Remember demo discs? They were magical things, bringing hours of fun to the penniless kids of the ’90s – like myself. There are plenty of PS1 games that I’ve never owned and never beaten, yet they still managed to get hours of play-time from me. Long before I had a home internet connection, this was how I found new games to play; thanks to a demo disc attached to a magazine that is almost certainly no longer in circulation, I discovered Ace Combat. Fast-forward to 2019, and the series is getting its first numbered entry in 12 years with Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.
At this point in their lives, with decades of history and perhaps a dozen installments, many series tend to stagnate. A lot of franchises that had hit their stride in the ’90s have, since then, stumbled somewhere along the way. But Ace Combat is a strange outlier. What it offers is an experience that is rarely seen in a video game lately. How many countless stories have you pick up a gun to go to war, or embark on a grand adventure to save the world from evil? Rarer is the experience of jumping into the pilot’s seat of a fighter craft and blowing enemies of the sky.
That said, Ace Combat 7 is still very much a game about war – it just does it differently. It pits you against a whole host of enemy aircraft, ground units, and other threats, offers you some basic objectives and sets you loose. There’s a genuine, unique thrill to taking off for the first time, watching the engines of your plane roar to life as they push you slowly, then faster, across a runway and into the air. When you reach the skies for the first time, breaking through the clouds as rain spatters across your windshield and the game’s orchestral soundtrack kicks in, Ace Combat is doing something only it can do.
In some ways, Ace Combat still feels like a PS1 game. This is a no-nonsense, to-the-point arcade experience, and it’s in that simplicity that it excels. When you’re given a task and told to head over to Point A and blow stuff up, then refuel and restock before heading to Point B to the do the same, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that there’s anything else to the game besides dominating the skies.
But there is more, and not all of it works as well as I’d hoped. Set in the series’ fictional world of Strangereal, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown chronicles a conflict between two superpowers: the Osean Federation and the Kingdom of Erusea. Put in control of a pilot called Trigger, you fight against the Eruseans in an impressively lengthy campaign of missions. The story itself is competent enough, with each mission detailing the escalating state of the war primarily through conversations between everyone but Trigger, who has absolutely zero lines or presence.
You’re introduced to new people at a rapid-fire pace, to the point that actually keeping track of names, callsigns and allegiances becomes a chore that hinders enjoyment. Minor characters will ramble on with cheesy, B-movie dialogue, especially and distractingly during missions, and a great deal of the dialogue seems to be repeating something that was stated no more than a minute earlier. The major driving force of the plot comes early on, where you’re blamed for a crime you didn’t commit. After that, almost every line of dialogue spoken to or about you references that incident. Over and over and over again.
If you can ignore the tedious dialogue, the story is engaging enough to keep you invested in what you’re doing. As I gradually lost interest in what most of the characters had to say – the sole exception to this was Avril, who really should have been the star of the game – I focused more on the immediate details of the next mission. What you’re doing and why you’re doing it are consistently interesting aspects of the narrative, and it’s only the superfluous peripheral exposition from side characters that begins to drag it all down.
Between missions, you’re allowed to purchase new aircraft and tinker with their loadouts. Every mission awards you points based on performance, and you can use them to unlock new planes, enhancements and weaponry from a skill tree. In the earlier missions, you can perform perfectly well with pretty much any craft, but further down the line or on harder difficulties you’ll almost certainly need to pick the right fighter for the job. Some perform better against aerial enemies than ground ones, for example, whereas another might have a better selection of special weapons than the rest of your unlocked roster.
Each aircraft looks incredible, all of them loving recreated from their real-life designs. I know next to nothing about military aircraft, mind you, but they’re all a joy to examine in the hangar, the metallic sheen of their armor and riveted metal indicating an impressive level of care from the development team. When you actually take one up into the skies, it’s an experience you can’t really find anywhere else. Sure, many military-based games will feature aerial combat, but nothing else dedicates itself to it like Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown does. When you destroy an enemy craft that’s hurtling towards you, just averting a crash as you fly through the explosion engulfing its remains, Skies Unknown is simply breathtaking – both in its visuals and the thrill of the action.
Aside from the appeal of the Osean-Erusean conflict, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown has quite a lot going for it. You can replay missions independently of the story as much as you’d like, or even pick a particular mission’s location and just free-fly for a while, with no enemies in sight. The aforementioned aircraft tree, while not huge, isn’t lacking for things to unlock. The aircraft and gear upgrades towards the end require a huge amount of points to acquire; anyone hoping to add one of those deadly planes to their collection is going to have to excel at the story missions or perhaps even venture into the game’s multiplayer modes.
Entirely separate from the story, the multiplayer component pits players against one another in aerial dogfights. Performing well earns you both points to spend on new craft and experience to increase your rank (starting at Airman with 20 promotions to earn). Many basic features of PvP multiplayer have their own Ace Combat twist. Respawning, for example, involves your aircraft being repaired after another player takes you out of the fight. For the time being, there are only two modes: the standard Team Deathmatch and Battle Royal, a free-for-all that has you fight against up to seven other players for supremacy. It’s a little sparse, especially by modern multiplayer standards, but there’s plenty of room for improvement and expansion.
I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy the story of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. What should have been a fairly straightforward war tale was quickly bogged down by inane dialogue and an oversized roster of uninteresting, forgettable characters. Deciding to pay only passing attention to the plot allowed me to focus on what mattered: taking to the skies and wiping out every enemy I encountered. That’s what Ace Combat is about, at its core, and it’s an action-packed, explosive experience. When a bolt of lightning strikes your plane and you have to pull up to avoid a collision, the thrill is like no other. It’s just a shame that the story couldn’t match that gold standard.