Amidst all the genre revivals going on, from point & click adventures to 3D platformers and even WW2 shooters, fans of flight combat sims are still patiently waiting their turn for a dogfighting renaissance. Though it was pushed back to 2018 fairly recently, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is looking well placed to sate that appetite, over a decade after the last numbered entry in the series.
There’s lots of moving parts in Ace Combat 7’s plot, like a Tom Clancy novel set in a fictional world. Eursea launched a surprise attack on an international coalition of countries, including Osea, as they grabbed control of the International Space Elevator. With large parts of the Osean fleet wiped out in the attack, there’s just a couple of carriers and a motley selection of aircraft – this goes some way to explain why it’s classic fighter jets like the F-14D Super Tomcat and F/A-18F that feature early on.
The featured mission, the third in the game called Two Pronged Strategy, sees you attacking from the Vulture aircraft carrier in a unified bid to retake the space elevator, first fighting against other fighter jets in the skies over Chopinburg. However, a greater menace awaits, with the huge and eye catching Arsenal Bird drone launchers, a huge wedge shaped plane that can drop dozens of advanced drones, ironically having been developed by Osea and now turned back on them by Eursea.
It’s at this point that the mission really kicks off. The first encounter with enemy planes was certainly hectic, but never felt overwhelming. It’s as you manage to clear some of the enemy fighters and the mission sees the Arsenal Bird sweep into the battle that you’re suddenly outmatched. It would be impossible to take down every drone, and so you’re forced to focus on the Arsenal Bird, trying to pull in behind it and take out each of the dozen or so propellers that keep it airborne.
It’s actually a fair bit trickier than I expected. Where you can largely rely on getting a lock and firing off a couple of missiles on enemy jets, aiming and firing with the machine gun in the plane’s nose is relatively difficult. When dogfighting, a larger reticule pops up to indicate that the enemy jet is within range, but without a leading target point so you can range your target, it’s difficult to know how to hit the enemy plane without this assistance or simply being very good at flight combat games.
In addition to action packed air combat, this game looks simply incredible. It’s backed by Unreal Engine 4, but being a flight game, there’s a lot of resources that aren’t needed to render the track of a racing game, the crumbling city of a FPS, or whatever. The ground is thousands of feet below, with just you, the other planes and the clouds up in the sky. It’s those clouds, backed by Simul’s TrueSky generation system to create volumetric clouds and atmospheric data in real time, that make this game look so good.
Project Aces have spent a long time not just getting the clouds to look right, but also feel right as you’re playing the game. In combat, they can be used to break line of sight (though not necessarily a missile lock), letting you escape a fighter on your six, or making it difficult for you to keep track of them without your plane helping you out. However, flying into a cloud envelopes you in its aerosol, cutting off your vision, dampening the sounds – though you probably wouldn’t hear much over the roar of the jet engines – and generally cutting off your senses from the battle raging outside it. It’s effective with the chase camera, but in cockpit, you can see the water droplets streaming along the canopy, potentially even starting to freeze.
Between the clouds blocking your view of the horizon, the way that you focus in on whatever enemy fighter you’re trying to target and and numerous loop the loops and hard turns you have to pull, it’s easy to get completely disorientated within battle. Some of that is helped by switching between third person and in cockpit camera modes, where you at least have the HUD showing you where level ground is, but then you can lose a great deal of the overall perspective in the battle. It’s a trade off, but I found myself drawn to the cockpit view, not least because I’d chosen a more expert control scheme where the left analogue stick rolls the plane instead of the more arcade friendly turning.
You’ll be in the cockpit for playing in VR, and while I didn’t dive back in for another go with a slightly more recent build, I distinctly remember how fantastic it felt last time round with the very natural way that you can follow a target simply by moving your head, assisted as it was by head-tracked missile locking. Really, that will be the best way to play this game, and Project Aces are currently finding extra power in the PlayStation 4 to devote to making it look better and better. I can’t wait to dogfight in and out of the clouds once more, with the way that your senses will be shut down by the innocuous looking weather formations.
However, if you plan on playing Ace Combat 7, it’s great to see this venerable series and genre making a comeback. Fans will probably wish it was just that little bit sooner, but it’s looking like this might be worth the wait.