I feel the need, the need for speed.
It feels like we’ve been forever waiting in the departure lounge for the latest installment of the long-running Ace Combat series to be given a gate and begin boarding.
We’ve paid extra for seat booking and priority boarding, and spent ages trying to get our hand luggage underneath the ejector seat of our F-14 Tomcat. You know, the one Tom Cruise flies when he’s not crooning in bars or playing volleyball in Top Gun.
Put simply, Ace Combat 7 is a long time coming. This is the first proper entry since 2011’s divisive Assault Horizon, which, while very enjoyable, was a little bit gimmicky with its more newbie-friendly dog fights and less interesting real-world setting. It wasn’t quite the Ace Combat we’d grown accustomed to.
You have to go even further back to 2007 and Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation to take flight in the fictional world of Strangereal, with all the nonsensical stories that go with it. Happily, Ace Combat 7 is very much in the spirit of the latter, and a barrel rolling return to form.
Crucially, the flying feels great here. Whether you’re twisting and pulling high-G turns while trying to get a lock on an enemy MiG, or strafing a convoy of fuel trucks, it’s tight, responsive, and above all, stupidly fun.
If I’d actually flown any of the multimillion pound fighters in the game I’d able to say everything feels as it should, but as my eyesight didn’t meet the RAF’s sky high standards, I just have to trust Project Aces’ interpretation. It’s the weight of each aircraft that the developer nails so well, from the nimbleness of the F-22 Raptor, to the straight line speed of the seemingly unturnable F-104 Starfighter.
The ground is more realistic than previous versions too, even if some of the buildings are a bit boxy. It adds a real sense of speed when you’re flying low, popping up over hills or sneaking beneath a suspension bridge.
Highway to the danger zone
The story is the usual nonsense Ace Combat affair. You play Trigger, an up-and-coming pilot in the Osean Air Defense Force, who are at war with the Kingdom of Erusea.
Pretty soon you’ll wind up in prison, accused of murdering a former president and enlisted to Osea’s Spare Squadron in order to atone for your sins.
As you might expect, the context doesn’t matter much, and all you need to concern yourself with is shooting down or bombing anything that is green in the targeting display. But there’s an entertaining, if frequently baffling, yarn here for anyone who wants it.
During certain missions you’ll have to be paying attention to the comms chatter and listen out for ground troops that are need of assistance or incoming bombers. If they get through without being shot down it can mean instant mission failure, which is always annoying. But replaying the mission from the checkpoint isn’t a big deal once you’ve figured out the best order to take enemies out.
For a game about shooting down enemy bogies and bombing various evil things, Ace Combat 7 sure does manage to fit a lot of different mission types in.
There are stealth objectives that task you with using cloud cover to sneak through a maze of enemy radars, a score attack where you need to cause a certain amount of destruction to unlock the next objective, escort missions, and the always reliable shoot down a specific enemy ace.
The latter, and especially the later missions of the campaign, will test your flying skills to their limits. There will be long periods of time where you’re chasing an enemy trying to get a lock, which can feel frustrating, but ultimately very rewarding when you down them in a ball of flames and a hail of machine gun fire.
One of the big new features is the weather. Rather than battling exclusively under crystal clear skies as in previous Ace Combats, 7 has lightning and forebodingly dense clouds.
Dog fighting in electrical storms not only looks supercool, but it can also mess with your radar and targeting systems, making it much harder to track and target your enemies.
The same goes for clouds and rain. In one mission you’re flying low in a canyon full of rocky columns and have severely reduced visibility, leading to a lot of PULL UP, PULL UP warnings flashing over the HUD. Trying to get a missile lock tone through that was lots of fun.
Take my breath away
The jets themselves look great carving up the sky, while the little slithers of vapour that appear along the leading edges under tight turns, along with glints from the sun, really help to place them.
There are 25+ planes to unlock through the aircraft tree, paid for with MRP earned during missions. The better you do, the more you’ll get.
You can also buy parts for your craft that improve various attributes such as top speed, missile capacity, lock on speed and damage collision reduction (useful if you’re particularly prone to hitting the deck) so you can get your bird set up just the way you like it.
By the end of the campaign we’d made it to the F-22 Raptor that sits at the very top of the tree, but you’ll need to go back and rerun missions to earn the extra cash to unlock them all. We’re looking at you, Su-33 Flanker. Thankfully, the missions are a lot of fun to replay.
You’ll earn medals for certain actions, such as shooting down named aces, or destroying a certain number of ground targets, and these unlock new nicknames, emblems or skins for your plane. It’s just a shame most of them are variations on grey.
Through the fire
I stuck with the standard arcade controls most of the time; banking and rolling to evade missiles or targeting lock feels just right. The expert control scheme is, well, just too expert for me (RAF failure remember), but stick with it and I imagine it’ll ultimately be more rewarding, allowing for greater maneuverability in the skies and a definite edge in multiplayer.
Thrustmasters kindly sent us a Hotas Flight stick to try out with the game and it’s really great once you get used to it.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that my only sole experience of flying a jet with a stick was in the front row of a Red Arrows simulator at an airshow. There’s a bit more a of a learning curve here, then, than you might have with a steering wheel for Forza or Gran Turismo.
Once I’d figured out what buttons do what and crashed spectacularly more than a few times, I did start to get the hang of it. Better to do it on a PS4 than the actual ground.
Heaven in your eyes
The bonus VR missions included within the game are excellent. Standing in the hangar next to an F18 before a sortie reminds you a just how big some of these fighters are, then taking off from the deck of a carrier at sea is real Top Gun moment.
Seeing and hearing an ally pull up alongside you at 20,000ft is incredibly immersive. When you’re engaged in a dog fight, desperately turning your head around looking for an enemy, you fully expect ‘Goose’ to be sat behind you calling out targets too.
I started to feel a little ill when engaged in skirmishes closer to the ground. Too much twisting and turning for me. But thankfully the missions aren’t too long, so you’re back on the ground fairly quickly and have a chance for your stomach to catch up with you.
In VR the thrustmaster stick is a very worthy addition, as it just feels more natural than a normal DualShock controller. You’ll be barrel rolling and loop the looping in no time.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown verdict
Way more exciting than a normal flight sim and with the bonus VR missions, this is as close to flying a multi million pound jet fighter as most of us will ever get.
The story might be a tad confusing in places, but it just about makes sense eventually, and comes to a satisfying if slightly over-the-top conclusion. Ace Combat, it's good to have you back.