A few weeks ago we reviewed Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown for the Xbox One, the first numbered sequel in the ongoing franchise in many years and the first for current gen systems. I’ve been playing Ace Combat since the beginning, back on the original PlayStation, and I’ve always been a fan of the not-so-serious arcade flight combat, even when the developers strayed from the path to try something different. Skies Unknown is a return to form, bringing back everything we loved about those core original games while adding in a few nifty features and a whole lot of next-gen polish.
Nostalgia was high as I once again took to the skies in over a dozen missions above two fictional warring kingdoms. You play as Trigger, a hotshot pilot who accidentally shoots down a transport carrying the former President; an act that lands you in prison along with numerous other convicts who will all eventually form their own squadron that will be sent out on missions nobody else wants to tackle. There is also a B-story about this granddaughter of a former ace pilot whose piloting skills have been recorded and used to program a massive fleet of automated drones. These stories alternate via lengthy cutscenes between missions and eventually come together to form one cohesive narrative that I won’t spoil here.
New features include an Aircraft Tree; basically a giant tech tree of planes, parts, and upgrades that allow you to boost your effectiveness in the campaign only. You’ll earn credits by completing missions that you can spend prior to the next. Each plane has several upgrade slots that you can use to customize your plane to fit specific mission types or objectives. Choosing the proper plane is only half the battle, as you will want to max out that plane’s abilities for maximum carnage. You can also unlock and equip secondary weapons that allow you to prioritize land, air, or sea combat then boost those weapons with damage, reload, and quantity perks.
Mission structure is fairly linear and mostly requires you to shoot down the primary TGT’s and mop up as many secondary enemies as possible, usually within a time limit. The new Annihilation Battle mode adds to the challenge by giving you stricter time limits while requiring you to rack up a certain point value of targets. This leads to a lot of target switching as you scan for the higher value targets. Wasting your missiles on empty warehouses will make it hard to win these missions, while selecting tankers, AA guns, radar towers, or enemy ace pilots will usually end in victory. Occasionally the game tosses in an escort mission or some fun diversions like trying to find escaping fuel trucks in a blinding sandstorm. Another mission has you winding through a canyon avoiding spotlights while another has you bombing missile silos in windy conditions.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown makes the most of contemporary hardware by delivering stunning 4K visuals with insanely detailed landscapes and an impressive draw distance. There is a lot more 3D detail on the ground like buildings and trees and the plane models and functioning cockpits are exquisitely detailed. Sadly, much like the Xbox One, HDR is not supported, but the game still boasts impressive lighting. The new cloud system is fantastic allowing you to get lost in the white mist to avoid visual and weapons targeting. A new weather system is in play that will cause your plane to ice up if you stay in the clouds too long as well as having thunderstorms with lightning strikes that will make your HUD scramble or violent wind shears that will blow you off course or mess up that perfect bombing run.
Expect to die several times and perhaps even replay some earlier missions to grind for credits in order to buy and upgrade planes to complete the campaign, which ultimately lasts 10-12 hours. In order to unlock the entire tree I’m guessing you’d need to play the entire game twice. If you want to test your skills against other pilots you can head online for Team Deathmatch and Battle Royal modes. TDM was very fun while Battle Royal (not Royale) seemed rather pointless. In all the matches I played nobody could shoot anyone down. Only in TDM where you can double-up on the enemy did anyone actually score. Guns are almost as pointless in multiplayer as they are in the campaign.
I had a blast playing Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown despite a few annoying limitations. There is no 21:9 widescreen support, no HDR, and if you want to use a flight stick other than the new one Namco wants you to buy you are going to have to utilize a third party config program. And where is the VR support that PS4 gamers are enjoying? At least the PC version boasts true 4K/60fps and faster load times than either of the console versions.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a modern day flight combat game for the PC, and Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown fills the niche nicely with photo-realistic graphics, a majestic and frankly epic soundtrack, a reasonably good story, and over a dozen missions that range in type and challenge. There is definitely something here for everyone whether you are a seasoned veteran or a newcomer to the franchise, so kick in those afterburners and soar into Skies Unknown.