Aircraft packing hundreds of missiles, an almost endless supply of bad guys to shoot at, and over the top plot lines. Ace Combat is, in most ways, the antithesis of the serious modern air combat simulator that I normally write about on this blog, however, the series has also captured the imaginations of both the serious and casual sim pilots alike. I finally had a chance to play through the latest installment, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, and I wanted to write a review about the game and how it connects to some of the more high fidelity simulation titles that I normally write about.
A long and storied history of games
Ace Combat or ‘Air Combat’ as it was originally titled in North America, was a 1995 Playstation launch title that featured fast paced air combat gameplay. For the time it also had some impressive graphics and sound that captured plenty of attention. The series would see a sequel just two years later and follow-on titles every few years after that. Eight mainline titles have been released plus a series of spin-off titles over the years on multiple platforms including Playstation, PS3, Xbox 360 and most recently – on PC.
For much of Ace Combat’s history, it has been developed by a group called ‘Project Aces,’ a development group in Bandai-Namco’s internal studio. This arrangement began with Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies and has continued on to the modern day.
Nearly all of Ace Combat’s titles have been also been commercial successes. The most recent title, Ace Combat 7, has sold more than 2.5 million – the best showing since the series began. To me, that indicates that the series combination of modern air combat and fast action gameplay still has plenty of appeal and yet another sign that interest may be growing again in flying games and simulations in general.
Modern air combat focused gameplay
Ace Combat has never been accused of being realistic. Instead, the series leans in on a faster paced arcade style game that has included features like an arcade shooter style points counter on the screen and an emphasis on firing hundreds of missiles and bombs per mission with only short breaks between action packed sequences. Still, it has benefited from striking a balance between a realistic tone with emphasis on modern jet combat and then adding its unique brand of action on top of it.
Ace Combat has had a few competitors over the years including Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. and, much more recently, Project Wingman. None have successfully dethroned Ace Combat although Project Wingman’s Ace Combat inspired tones have perhaps come the closest (and it will be the subject of a future review).
Recent titles in the series have done their best to throw a bit of realism into their over-the-top arcade action. While nothing about the way that Ace Combat jets fly can be considered as a true attempt at flight dynamics, there is an intangible feeling that ensures that these aircraft still behave with weight and momentum that some other arcade titles have sometimes missed. Its subtle but it feels good even though its clearly not that realistic.
Air combat is the central focus and the series’ simple mechanics make the game easy to approach. Its challenging scenarios can, however, make it difficult to master. Missiles, bombs, smart weapons, and the occasional sci-fi inspired pulse laser or rail gun complement an impressive arsenal of weaponry that you can load for each mission. Ace Combat ensures that you always have a short-range gun, a standard all-purpose missile and a special weapon. The special weapon can be something that approximates a LGB or JDAM or something like the 4AAM works a bit like an AIM-120 in TWS mode – tracking and engaging multiple targets at once. There’s usually a real-world analogue that Ace Combat tries to stick to for inspiration. Even the laser and rail gun weapons have at least a modicum of real world connection.
Slinging these weapons are a huge variety of modern jets to choose from. From the F-16C that you start off with to the Su-27, Su-34, Su-57, MiG-29, F-15, A-10, Typhoon, Grippen, F-22, F-35 and Rafael. You name it and Ace Combat 7 probably has it!I particularly enjoyed that the F-104 Starfighter and MiG-21 were part of the mix of aircraft adding a bit of history to the otherwise ultra modern selection. The base game and some DLC packs also reintroduce some of the series more hypothetical aircraft which come from the imaginations of the Ace Combat team and usually have some unique weapon or gameplay experience that comes along with them.
Every jet in Ace Combat 7 has a 3D cockpit which does their best to make you feel like you are sitting in the cockpit while the game’s simple yet effective UI, virtually unchanged in years, sits on top. These are not the fully authentic cockpits of DCS or IL-2 but for those that want to sit in a cockpit and fly it is an option. In my opinion, the game is probably best played from an exterior view point.
Understanding the story
If you’re new to Ace Combat, you may not at first realize that the series is set on its own alternative version of Earth. While the jets are real world, the nations, politics and the geography that they fight over are all entirely fictional. This started with the first title in the series and each subsequent title, with a couple of exceptions, has leaned into their ‘Strangereal’ world. It’s a world that has built up quite a bit of history over the successive games to the point where I’ve seen the r/AceCombat group discuss some of the finer points of Ace Combat geopolitics – the world building here is impressive.
