ace Combat your fans want to enjoy, and feel free to make another one sooner than later.

Overall: 8.7 / 10
Gameplay: 8.8 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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