It’s so awfully cliched and trite that I’m genuinely disappointed in myself – but there I was, pumping my fist in the air, impassionately whooping while Kenny Loggins’ “Highway to the Danger Zone” played inside my head. I’d just finished one of Ace Combat 7’s dogfighting missions, that saw me pilot my plane through a thunderstorm while trying to take out an army of unmanned aircraft after clearing the area of its anti-aircraft defences.

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Ace Combat 7 is full of these sorts of spectacular, satisfying and empowering moments – making a fine return to form for a series that hasn’t had a numbered entry in more than eleven years. It ignores whatever continuity was set up in the last numbered game, returning to the conflict between the Osean Forces and the Kingdom of Erusea in the game’s fictional version of Earth, Strangereal. There are two stories that run parallel in Ace Combat 7. While you’ll be playing the game as a rookie pilot in the Osean forces who goes by the callsign Trigger, Ace Combat 7’s anime-inspired cutscenes focus on a young woman, who after reminiscing about her pilot grandfather, explains how she became an ace plane mechanic and rebuilt a plane, taking it to the skies in the middle of international combat. It saw her end up in prison. When Trigger is flagged for murder he may or may not have committed, he ends up in that same prison, and is forced to join a squadron of prisoners who must atone for their sins, engaging in near suicidal air combat missions.

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It’s a needlessly overwrought tale, filled to the brim with awkward and cheesy dialogue, and while it coalesces into something compelling, it falls apart at the end. I think. Honestly, the story is a muddled (though not necessarily confusing) mess. It’s an occasionally endearing melodrama that’s very easy to ignore when pilots are blathering on about micro and macro politics from games past. Thankfully, the game more than makes up that by being so damned fun to play.

Though it veers more towards the arcade spirit of things, Ace Combat has always perfectly nailed the balance of feeling like an arcade game while presenting itself as a simulator. That’s no different here, and to be honest not much has changed mechanically either. In each of the game’s twenty or so missions, you’ll pilot a plane equipped with a machine gun, missiles, and a selectable special weapon – like homing missiles, air-to-ground bombs and other tactical choices. Choosing the right plane, along with the right weapon and jet upgrades becomes paramount to success – which makes listening to the pre-mission briefing just as important. Beyond the first few hand-holding missions it’s perpetually thrilling, though I do wish it was a little more generous with checkpointing. It’s easy enough to fail a mission pretty far into it, especially if you’ve not got quite the right loadout. It can be frustrating to have to redo whole sections, and more frequent checkpoints would definitely help.

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There are two options for control. Players can opt for standard controls that allow for full directional flight of planes through the right stick, or for expert controls that expand on pitch and yaw options. Do try the expert controls, because you’ll need them when you’re zipping and barrel-rolling your way through tight canyons at breakneck speeds; physics be damned. And that’s one of the magical things about Ace Combat 7. Despite looking and presenting itself as a simulator, it’s really an arcade dogfighter at heart. A little like a tighter, more modernised Afterburner. It’s both accessible and deep, with advanced manoeuvres that’ll help pilots in a pinch. I just wish the game was little more explicit in teaching these things though. While the first few campaign missions do a decent enough job of teaching the basics, there’s nothing to suggest that there’s more to it, until you take your plane online like a hotshot and are summarily gunned down.

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Yes, I’m spectacularly bad at the Ace Combat 7’s multiplayer, but it’s worth playing for a few reasons. For starters, it actually works here in South Africa without any discernible lag. It’s also a great way to earn credits with which to unlock planes, special weapons and parts from the game’s elaborate tech tree. Up to 8 players can engage in free for all or team deathmatch combat with the simple rule of shooting others down, or being shot down yourself. I’d have adored a co-operative campaign, but alas.

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On PlayStation 4, there’s a temporarily exclusive set of virtual reality missions. The game was originally announced as a VR exclusive, but was scaled back to deliver a standard game with these VR missions thrown in. It’s a glimpse at what could have been, because as good as Ace Combat 7 is, it’s a revelation in VR. With the headset strapped on, I got as close to being a combat pilot as I’ll ever be. The level of detail is striking, with every button and dial in the cockpit represented. Water droplets, condensation from the clouds, trickle across the outer glass as you hurtle through the skies. It’s unbelievably and undeniably incredible turning your head to see the scattered, fiery debris of plane you’ve just blown up. For those three missions, I was a combat pilot. Had the whole game had VR support, it’d have been an easy system seller, but even as it is, it’s worthwhile for VR enthusiasts. It’s that good – even if it can be stomach-churning.

Last Updated: January 21, 2019

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
The story’s nonsense, but the actual minute-to-minute air combat makes up for that. It’s almost always a joy to play, with combat that’s empowering, satisfying and spectacular.
8.0
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown was reviewed on PlayStation 4

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