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Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One
PC Release Date: February 1, 2019
Genre: Combat flight simulator
Reviewed on: AMD RX 580, Intel i7-4770, 16 GB RAM, Windows 10 x64, Build 1903
AMD Drivers: 19.9.2
In the PC gaming market saturated with various open world games and bland first-person shooters, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown represents a breadth of fresh air. Inheriting the DNA of the old-school shoot ‘em up games from the 1980s and 1990s, Ace Combat 7 offers up a refreshing arcade combat flighting experience which on PC platform hasn’t been surpassed since the release of Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X back in 2009. Although the game brings a lot of fun and joy to the fans of the genre, game still lacks some entertaining aspects which would make it a total military fighter experience.
In the reviewing of the game, let’s first start with the story. Although Ace Combat series is 23 years old and has rich and complex lore, most of the PC gamers aren’t very familiar with it since only couple of the titles from the series have been released on PC platform so far. In order to play the game, being familiar with the lore isn’t a necessary prerequisite, but speaking context-wise, Ace Combat 7 leans a lot on its predecessors, so most of the players won’t be able to understand what is going on.
In short, game’s story revolves around armed conflict between two fictional states – Osean Federation and Kingdom of Erusea. Player assumes the role of the main character Trigger, an elite Osean fighter pilot who is very soon accused for killing Osean president Harling during the operation “Lighthouse Keeper”. Trigger afterwards becomes a member of the penal unit, but eventually proves his innocence and helps Osean military forces to end the war with Erusea, thus becoming a national hero.
Like in many shooter games, Trigger is a “mute” hero, which means players never have a chance to hear his voice. However, during the cutscenes and briefings between missions, in which we hear comments from other game’s characters, players get the opportunity to envision Trigger as a super-talented ace pilot who shares a lot of traits with characters from the Tony Scott’s well-known film Top Gun. In a way, he is almost a nihilistic hero, just like the Illiad’s Achilles, whose only purpose of living is killing enemies in the sky.
Besides Trigger, other major story characters are Avril Mead, a female mechanic who assumes the role of the game’s narrator, Mihaly Shilage, a Erusian air force veteran and Trigger’s greatest nemesis, Dr. Schroeder, a chief Erusian military scientist and Rosa Cossette D’Elise – the Erusian princess.
During the missions players get to hear radio chatter among Trigger’s air squadron members, but also and his commanders. From all the military companions, Count and commander McKinsey stand out the most, from whom former represents a very competitive comrade, while the latter is a quarrelsome and grumpy superior whose comments with time become very tedious.
Although radio chatter has a very important role in the game because it updates the player about the situation on the ground and in the air, too many unnecessary dialogues sometimes undermine the experience of dog-fighting enemies with a fighter jet. Speaking about game’s setting, lastly it is worth to mention game’s great soundtrack which was composed by Japanese musician Keiki Kobayashi. Game’s background music varies from mission to mission and from setting to setting. However, in moments of great battles game’s theme very often starts to play, thus creating a very emotional and memorable experience of being a fighter ace pilot in epic aerial battles. In that context it is worth to say that Ace Combat 7 packs up a great musical experience.
Whether you are interested in the story or not, gameplay is Ace Combat 7’s strongest point. During the first mission player is introduced to the basics of game’s mechanics. Since the game is primarily made for consoles it is strongly recommended to use gamepad while playing it on PC. You can choose between two modes of flying: standard and expert. Personally, I would say both modes are worth using. Standard seems to be more useful in missions where you have to destroy multiple ground targets, while expert mode is a must have in dog-fighting situations since it enables player to easily preform barrel rolls which are impossible to do in standard mode.
Most of the combat revolves around locking on a target and firing missiles. For fans of realistic flying simulators such as DCS, this kind of gameplay is too casual and arcadey. There is no doubt that Ace Combat 7 offers oversimplified way of piloting a fighter jet, however, game is not so easy as it might seems and from time to time it gets very difficult. Most of the missiles you fire usually miss the target and require you to be on enemy’s tail in order to hit it. UAVs in that sense represent hard to hit targets since they mimic your actions. Besides ordinary enemy fighters and bombers, players also sometimes have to engage enemy aces which lock-on very fast, avoid missiles very fast and deploy flares in order to survive.
Unlike Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X which had its own gimmick called ERS that enabled you to avoid enemy missiles easily, Ace Combat 7 forces its player to constantly move, preform barrel rolls and high G maneuvers in order to avoid damage. This makes gameplay very dynamic, but it also forces player to think and not just fly straight forward. Probably most demanding missions in game are the ones in which you have to achieve certain destruction score in order to complete it successfully. Greatest enemy in those missions, however, aren’t enemy forces but the time limit which forces you to fly and think fast.
