Does the color of the sky mean anything special to you? Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown opens with this question, as the narrator recounts her view of seeing the sky as a “deep, dark blue,” blurring the line between the open blue skies we see from the ground and the inky, dark unknown of space. Taking place in a world similar to our own, Ace Combat presents a story of two nations at war, the philosophy of humans taking to the sky, and the shifting landscape of war in the era of the drone.
All of this is revealed to us in a photorealistic opening movie, and helps to set the tone for the game itself that follows. But more than that, Skies Unknown’s interest in the “dark blue” freedom of the skies translates into a game that seems committed to giving people what they have been wanting from Ace Combat for a long time: the right to rule the sky and battle for that right in slick dogfights!
It’s been over 5 years and nearly an entire gaming generation since the last Ace Combat game, Ace Combat Infinity, and Ace Combat 6 came out 12 years ago (woah, even I’ve forgotten it’s been THAT long!), so in many ways Skies Unknown feels like a revival more than it does a continuation to the series itself. And, frankly, it succeeds on all counts, presenting a gorgeous game with tight flying controls and the mixture of flight sim and arcade combat that initially caused the series to gain so much popularity during its earlier releases. I’ll be honest in saying that after a few disappointing games a generation ago, I had really given little thought to Ace Combat, remembering fondly the earlier days of playing Ace Combat 1 and 2 on my shared PlayStation with my brother, and giving the PlayStation Portable iteration a fair shake when that system was my primary means of entertainment. But since then, I had little but nostalgic memories of Ace Combat and the dogfights it had given me, still somewhat stuck in my mind as a type of gameplay I couldn’t get anywhere else, ironically even from other Ace Combat games. When I got into the first few missions of Skies Unknown, however, I quickly found myself back in that same mind space, screaming my jet over low ground or rocketing into the stratosphere to avoid enemy missiles and get the drop on my opponents.
Two of the most important parts of an airplane game are the controls and the feel of your plane. If the controls are too jerky or imprecise, it ruins the illusion that you’re soaring through the skies in a jet fighter, and if your plane doesn’t feel like it’s really “there,” the sense of realism vanishes in an instant. Ace Combat itself has struggled with this, and many other plane based games have as well; Ace Combat is supposed to blend arcade action with simulation, and if any of those two things don’t mix properly, it can easily spoil the entire experience. The game needs to impart that sense of realism and simulation, of needing to measure your speed, thrust, trajectory, and weather conditions like icing up or rain obscuring your vision, while also giving quick, punchy combat controls with lock-on missiles and explosive action. While the series spent some time in the clouds in this regards, the time spent on developing Skies Unknown seems to have not gone to waste, because I found the game addicting and hard to put down, always looking for one more sortie before doing something else.
To scratch that itch, Ace Combat gives you two main arenas to fly your heart out in: campaign and multiplayer. The campaign spans 20 missions, following two seemingly unrelated stories that intersect in interesting ways. The mysterious narrator of the cutscenes is a woman on the ground, whose love of flying gets her unwillingly and unwittingly roped into the emerging war between two nations; her story eventually intersects with the player character, known only by their callsign “Trigger,” who finds themselves betrayed and searching for redemption and a potential way to end the war once and for all. Without spoilers, there are some interesting twists and turns in the plot, and the shifting POV in various cutscenes makes the story much more engaging than it probably would have been normally, with much of it being relayed by people on the ground, away from the player character themselves. Missions generally are preceded by a briefing, where electronic maps are used to simulate a war-room briefing of what’s going on and what needs to be done. These briefings can be a bit long, and if they are further preceded by a cutscene, it can at times seem like the game takes a while to move from story mission to story mission. That said, the missions themselves are quite long and tend to evolve over time, meaning these little breaks in the gameplay serve to let you rest your hands after a particularly hairy mission!
The briefings serve a further purpose in presenting the player with objectives, and skipping these can leave you somewhat in the dark about what you’re actually supposed to be doing at the start of a mission, or whether you want Air-to-Air or Air-to-Ground weapons, or even what type of weather you might encounter. The campaign story itself is perhaps not the reason most people would look to play Ace Combat, but it was entertaining and has a mixture of somewhat expected archetype characters in a military simulator game, like the cocksure rival, the war weary narrator, and plenty of double crossing. The story itself hits mostly general themes of war is bad and the human toll of warfare, making its focus on the dangers and seeming evils of drone warfare probably the most interesting aspect of the game. Of real note is the narrative of hope and freedom that comes from the game over time, focusing back to the narrator’s dreams of the dark blue sky, of what lies in the skies above us and where that could one day take us.
