Alright let’s take a quick overview. Contrived anime plot? Check. Soldiers and pilots waxing philosophically about the nature of war and nations? Check. Beautifully rendered and licensed models of modern fighter jets? Check. Ridiculous, high-octane gameplay? Check (in spades). Yep. “Ace Combat” is back and as good as it ever was, embracing everything that made it so loved in the PlayStation 2 (PS2) era.
“Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown” is the most recent entry in Bandai Namco Studios’ “Ace Combat” series of arcade flight action games. Note that particular genre distinction - flight action, as opposed to flight simulator. “Ace Combat” is not, and never was, a series about realistically portraying modern aerial combat. Such simulators, while existing in the gaming market, are much less likely to gain traction among mass video game consumers (simply put, realistic aerial combat is not entertaining to watch or play). Instead, “Ace Combat” is a series about capturing the FEEL of being a hotshot ace pilot that completely turns the tide of every battle and war, using a wide assortment of weapons and planes to wreak havoc on hundreds of enemies in the land, air, and sea.
With its seventh installment, the “Ace Combat” series takes a long-requested return to what many fans consider the glory days of the series’ life. Taking place on the fictional planet of Strangereal (last seen in “Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy” in 2011), “Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown” brings longtime fans of the series back to the series’ roots. Everything about the latest installment, from its gameplay to its storyline and soundtrack, all brought me right back to my PS2 days and the series that I have loved since I was a child. Every single one of these elements were lovingly crafted with longtime fans of the series in mind, but alongside them comes a core video game experience with stunning graphics and satisfying gameplay that can appeal to any new fan of the series.
The core gameplay of “Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown” returns the series to its tried and true formula of putting the player in the cockpit of a modern fighter jet of their choosing and giving them free reign to completely annihilate an entire army’s worth of enemy forces. The flight controls feel natural and responsive, with a wide assortment of planes, weapons, and parts giving players even more freedom to customize their experience. Players can choose to play the entire game using an American F-22 with the latest radar-guided missiles or use a Russian MiG-21 with nothing but machine guns.
New gameplay mechanics, such as weather effects (lightning can strike the player’s plane, temporarily disrupting the display, and clouds allow both the player and enemies to break lines of sight in the middle of a dogfight) further add to the experience and are welcome additions. And of course, this all happens with the beauty of 2019 graphics in full bloom. The sky has never looked bluer and my plane has never looked finer than in this latest installment.
The storyline of the game is just as corny and melodramatic as ever, and I cannot help but love it for its overly dramatic dialogue and ridiculous characters (recurring callbacks to previous games and characters also brought a delighted smile to my face every time). The computer-generated cutscenes look outdated for a 2019 game (with a certain dog in the background that is very clearly just an image gaining a lot of recognition among Internet communities), and the storyline and narrative themselves are not perfect, even by “Ace Combat” standards. Some threads feel unresolved. Some plot points feel unexplained. Some characters feel two-dimensional. However, again, this is a series about getting into a fighter jet and shooting down flying aircraft carriers that launch burst missiles and fire laser cannons at me while my pacifist wingmen argue about a war they volunteered to fight in. I’m not exactly expecting the video game equivalent of “Schindler’s List.”
Finally, the soundtrack of “Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown” might actually be my favorite part of the entire game. Lead composer, Keiki Kobayashi, has outdone himself once again, delivering that distinctive “Ace Combat” blend of rock, orchestral, and synth elements into a complete soundtrack collection that gives each mission its own unique identity and feeling, with almost every track feeling it could be the crescendo of its own game. My words can only do the musical accomplishments here so much justice. If you want to hear for yourself with just one soundtrack, I must recommend the penultimate battle’s final theme - “Daredevil.” Please, just give it a listen.
Almost 800 words in, and I feel like I have barely broken the surface of “Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.” Instead of going on, I will just leave with one personal note: I waited 12 years for this game (the last numbered installment to the series released in 2007), and it managed to live up to every expectation I had set in that time. Skies unknown have never felt so familiar before.
Image courtesy of Bandai Namco Studios