In my personal opinion, time limit is one of the Ace Combat’s most weakest links because sometimes it makes gameplay very frustrating and doesn’t allow you to complete mission with your own pace. In a way it is understandable that there has to be something that will make game harder, however it would be a great option to have the ability to disable time limit and enjoy the game with the pace that you like.
All in all, Ace Combat 7 has a rather steep learning curve for new players that aren’t familiar with the series. Although it might look like a casual arcade flying shooter, it’s game mechanics offer up a considerable degree of complexity. With every sortie, players have to think well which plane to choose for the next mission, whether it will be a fighter such as F-15E or Su-30, will it be a stealth plane such as F-22 or Su-57, or will it be a bomber such as A-10 or Su-34.
Game also offers a deep progression system which enables you to upgrade planes with various modules that offer your plane to fly faster or your missiles to be more powerful. Various landscapes and weather conditions make the gameplay more unpredictable. In certain mission you even get the chance to take off from airfields, land on aircraft carriers or go back to your air base to refill your ammo.
Packing up 20 missions with various scenarios, Ace Combat 7 offers a fare amount of content and replayability. Unlocking skins and special weaponry motivates even more to replay the campaign, however there are only handful of mission that really provide pleasure with each replay. Multiplayer experience is a rather straightforward team deathmatch mode, which at start might provide a lot of fun but will very soon become repetitive. Biggest disappointment represents a lack of any kind of cooperative mode, but also and inability to play custom skirmish missions with bots. These two things would make Ace Combat 7 an ultimate combat flying experience, however, that is not the case since they don’t exist.
Visually, Ace Combat 7 is a nice-looking game. That is due to the fact that the game utilizes Unreal Engine 4. Planes are very nicely modeled and are on par with models from other flighting simulator games such as War Thunder and DCS. Plane cockpits are also very detailed and offer meaningful indicators, such as real-time altitude meter, compass, gyroscope and other instruments.
From all the graphical elements, probably the most impressive are lighting system and volumetric clouds. During the sunny weather, players get the chance to see very nice sun beam reflections from planes and cockpit glass which in turn enables them to see all the details on the planes. Some of those details are moveable wings on certain planes, variable intake fins and afterburner flames during high-speed flying. All of these details are particularly impressive to watch in post-mission flying recorder mode in which you can rotate camera around your plane freely and speed-up or slow down time to observe your plane from many angles.
Besides that, volumetric clouds, on the other hand, represent one of the most innovating graphical aspects in arcade flying combat simulators such as Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. Clouds in this game actually have volume and are very pleasant to observe from the outside. However, they also play a key role in game’s gameplay. Clouds enable players to hide in them and evade lock-on and missiles fired from enemies. However, flying in the clouds reduces visibility and forces player to be more cautious. Flying through clouds in cockpit view also makes windows wet from the rain, which represents a nice touch of detail. In certain missions plane can even get hit by a lightning which messes up electronics systems and HUD and forces players to use old-school weaponry such as machine gun.
Speaking about performance on PC platform, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a very polished game. Most of the players that own mainstream graphics cards such as Nvidia GTX 1060 or AMD RX 580 will be able to play the game on maximum settings at 1920×1080 resolution with 60+ frames per second. Realistically speaking, with such hardware it is expected to achieve frame rates even higher than 100 frames per second, but in certain missions like “Pipeline Destruction” frame rate might dip below 60 because of many explosions and objects that graphics card is forced to render. It is necessary to point out that for some reason game doesn’t support rendering above 1920×1080 resolution (at least in my case), but it offers resolution scaling up to 200% thus simulating what might be native 4K resolution. Finally, it is worth to mention that ground targets look rather unimpressive and have low resolution textures which from up close might look ugly. In that sense, it is justified to say that ground objects represent a bit of a disappointment since all of the other graphical elements are up to their expectations.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unkown is a good arcade combat flying simulator that finally filled up the space that was once occupied by Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X on PC platform. Although the main story is a bit of a mess, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown offers an enjoyable and arcadish experience of flying a military jet that is accompanied by an epic soundtrack. Engaging other fighters into a dogfight and attacking fictional aerial bosses is fun and thrilling, but gameplay sometimes gets frustrating and a bit repetitive. After completing the campaign game doesn’t offer very much content except for grinding completed missions to unlock skins and exotic weapons. Multiplayer is somewhat bland, and lack of cooperative or skirmish mode reduces longevity of the game a lot. However, game represents a refreshing comeback of arcade flying simulators and provides a lot of fun for players who haven’t experienced anything similar in a while. In that aspect game is worth a buy.