It’s been twelve years since the last Ace Combat release and Skies Unknown feels like nothing has changed - and I don’t mean that dismissively. Everything that makes these games such a personal joy to play, from sheer number of planes to fly to an overwrought and melodramatic story, has been updated and enhanced for the PlayStation 4, creating what is easily the most unique and best-looking game in the franchise. The setting is Strangereal, that Earth-like alternate universe that celebrates a near-religious adulation for fighter jets, home to hyper-advanced technology and constant wars. And guess what? War has broken out again between the Osean and Eursea nations, with the latter introducing new, high concept unmanned drones to the battlefield with destructive results. As the silent protagonist, callsign Trigger, you’ll fight for the Osean government until a bad twist of fate has you running dangerous and suicidal missions as the newest member of a prison squadron.
Skies Unknown is an Ace Combat game in every sense of the word. You’ll be sent out on self-contained missions at the behest of your government and jailers to do war against the enemy. This typically means engaging targets on land, sea, and air while squad commanders bark orders and taunt the enemy. Throughout the game’s twenty missions, you’ll perform strikes against enemy fuel depots, knock out radar stations while hiding underneath cloud cover, escort VIPs across enemy lines, and navigate through radar fields to attack fortified bases. You’ll be accompanied by other pilots but by in large you’re pretty much doing all of the heavy lifting, which can often be empowering, especially when other pilots start putting you on a pedestal. Other times it feels like a burden because the AI pilots aren’t nearly as effective and aggressive in combat.
Missions earn you points to be spent in a new Aircraft Tree, a kind of progression-based system of unlocking new airplanes. It’s not quite a skill tree but it works the same way as new fighters become available as you work your way through the catalog. Skies Unknown introduces a new modding mechanic that lets you outfit planes with a collection of special parts that boost damage to guns and missiles, shorten the time it takes to lock onto a target, and improve maneuverability. Like the planes themselves, spending the credits to unlock low and middle tier mods opens the door to better and more expensive kit.
I like these games a whole lot but I think its fair to say that they don’t have a lot of gameplay depth. Practically every encounter involves waiting to hear the high pitched tone of a missile lock before popping off a rocket then moving to the next target to do it again. But like the other games before it, Skies Unknown is still thrilling because of the sense of urgency that hangs over each mission like a shroud. Every encounter feels like a battle between life and death for a world seemingly hanging in the balance and only one pilot and their advance warfighter can save the day. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the moment.
I also like Skies Unknown’s approach to missions, however. After Trigger is jailed for perceived crimes, you’ll be involved with the arduous task of playing decoy and softening base defenses so that the “proper” attack squadrons can have an easy time mopping up. Basically, this is Suicide Squad meets Top Gun. These missions are often more involved and a little harder than I’m used to but proves to be a refreshing change of pace given how unglamorous they can get. A harsh and uncaring squadron commander that threatens solitary confinement every two seconds and the frequent references to “you’re only here to pay for your crimes” monologing had me pining for the warm, encouraging commander that heaped praises on me for every little thing.
Apart from the gameplay, Ace Combat endures because of its wondrous spectacle and Skies Unknown is no different. Easily compared to Gran Turismo for how it fetishizes military fighter jets, this is the best the franchise has ever looked. Taking advantage of the PlayStation 4 hardware and the Unreal Engine gives Ace Combat 7 a beauty that no other game in the series can match (and those PlayStation 2 games looked pretty good!). The show is absolutely dazzling, thanks to cool weather effects, finely detailed cockpits, explosions, and a host of neat little details, like wingtip vortices. Weather also affects the game’s audio, muffling voice-overs and soundtrack each time you fly inside a cloudbank or sandstorm. The weather effects aren’t just for show, they also have gameplay ramifications. Flying through clouds reduces visibility and makes locking onto targets harder (conversely, it’s a great way to break a lock) while high winds can push your plane around, making it harder to control. Once the mission is over, there’s plenty to drool over from the cinematic replay of the mission that gives you control over multiple camera and tracking angles.
When the campaign ends, multiplayer awaits. Online play offers a team deathmatch mode and a Battle Royal, which is built as a contest to see who among the participants can reach 100,000 points first rather like, you know, Fornite with airplanes. The planes and mods you’ve unlocked in the campaign can be brought over to multiplayer and on the flip side, credits earned from online play can be used in single player mode. Exclusive to the PlayStation 4 version is a series of awesome VR missions set during the Osean/Eursea war from the point of view of Mobius 1, the player protagonist from Ace Combat 4 (that was a real nice touch, Project Aces!). The VR missions are great because you have full and total control of the aircraft like you do in the regular game, only this time, PSVR owners can enjoy the rollercoaster thrill of head tracking while sitting inside a claustrophobic cockpit. With that in mind, those prone or sensitive to motion sickness might want to sit out this as-intense-as-you-want-it-to-be VR thrill ride.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a fantastic return to form that benefits from modern console hardware, making a more dynamic air combat experience. The story, told from different perspectives on both sides of the war, has a tendency to be too serious and overwrought to the point of hilarity but I always give it a pass because it’s so endearing. The prison squadron missions are a nice change of thematic pace for the franchise but I wish my AI inmates could do a better job of keeping up with the action. I’ve been playing the game on Normal and too often have I felt overwhelmed by the number of enemies gunning for me as I struggle to play to the objective. In the end, the biggest criticism is also a virtue. Nothing much has changed in twelve years but the foundation the game is built is solid, invigorating, and totally pretty on the eyes.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.