In the basic plot of Ace Combat 7, two fictional nations of Osea and Erusea go to war when Erusea launches a surprise attack. At the centre of the war are a space elevator and a long history of conflict between the two nations. Self-learning drones, the massive and almost indestructible Arsenal Bird drone carrier, and splinter rebel groups eventually become the primary antagonists as the conflict goes on.
The plot is frequently as outlandish as its action. The protagonist and ace pilot, “Trigger”, is accused of killing the former Osean president during one of the early missions which helps set the stage for the rest of the story. Trigger is sent to serve in a penal squadron and there you keep flying missions as you serve time for your crime. Pilots in the squadrons have their aircraft painted with a crudely painted swoosh or a strike on the tail that denotes how serious their crime is. Your aircraft has three strikes on the tail denoting the seriousness of your crime. It’s something that your enemies later bring up often as the campaign progresses.
If you’re saying this is all outlandish, you’d be right, but for Ace Combat fans this is par for course with it’s anime style inspiration to the plot and over the top characters and voice actors to support it. There’s also a couple dozen minutes of animated narrative that help fill in a few blanks. Ace Combat’s gameplay and stubborn adherence to their plot ensure that the whole thing comes together in the end.
Fun missions but with some gameplay issues
I absolutely loved Ace Combat 7’s missions when it came to their action and mission design. Every mission has its own unique challenge. From dodging between enemy SAM sites to fighting in a thunderstorm, every mission has something that challenges you to fly aggressively and still think about the greater mission. None of this is highly realistic but it is good game design and it makes for an entertaining experience.
Some missions take on a particularly challenging flying experience with one forcing you to fly low through a deep canyon with just a few meters clearance on each side and enemy search lights and AAA guns looking for you. In the final mission you are also faced with flying into a tunnel in my least favourite sequence that I had to repeat half dozen or more times before I got it right.
What I did struggle with was the mission timer. The timer put added tension in where none was needed. It ensured that you had to get in there and blasting targets as quickly as possible and the most frustrating piece would be where you were just a few points away from completion when the timer ran out. Especially annoying when you were just a hundred points away from achieving the objective but had run out of an arbitrary timer necessitating a replay.
The chances of death in Ace Combat are high and so the checkpoint system helps you from starting the entire mission over again. Unfortunately, in some missions there are long gaps between start and the next checkpoint and it does mean starting over again if you mess something up. The better you get, the less likely this is to happen of course, but it will still happen from time to time and then it’s back to the checkpoint – hopefully.
Ace Combat 7 does have multiplayer, however, it’s a limited experience. The only matches I was able to get into on PC were a timed battle royale mode. It’s a free-for-all dogfight mode with no objectives aside from shoot down the enemy players.
I found the experience very unsatisfying. While some players are clearly better than others, much of the experience revolves around having the correct aircraft and special weapon meta figured out. No sooner have you started to feel like you have a grasp of your jet and the enemies you’re fighting and the round is over. Longer matches would be fun but that is all I was able to find.
I wouldn’t buy Ace Combat 7 for the multiplayer.
Ace Combat 7 has some limited support for different types of controllers. Xbox and Playstation controllers are assumed by default as the game was intended to work with them.
It also has limited support for four stick/HOTAS combinations. UPDATED: It has been pointed out that the actual list of hardware supported is much longer and the full list is available here.
Unfortunately, that’s it! There is no official support in Ace Combat 7 for TrackIR, SteamVR, or non-Thrustmaster PC flight simulation hardware. Unofficially, through Steam, you can also configure other hardware to work with the game but that does require some tinkering.
The game was intended for consoles first and here it shows. Although rarely feeling like a ported to PC Game, in this instance it is somewhat lacking. If you have a controller of some kind or want to use the above guide to make your HOTAS systems work, go for it. I have an Xbox One controller setup for these instances and it worked seamlessly.
I have to mention the music
No review of Ace Combat is complete without talking about the music. The series has had a few composers over the years but none more prolific than Keiki Kobayashi. Although splitting from Bandai Namco in 2014, he came back to do the music for Ace Combat 7 and I’m glad he did.
The series has had plenty of memorable tracks from Ace Combat Zero’s flamenco inspired “Zero” to Ace Combat 5’s ‘Razgriz’ theme to Ace Combat 6’s ‘Liberation of Gracemeria,’ the entire series is a master class in soundtrack presentation.
