Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Review

It’s been a minute since the last proper Ace Combat game. And Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a good reminder that they really don’t make them like they used to. More accurately, they pretty much don’t make big budget, arcade dogfighting games… period, anymore.

Luckily, I can think of few series better suited to resurrect the old genre than Ace Combat itself. The games have always had some of the most stylish, gratifying air-to-air battles around. More than that, though, they have a fascinating stylistic hook in the form of the “Strangereal.”

The Strangereal, if you don’t know, is the mildly bizarre fictional universe in which Ace Combat takes place. I say “mildly” bizarre because it has quite a few similarities to our own world. Most of the aircraft you pilot look like modern military jets. Skies Unknown itself places a heavy emphasis on the political ramifications of drone warfare. Ace Combat normally looks the part of a perfectly average war game. But then the space elevators, skyscraper-sized railguns, and force fields show up.

Ace Combat 7 Review

A Weird World of Wingmen

It’s all just off-kilter enough to feel weirdly believable. And the somber tone of the game’s stories — typically side plots narrated by characters other than your mute pilot — adds a level of personal investment. The intricacies of these fantastical wars, fought throughout the Strangereal timeline, take on a stolid humanity. It’s definitely not what you’d expect from a game largely about shooting missiles at MiGs.

Ace Combat 7 specifically tells the tale of a war fought for the Lighthouse. (God, this series just has the most evocative names; the super-railgun is called “Stonehenge,” by the way.)

The Lighthouse is a controversial space elevator built to fuel the reconstruction efforts of a country ravaged by an asteroid. In the chaos, the player winds up in a Dirty Dozen-style squadron of convicted criminals, crosses paths with an engineer accused of a crime she didn’t commit, and battles a dying war veteran. There’s… a lot going on. But that’s just Ace Combat for you.

Between soliloquies and aerial carnage, you purchase new craft and upgrades to customize your overhead battles. There’s quite a lot of depth to choosing which type of missile to bring on which mission. Do you want cluster bombs to annihilate AA guns? Or do you want swarm missiles to blow away bombers? Do you need to spend a lot of time using clouds as cover? Then you should slap on armored plating that keeps your bird from freezing in the moisture.

Ace Combat 7 Review

Custom Combat for All Comers

It’s not actually that complicated. This doesn’t have to be a flight simulator by any means. Although you can tweak the controls and perspective to be more sim-y than arcade-y, if you like. There’s even support for PlayStation VR and flight sticks if you really want to lose yourself in the skies. There’s online multiplayer, too, in case you want to forgo the unique story missions in favor of raw combat. So any kind of dogfight fan should find something to tickle their fancy (especially since other pickings are very slim right now).

For me, though, it’s all about holding down the fire button as you launch missiles. That causes the camera to track the projectile as it soars to its target (an old, tiny Ace Combat feature that basically never gets old). That should tell you how I personally like to play these games: with style over substance.

Even then, there’s still a good deal of variety to combat in… Ace Combat. It’s not all air-to-air scuffles. Sometimes you have to maneuver through enemy radar or juke long-range super-missiles. Other times you demolish enemy ground forces within a time limit or go one-on-one against grizzled fighters. The bendy rules of the Strangereal allow for a lot of zany battles.

Ace Combat 7 Review

Try to Keep Up

Beyond that, Skies Unknown has an extremely strong moment-to-moment loop. Speed isn’t just a state in Ace Combat; it’s a resource. You build it up to close the distance on enemy fighters. Then you burn it off in tight aerial drifts to maneuver behind foes, lining up homing missiles and machine gun fire. Burn off too many G’s, however, and you’ll stall out or become susceptible to counterattacks. Dogfights are grueling, internal and external tugs of war at high speed. And they always end with the well-earned “bang!” of shearing metal and molten jet fuel.

If there’s a problem with this push and pull, it’s in the preparation. Specifically, you can take any custom aircraft with you on any mission (provided you buy it with in-game currency beforehand). The idea is to bring the correct bird to every fight. But the game itself doesn’t give the clearest sense of what you’ll be fighting when. Oh, there’s a projected map of enemies before every mission. That does help. The problem is keeping track of all the acronyms and initialisms that represent each class of bomber and fighter. Even keeping track of  my own arsenal, with its swathes of minor statistical differences, is a hassle.

There’s a similar issue with the story. Ace Combat lays the political intrigue on thick. In between somber character narration, there are hints of the greater socioeconomic state of the Strangereal itself. But it’s hard to keep it all straight when the three major nations in Skies Unknown all end their names with the same two syllables. Usea, Erusea, and Osea are major players. Yet I can’t always keep them straight — even as a fan of the series. I’d honestly love a built-in, written index of the world’s major players. Instead you really have to pay attention to the info dumps between battles.

Ace Combat 7 Review

Truly Ace Combat, Indeed

Speaking of which, don’t expect some major change to the old formula. Ace Combat 7 is still a linear progression of handcrafted missions.

I honestly find that very refreshing, however. Again, it helps that few other developers are make this kind of game anymore. Skies Unknown was bound to feel somewhat fresh by default. But even the scant dogfighting games we do get these days — often in the form of space sims — lean on procedural generation and open worlds. Ace Combat, by contrast, constantly throws bespoke wrenches into your usual strategies to shake things up in unexpected ways.

I flew through thunderstorms, battling drone fleets while dodging lightning strikes. I navigated canyons under cover of night, weaving between spotlights, to launch a surprise attack on an enemy base. Somehow, “sneaky airplanes” doesn’t feel like something less traditional, less handmade styles of games could offer.

But that’s Ace Combat. It’s a little bit strange and a little bit familiar. It cares about story, style, and fun in equal measure, in a way other pretty military action games do not. And it’s nice to see the people making the series haven’t lost their clear love of that old recipe, more than a decade after the last “proper” game in the series. That love of high-G heroism and self-serious story is infectious. If you’re any kind of air-to-air combat fan, you’ll catch it, too.