Out along the edges
Always where I burn to be
The further on the edge
The hotter the intensity
Highway to the danger zone
Gonna take you
Right into the danger zone
Lyrics by Giorgio Moroder, Kenny Loggins, and Tom Whitlock
The Ace Combat series has always been one that has lived somewhere in the realm between simulation and arcade aerial combat. A danger zone – if you will. The high-flying series from Bandai Namco dates all the way back to the original PlayStation, where it saw several sequels and spin-offs in the years and systems that followed. All building on the same formula, with the same internal Project Aces team at Bandai Namco working on each new entry for close to twenty years now.
That said, it’s been a minute. The most recent numbered Ace Combat, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, developed exclusively for the Xbox 360, released way back in 2007. That said Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown doesn’t stray from the formula, bringing a very traditional Ace Combat campaign full of varying missions that can be tackled with a wide-range of aircraft. And that’s aircraft in the sense that we’re talking about single-fighter jets, both realistic and made-up, with the sorts of price tags that carry substantially more zeroes than even the fanciest of sports cars.
Military grade tech that can travel at super-sonic speeds, carrying missiles and payloads and call-signs that remind you that the lone pilot within comes a distant second to the craft. Built using Unreal Engine 4, Ace Combat 7 is easily the most impressive looking aerial combat game we’ve seen this generation. The new graphics tech that makes up Ace Combat 7 results in being able to fly through, above, and below clouds during lightning storms or on a clear sunny day - delivering a dual sense of awe and fear.
There’s great subtlety to the feeling of each fighter jet too, especially when taking on the various missions that make-up the campaign using the ‘Expert’ controls. Which is the traditional Ace Combat or aeroplane-game controls that consider pitch and yaw. ‘Normal’ offers up a pure arcade vision for the series and playing with these controls offers up a mostly hassle-free experience. That is also quite boring. After not playing an Ace Combat game for many years choosing this option and the easy difficulty to ease back into it, is a mistake.
But before we get into all of that though, it’s worth pointing out that both Ace Combat 7’s story and underlying soundtrack are both great. The story in the sense that it’s the same thinly-veiled real-world cold-war countries and continents with silly names at war with each other (this time it’s the Oseans and the Eruseans duking it out), coupled with a fist-thumping adrenaline-fueled soundtrack full of orchestral themes, tribal drums, electric instrumentation, and catchy melodies.
Easily the best look and sounding Ace Combat to date then. What brings the series well into the modern era though is the focus on drones and unmanned aircraft versus, you know, the traditional mom and pop billion-dollar jet-engine beasts piloted by humans. It’s a fun story full of twists and turns. You even accidentally kill the president in an early mission.
That said, there are issues to be had with a few of the dated and stranger design decisions. Stuff that can make early moments feel a little too simplistic, with the impression being that each mission will end up with you simply taking out one group of red blips on your radar after another. The truth is somewhat more than that but make no mistake being an aerial combat game most of your time in Ace Combat 7 will be spent in the cockpit dogfighting and shooting rockets and missiles at various air and ground targets.
Ace Combat 7 is thrilling and challenging due to the different objectives, setup, and structure of each of the campaign’s 20 or so missions. Each one feels different, where one might be time sensitive whilst another will have you taking out naval ships or heavily fortified supply lines. As is the case with the series, missions can become quite challenging if you don’t equip your craft with the right upgrades and weapons. Where Ace Combat begins to feel a little convoluted (see - dated) is in the unwieldy setup of having new ships and upgrades all part of the same complicated unlock tree and forcing you to replay missions for cash in order to unlock the gear needed for the higher difficulty levels.
Stuff that isn’t bad on paper but locking out difficulty changes outside a full campaign re-start (with you keeping all money and stuff earned) feels weird. Also, in-game difficulty and challenge seem to be completely unpredictable and even cheap - in that on normal difficulty and higher a lot of the times you’ll be in a perpetual state of evading incoming missile fire. With random difficulty spikes that feel a little too cruel and arbitrary – you must destroy x amounts of points worth of enemies in 15 minutes. Many times, during the campaign, the robotic voice stating “Missile”, “Missile”, “Missile”, begins to grate. The combat that, err, Ace Combat 7 nails though – is with the ship-to-ship dogfights between craft of equal skill and ability, leading to a few tense ‘edge of your seat’ moments.
There aren’t any fundamental problems per se with Ace Combat 7, and for fans of the series it most certainly is worth looking into. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but then again there isn’t a great need for wheels when you’re dancing between clouds.