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A return to the blue skies.

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    Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    A return to the blue skies.


    It’s been over 20 years since the Ace Combat series made its debut on consoles, starting with Ace Combat (renamed Air Combat in the US) in the original PlayStation. Since then it has evolved into a franchise with eight games on its main series plus several spin-offs, both on consoles and portables. From its humble origins as a rather simple arcade action flight game, the series is now known for the high-paced flight action that is neither too simple to get boring or repetitive, without being too complex or burdensome to players as hardcore flight sims can be. This is mixed with compelling stories about ace pilots fighting wars in the fictional world known by fans as Strangereal, a setting that allows for large scale wars and a sci-fi touch that makes stories over the top and dramatic, but still believable.

    Ace Combat 7 is the latest entry in the series, bringing back the series after more than a decade since the last main release. With the last two console entries in the series being spin-offs, one being a heavily watered-down experience possibly inspired by popular shooter games of its time, the last one being a PS3-exclusive, multiplayer-focused, free-to-play game (despite the solid gameplay and interesting story), fans were expecting something akin to the PS2-era Ace Combat. Now that Project Aces brought Skies Unknown to us, let’s delve deeper into the game to see if it manages to reach the expectations.


    Starting with the visual aspect of the game, Ace Combat 7 is a feast for the eyes. The story cutscenes are beautiful, some scenes approaching photorealism, and I’m not using that word lightly. It’s not just the cutscenes that are amazingly rendered, however. Every jet is modeled with a high degree of accuracy down to the markings and other small details. Going into cockpit view gives a detailed view of the plane’s instruments panel and I was surprised to see that many of the instruments actually worked instead of being there just as part of the background. Every missile and every bomb are modeled with the same degree of detail, if not more. While not everything looks good when you look at it too closely (text written on planes in particular shows its fairly low resolution when zoomed in), I was very surprised to see details such as small dents and imperfections on the metal skin of an R-60 missile when I looked at it closely. However, it’s the visual effects that probably leave a more lasting impression. Project Aces put much emphasis on weather, clouds in particular, which also plays a part on gameplay. The effect of water condensation on your plane’s canopy as you fly through a cloud, the water vapor formed over your plane’s wings as you pull high Gs in a turn or the sun’s light reflecting on the ocean, they all add to the game’s atmosphere in a very positive way. Even cities and ground installations are fairly well modeled, though most of the times you’ll be dogfighting at supersonic speeds or desperately trying to avoid anti-aircraft fire so you won’t even notice it, but it’s sometimes worth to go on free flight mode to sightsee and notice how much care was put into making some of the locations.


    Ace Combat 7’s soundtrack is like that of its predecessors, leaning towards an orchestral "epic" sound to accompany the cacophony of the jet engine roar, gunfire, explosions and missile alerts from the sound effects. These tracks often reflect the emotion the game tries to convey. For instance, music on the first mission starts with a slow, ominous drum beat as the protagonist heads into battle for the first time, becoming more frantic and complex as the battle starts, the main section coming later as the battle rages on. Other missions have a more fast-paced tracks to accompany the action. A particular boss has a theme reminiscent of Gregorian chants that announces his presence. This mix of music is also accompanied by radio chatter of both allies and enemies, with no complaints about voice acting. While no track is as memorable as some of previous games, the game makes an excellent work of presenting a great atmosphere not just for the eyes, but also for the ears.


    As said earlier, Ace Combat 7 takes place in the fictional world of Strangereal. The player takes control of Trigger, a pilot of the Osean Air Defense Force who finds himself thrust into action when his country is attacked by the Kingdom of Erusea after tensions caused by the construction of an international space elevator funded by Osea near Erusean territory. Like most protagonists in the series, Trigger is a silent protagonist whose face is never shown. Instead of focusing on the main player or his squadron, cutscenes follow other characters. One of them is Avril, a tomboyish and very skilled aircraft mechanic who, after restoring a plane from a scrapyard happens to fly it at the wrong time in the wrong place, then is sent to work on a military air force base/prison on a penal unit where all pilots are convicts of some crime. Another character is a mysterious scientist working for Erusea on a secret project involving an elite squadron led by an old ace pilot. The narrative focuses on themes like the appearance of unmanned aerial vehicles (a.k.a. drones) on the battlefield and a generally anti-war message as seen in previous games and though these themes are often tackled with the subtlety of a jackhammer, it’s kind of refreshing to have the clear cut heroes versus villians plot in an age where morally grey has become the standard. All in all, the game sticks to the series’ classic formula of a "zero to hero" protagonist that, despite the hurdles along the way, goes from being a newbie to an ace revered by his allies and feared by his enemies. And it works.