Ace Combat 7’s soundtrack plays like a love letter to the entire series drawing in electronic beats from Ae Combat 3’s soundtrack, the occasional flamenco riff of Ace Combat Zero, the dark choral tones of Ace Combat 5 and the triumphant strings and horns of Ace Combat 6. It all collides together in some of the series’ best music including ‘Daredevil’ which really brings the whole thing together. This complex layered piece draws inspiration from nearly everything before using strings, horns, choir and the classic Ace Combat theme through line that builds to an intense crescendo near the end of the piece. Have a listen!
There are other pieces such as ‘Dual Wielder’ that is classic Ace Combat with it’s drum kick, guitar and main theme string progression on top. There’s also hauntingly beautiful pieces like ‘Sol Squadron’ which starts as a choral piece that then expands to add guitar, brass, taiko and strings in a dueling back and forth between instrumentation that symbolically represents the action on screen. I can’t help but be in awe at how much nuance went into these tracks. There are some less than memorable pieces too but this soundtrack has far more hits than misses.
Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of the music of the series and I think this is is the best that Ace Combat’s music has ever been.
Oh and the graphics and sound are good too
Ace Combat’s always been pushing graphics as far as they can go on a console and Ace Combat 7 is no different. Primarily aimed at the Xbox One X and Play Station 4, Ace Combat 7’s graphics still hold up relatively well. On my PC, it ran well with only the occasional stutter when I first loaded into a mission on my now 5+ year old PC with a 1070ti.
The series uses plenty of satellite imagery to portray otherwise fictional locations and that combined with good detailing and lower altitude mapping helps keep things looking good at any altitude. There’s plenty of different ground details with some missions featuring rolling plains, desert, and jagged rock formations. This is all great for dodging a few missiles while feeling like an action hero.
The clouds and weather effects are perhaps among the series best graphical features. They are fully volumetric clouds being supplied by a technology called trueSky (coming soon to IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover/Desert Wings – Tobruk) and they include a wide variety of visual styles that include some relatively convincing thunderstorms and rain clouds. They have a gameplay element too as flying through these can buffet your plane around (albeit in an arcade kind of way) and cause your controls to lock from icing. Ice and rain drops form on your windscreen and look good. There’s a sandstorm in one mission that also manages to look convincingly good from both above and in the storm.
The aircraft models are very well detailed and are close to simulation level detailing. They are also extremely consistent and each aircraft has the same art style and visual appeal. All of the control surfaces work roughly the way they should but don’t expect full FBW system modeling and detail. It’s convincing enough while you’re flying around blasting enemy fighters.
Speaking of which, explosions, missile trails, and afterburner effects are top notch and look consistently excellent at all times.
I did have a PC specific issue although it’s a minor one at best. Ace Combat appears programmed for 16:9 aspect ratio only. My 16:10 monitor, an usual aspect ratio to be sure, has small black bars at top and bottom. I’m not sure how the game may work on a wider screen but I would assume it would cut off the sides of the screen too.
The same goes for the sound design which is well mixed and features plenty of screaming jet engines, missile sounds, explosions and gun effects. It all comes together and sounds consistently clear despite the repetition and sheer cacophony of effects being blasted at you from your headphones or speakers.
Ace Combat 7 is a fast, fun and frenetic game that builds on the past and delivers a game that shows what a couple of decades of dedication to the arcade air combat genre can do. It has a real love of the subject and pairs that with an extremely polished arcade action experience. From graphics to sound to the series’ outstanding music, Ace Combat 7 is a solid game experience.
Ace Combat 7 is nowhere close to the kind of high-fidelity experience that I regularly report on, however, I think it has it’s place in the annals of simulation. Not every fan of Ace Combat is going to go on to become interest in more serious simulation but at least some will and I’m sure a few of you are regular readers already. There’s enough Ace Combat inspired DCS World liveries and content out there to suggest to me that there’s plenty of crossover.
If you’re looking for something that is less serious and more action oriented, Ace Combat 7 is the perfect companion. Suspend your attention to extreme realism, pick up a controller and have some fun with Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown!
Ace Combat 7 is available for XBox One, Playstation 4, and on PC through the Steam Store. It normally retails for $59.99 USD but can be found for much cheaper during a Steam sale.