I probably have no right to review this game. I’m a colourblind, math-failing, long-haired, scruffy ranga pseudo-hippie with anger issues and pretensions of loquaciousness. Joining the Air Force wasn’t even an option for me as my home country sold all its planes before I’d come of age, and when I tried to join the Navy instead, I learned asthmatics have to prove their medical fitness even if they can outrun everybody – which I did, and I didn’t get in. Basically, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown represents everything I despise both about myself and the world at large *cough*. With all these loaded feelings and many others in hand, I did the worst thing concerning video games I’ve attempted to do in a long time – I jumped headfirst into the 7th mainline entry in one of the longest running flight sims in console history. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a great deal it seems. Not that I saw it all coming. I can say with some authority that the story ain’t no Dostoyevsky. Before the game begins proper, it introduces us to a scrappy young woman named Avril – a pauper raised by a bunch of old disenfranchised former war pilots. She narrates her story about dreaming of the sky and her bid to claw at the cosmos by building a junker fighter jet of her very own, doing a nice job illustrating some of the political context of the series’ vaguely Clancy-esque world. She builds a plane and gets it off the ground, all the while waxing romantically about life of being a fighter pilot and the rush of high-speed air combat. At the apex of her ascent she witnesses a dogfight between some pilots and a drone when she’s unduly shot down out of the air. War has begun, and, well…she’s not actually the main protagonist. Wait, what? Why is she important? I’ve logged around 12 hours into Skies Unknown at this stage, and I still have no clue how to answer that.
She also went from being the star of the damned game to being just somebody who occasionally says things at you for some reason
All I can say is that the presentation is excellent, but the writing is dry. I don’t understand why, but you play an unseen cypher who goes by the callsign of “Trigger,” so the story of Avril is entirely separate from the player’s experience. It very much appears that Avril was intended to be the player character but had her role in the story minimised midway through the production of the cinematics. It results in a nebulous context for both Avril’s and the player’s actions, resulting in a disjointed, incoherent narrative with plenty of misplaced devices and crappy payoffs.
But this is a game about fulfilling the flyboy fantasy, right? As someone who’s never seen Top Gun, it’s not a fantasy I’ve ever really entertained much outside of sucking bricks when attempting to play as a pilot in the Battlefield series. Ace Combat 7, then, hasn’t converted me. Flying, dogfighting, and customising various aircraft with parts and weapons that unlock as the game progresses is the primary loop of AC7, but it all feels largely the same. Changes to your aircraft just don’t have the kind of effect on gameplay feel as you’d think they should, and looking at a few fan forums suggests there is some level of argument as to whether it’s always been this way. Whether it has or it hasn’t, this iteration of the series is not particularly inspiring. And yet, it’s not what I’d objectively call bad either.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, seriously, I can’t really tell from here.
There’s a heap of enemy crafts to fight with, and there’s a cathartic appeal to the rhythmic verve of banking, tagging enemies with machinegun fire, and chasing down evading foes with locked-on missiles. It’s just…the checkpoints. I have repeated the missions in the first half of this game more times than I care to recall because, really, I suck at flying in video games. Even one with simple controls and physics such as this, having to repeat half-hour chunks of gameplay dozens of times grates on you when you’re trying to get into a new genre. It kinda broke me a little. I now have two children, and I’m not going to bash my head up against a brick wall more than a couple of times any more. I have real life things to do, and I want my game time to feel like it goes somewhere.
It’s a shame, too, because I have to admit that I rather admire the inventiveness of some of the level design. There are spectacular boss fights against monstrous swarms of drones deployed by giant motherships, stealth missions flying through clouds to avoid enemy radar systems while simultaneously having to keep your engine from icing up, and more. I never saw anything that made me leap out of my seat, but there’s enough variety in the missions to make it worth playing through if you can handle the scarce checkpoints.
Giant blue ball of doom in the sky? This must be Japanese
There’s also a supplementary multiplayer mode, but at the time of writing, I’ve yet to find a single game through the matchmaking. As a timed-exclusive for PlayStation players (only available via PSN for the next twelve months), the PS4 version of Skies Unknown has a few bonus missions that can be played with the PSVR headset. From what I can imagine, that would be a fundamentally more intense experience, and well worth considering if you have the hardware. Being able to use your vision inside a cockpit would make spotting and chasing targets a much more exciting affair than it is with a controller; alas, I’m broke, and I played the game on PC. My imagination will have to do for now.
Lastly, the visuals are a mixed bag in terms of impressiveness. Built using the near ubiquitous Unreal Engine 4, Skies Unknown has gorgeous lighting especially when clawing through the upper atmosphere and the blue of the sky deepening with your ascent. Weather effects, too, are fantastic and hard not to appreciate when dragging a jet through thick, rainy clouds and having the condensation distort and obscure your vision. What detracts from these positives though, are the fidelity of the textures and some dreaded pop-in. With the scale of landscapes being as massive as they need to be for a flight sim, the level-of-detail pop-in for foliage and world objects remained an especially irritating bugbear for me, but it may matter less to you. And yes, the textures on planes are rather muddy when inspecting them on take off, but like the pop-in, is just a minor niggle from a grumpy weirdo, so it might not matter as much to you.
I’d be turning away too, if I could, but I’m not so lucky
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a game that’s good enough for those who already enjoy flight sims, but it’s not likely to convert anyone who isn’t already a fan. The central mechanics are hardly innovative, the checkpoint system is a satanic artifice conceived only to dismay and affront, and the story is a meandering, butchered mess. However, it does have enough merit outside of these issues to warrant consideration. Interesting mission design and cool boss fights can be enough to make a game a worthwhile purchase, just make sure you’re actually convinced you could be Tom Cruise in Top Gun.