    Not everything is peachy with the plot, however, as there are problems with the pacing of the story and some of the narrative. As I said above, the player’s story and that of the cutscenes are separate, making it at times hard to follow and piece together. Cutscene dialogue is usually presented as a narration by a character in past tense, but a certain character in the same cutscene narrates her thoughts in present tense, which can be confusing. Multiple characters are introduced through the game, often at same time during several points of the game, such as wingmen or allies, and though you get a small picture of them on your HUD when they speak, it makes it hard to keep track of everyone. The fact that most of those wingmen rarely get any real depth as character doesn’t make you care for them and that is a shame. The way the plot is condensed through the latter half of the game also makes the plot more confusing than it should have been.


    Gameplay is at the core of the experience in Ace Combat and this title is no exception. Ace Combat 7 features 20 missions, from simple interception and ground attack to operations with more complex mechanics and difficulty. You have quite an arsenal at your disposal to complete your objectives, 28 are planes available, with a wide variety of weaponry to choose from. All planes have a gun and short-range all-purpose missiles as default, but each can equip one of three special weapons available (which are available depends on the plane). These are weapons such as bombs, rockets, and missiles with different lock mechanics and attributes (like missiles that can target multiple enemies at once, have very long ranges or better homing). If you fancy something a bit more futuristic, laser cannons or railguns are also available in some planes. Planes stats can be altered slightly by equipping them with parts, which can increase attributes like speed, maneuverability, improve your missile homing characteristics or do special things like prevent your plane from icing up in the clouds, among other benefits. Planes, parts and some special weapons must be unlocked through a progression tree and purchased with MRP, the in-game currency that is earned by completing missions in either single-player mode or in multiplayer. Planes also have a number of countermeasures (flares and chaff) available as a way to avoid enemy missiles, though they are limited (less than 5 in most planes) and are best reserved as a "get out of jail free card" in situations where outmaneuvering or outrunning a missile is impossible. Controls are smooth and work quite well with the DS4 controller, though I recommend switching to the so-called "Expert" controls instead of the "Standard" default control, which gives the player full control over pitch, roll and yaw axes of the plane, which is needed to get the best performance out of the planes (and is probably more rewarding).

    One of the most advertised new gameplay mechanics was clouds and weather affecting gameplay, which to be honest is more of a gimmick than a revolutionary addition. Clouds not only obscure your vision, they can also cause missiles to lose track if the target is in the clouds or prevent them from locking on altogether. Remaining inside clouds can cause ice to accumulate on your plane, negatively affecting its performance and the turbulent air currents inside them can make your plane hard to control. Lastly, flying through thunderclouds can result in lightning strikes, which will cause a brief loss of control and cause your HUD to briefly turn off and on intermittently. While they’re not game-breaking, all of them can be annoying without really impacting the game in a meaningful way.In terms of difficulty, AC7 isn’t particularly difficult, but it can be a challenging at times. Choosing the correct plane and weapon for the mission means smooth sailing for the most part, which usually depends on paying close attention to the briefings and diversifying your plane and weaponry selection, but don’t be surprised when the game decides to throw a surprise for you every now and then during a mission update. While it can be a bit frustrating at times, it helps to keep the illusion of a dynamic battlefield where things can change on a whim and plans don’t survive contact with the enemy.Missions are varied, from simple "destroy all enemies marked TGT on your HUD" to large battles with a huge amount of enemies and a limited time to get the highest possible score (sort of an "all-you-can-eat" mission type) and then there are the Ace Combat staples like flight through a canyon or dodging enemy radars on the map. Though the latter type of missions can give AC veterans a deja vu feeling, they are enjoyable nonetheless.Though the game’s campaign can be beaten in a few hours (it took me around 8 on my first playthrough), the game’s replayability depends on how much you enjoy the overall experience, as unfortunately there are no extra missions to unlock or branching storylines this time. There are lots of unlockable medals, alternate skins for planes and nicknames and emblems to be used on multiplayer, some of which require a serious time investment.Multiplayer:AC7 has currently two multiplayer modes, both PvP: Team Deathmatch and Battle Royal, the latter being a free-for-all deathmatch. Players can choose whether to allow or disable special weapons and limit the total "cst" of planes in the match, which is a rating based on the plane’s base stats, weapons and parts equipped, to encourage more fair competition. The game has many features that were missing in AC Infinity, AC7’s predecessor, such as host migration and voice chat. Matches last 5 minutes and MRP is awarded based on player performance. This mode is fun for anyone seeking a challenge and more serious competition, but honestly, it gets repetitive very quickly as there are no more objectives available. It is worth giving it a try at least once, but I wouldn’t recommend the game just for the multiplayer.Conclusion:Few games capture the thrill of dogfights and flight in general as the Ace Combat series, and though not without its flaws, Ace Combat 7 is the game the series needed to get back on track and a fine addition to the series. Compelling to veteran fans of the series and also accessible enough for any newcomer, this is a must for anyone that enjoys the thrill of flight on a gaming genre that lately hasn’t gotten the love it deserves.

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