When not in campaign, players can take to the multiplayer section of Ace Combat 7, which for me was where the real fun actually lay. I decided I wanted to get some real experience in with the multiplayer before getting this review up, and I was not disappointed for my efforts! The multiplayer of Ace Combat works in a lobby system, much like you’d find in other shooter games, but ironically, I found it somewhat reminiscent of a fighting game lobby system, such as Bandai Namco’s Tekken series. Players can search or create rooms, setting them between the two available types of play at the moment: team deathmatch and battle royale. Either way, players can play with up to 7 other people (for a total of 8) in either team sorties or huge free for alls. One of the most intriguing options is that players can select limitations on the cost of planes that are allowed to be used, limiting players to smaller or cheaper loadouts, as well as disabling special weapons, meaning you’re only equipped with your starter missiles and machine gun!
Having the option to disable and enable certain limiters was welcome, although I actually don’t know if I minded too much; flying through the skies in my starter plane from the campaign and taking out people much further along the customization tree than I was revealed to me probably the most important aspect of the game’s multiplayer: fancy toys are great, but you better have some real skill if you want to get things done! I appreciated the fact that Ace Combat rewarded solid play and strategy in the air over progressively more powerful loadouts and planes, and while they can make some difference, the option to simplify combats is a nice touch as well. I’ll pull the curtain back here and bit and just say that I enjoyed multiplayer so much, I kind of delayed this review a little bit by accident from playing!
No matter what mode you play, or any combination you play, you get access to the Aircraft Tree, where you can buy and unlock new planes, parts, and upgrades. The money you earn in campaign missions and multiplayer is shared, meaning that when I dipped back in to finish off campaign, my plane became a super charged beast! There are multiplayer only upgrades too, however, which are some of the most interesting customization options, with effects like longer lock on range, better speed for your missiles, and other helpful tools that don’t give you a surefire edge, but will help you confirm your kills the more skillfully you play. For campaign, however, you’ll likely find that a well kitted out plane from later in the list will probably easily decimate your AI opponents… if you’re playing on easy or normal, that is! Ace Combat’s got a fair AI difficulty curve, and my early missions on normal really threw me for a loop with how cunning they can actually be; after having gotten used to the game again, I found it easier, and I tried out hard for the sake of curiosity and was rewarded with some pretty savage computer competition! And that’s fine by me, because another bonus of the various modes is getting to see the different arenas of combat that are available to you.
Something that I haven’t touched on yet is the fact that Skies Unkown is frankly a GORGEOUS looking game, with amazing weather effects and solid visuals, making the places you fight and fly through thrilling to look at (if you have a chance while dodging missiles, anyway!). Flying through clouds to hide from opponents or dropping from high altitude to surprise someone is accompanied by numerous great visual touches, like icing on your windshields and a real sense of motion and speed. Honestly, while they look good, I’d say the game itself looks better than its cutscenes do!
If you ever played Crimson Skies for the original Xbox, you might understand where I’m coming from, but I think that the lack of a good, exciting multiplayer dogfighting game has gone on for far too long. While I loved the campaign of Ace Combat, the multiplayer is really where the game shines. Although it doesn’t have quite that level of close combat that Crimson Skies had (let’s face it, the Ace Combat jets move probably 10 times as fast than a biplane), it does bring back that sense of amazing excitement when you manage to finally take down that fighter you decided was your arch nemesis, or coming to the aid of a team mate with too many bandits on their tail. Ace Combat’s multiplayer is addictive, smooth, and fast, and the game is probably worth the time just for that mode alone. If you’ve never played an Ace Combat game or a plane combat game, this is probably an amazing place to jump on, as the game is accessible and exciting from the start. And if you’re a returning pilot, I think you’ll find a lot to love in Ace Combat: Skies Unknown. What color is the sky for you? For me, it’s a bright, energetic, deep blue that I can’t wait to get back to playing.
+ Controls combine with atmosphere to give that perfect sim/arcade mix of past Ace Combat
+ Multiplayer is an absolute blast, easy to set up, and based on skill and practice over upgrades
+ It’s really everything you’d want in an Ace Combat or dogfighting game
+ The VR missions are fun; however if VR makes you motion sick, be forewarned
+/– Your mileage may vary on the campaign quality and storytelling. Some good bits, some overwritten bits, a bit hammy military style stuff at times
– Some missions, like the stealth missions, are a bit weird and forgettable
Are you an ace pilot, returning for more? Or are you new and curious to try out Ace Combat for the first time? Let us know what you think of the game in the comments! And if you get shot down by “Midnight Moon” Ellyberry, it’s nothing personal!
Nicole is a features and a social video script writer for Crunchyroll. Known for punching dudes in Yakuza games on her Twitch channel while professing her love for Majima. She also has a blog, Figuratively Speaking. Follow her on Twitter: @ellyberries