Like most kids I know, I grew up wanting to be a fighter pilot. I also grew up in the 1980s, so I had films like Top Gun and Iron Eagle to serve as my inspiration. Sitting in a cockpit with the flight stick nestled between my legs, dogfighting with enemies through the heavens, pulling off high-G turns, and firing rockets at just the right time to score a kill or pulling up with inches to spare before crashing into the ground; it was all just a boy’s dream. As gaming grew from arcades to home consoles, the idea of good, fun flight sims grew with it, but the genre really hit its stride with Bandai Namco’s Ace Combat series. Now, the seventh game in the long time series, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, is here, and with it comes some of the best (virtual) aerial dogfighting ever.
Ace Combat 7 does so many things well. The flying is unparalleled, and whether you opt for third-person or in-cockpit views, the skies are flush with targets and the action comes fast and without warning. The various control schemes, namely “normal” and “expert,” allow for pick up and play, and for longtime veterans of the series, the expert controls are the way to go. Turning in the air is executed with authenticity, using yaw and banking to execute turns — if you are unsure how that works, stick to normal. The HUD gives you all of the info you need, with weapons systems and a radar accompanying the vast skies in front of you. Whether playing in Skies Unknown’s lengthy 20-chapter campaign or taking your talents to online multiplayer, the maps are fully realized, with tiny details that you can miss as you zoom past at Mach 2.
Some maps even offer sandstorms, lightning strikes, and rain-filled clouds, adding to the chaos of a given sortie. Clouds and rain can hinder your vision, and ice build-up can cause you to stall — just more to worry about while hunting and being hunted in the skies. Developer Project Aces has included a hearty selection of real-life planes to purchase and upgrade as your career takes off, and planes unlocked in the campaign can be used in multiplayer, as both modes share the same progression tree of options and customization. There’s a ton to unlock, which will keep players coming back for more, and the game modes allow for variety. So if slogging through the campaign gets boring, you can easily switch to multiplayer for bite-sized sorties with friends or strangers. And for PSVR users, the VR mode offers plenty of additional fun, even if the mode is only three missions long.
The campaign in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is convoluted, at best. The story focuses on a war between two similar sounding nations on a continent with yet another all too similar name. To be honest, it’s hard to keep it all straight. The Oseans are fighting the Eruseans, and you take control of a pilot on the Osean side. His story hits some tragic notes and he’s sent to prison, where he becomes a member of a convict flight squad (because prisons apparently have convict pilots). That’s all you really need to know, as drilling down any further will sink you into the geopolitical drivel that the game spews out, all while you are trying to fly, shoot, and evade danger. At times, some of the speeches echo the anti-war rhetoric of Metal Gear Solid, and while some might enjoy the story across the campaign’s 20 chapters, I found it distracting and preachy. And the banal chatter of your wingmates gets old way too fast. I now understand why Doug used his walkman to listen to Queen songs when he flew in Iron Eagle.
To make matters worse, your wingmates in the campaign are seven levels of worthless. Don’t expect anyone to shoot an enemy that is on your tail, and don’t count on anyone to help you complete mission objectives — some of which change on a dime, forcing you to adapt or restart the whole thing. And without any kind of co-op, Ace Combat 7 tasks you with handling everything solo, and if you fail at any one thing, an unforgiving checkpoint system will make you do it all over again. I don’t even want to mention how many times I had to repeat Chapter 5, all because my AI wingmates were as worthless as windows on a submarine. If there’s one good thing to say about the level of difficulty in the campaign, it is that it got me ready for multiplayer, which is where Ace Combat 7 really shines.
Multiplayer has two modes: battle royale (free-for-all) and team deathmatch. Each mode only lasts around five minutes, so the dogfights are fast, short, and incredibly intense. Points are awarded for hitting enemy players, not just splashing them, so even players new to the series can have fun and grind up to better planes, parts, and weapons. There are five maps to play on (one map has two different variations), and storms play a part here too. I’ve found myself playing more multiplayer in the last few days, as the short sessions keep the action flowing, and you really begin to pick up on your human wingmates’ tendencies, which helps in team deathmatches. It’s awesome to work together with a team, and not just four “Mavericks” requesting to buzz the tower.
In battle royale, it’s every man for himself, and that’s where your skills are truly tested. Top players will score huge points by picking off the less skilled, but the playing field can be leveled just by scoring hits on those in the lead. I’ve gone from sixth place to second in the blink of an eye by scoring a missile hit on a high-ranked player, and his damage was worth more points since he was leading the pack. This adds complexity and strategy to the multiplayer, and just when you think you have it figured out, the sortie ends and you start anew. I love it.
For PlayStation VR users, the VR mode offers three missions. With the headset on, those aforementioned dreams of being a fighter pilot came to life for me. Though I was sitting in a chair in my game room, in my eyes and brain, I was in the skies looking around in full 360 seeing everything unfold around me. I got dizzy, for sure, and a little nauseous, but both went away in time, as my brain was able to adapt to what my eyes were seeing. I could feel my body moving with the turns and my heart beat increased and sweat formed on my brow. The VR mode only allows for the Expert control settings, which makes it seem all the more real.
To say these three missions were intense is an understatement: this mode satisfied my boyhood urge and made me see — and to an extent, feel — what it would be like to dogfight in the skies with skilled pilots. While three missions may not be enough to warrant a purchase alone, when coupled with the thrilling multiplayer and the fun — and oft-times excruciating — campaign, Ace Combat 7 hits the afterburners on arcade-like flight sims, making it one of the best games in this long-running series.
Skies Unknown does so much right, that what it misses the mark on can easily be overlooked. The controls and graphics are smooth and gorgeous, and the progression system offers a bevy of planes, parts, and weapons to unlock. While the story in the campaign is a miss, for the most part, it serves its purpose of forcing you to play and learn how to fly your planes — that valuable experience can then be used in the intensely fun multiplayer modes. And if none of that suits you and you just want to leisurely fly around, the free mode has you covered.
All in all, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown offers something for everyone, and you don’t need to have played any of the previous games to enjoy the “danger zone” action. This game satisfied so many of my childhood dreams that it will always have a special place in my heart. My only regret was that I don’t have the Top Gun or Iron Eagle soundtracks playing while I took to the skies. Yet.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Bandai Namco.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is the crowning achievement for aerial combat sims, and for all that it gets wrong, it makes up for in other areas. At the end of the day, it's easily one of the best flight games I've ever played.