Delving Into Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown – #1

I’ve been playing a lot of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown since it released the other day. And I wanted to talk about it a bit!

I’ve elected to use the “Delving Into” format, because that also provides a suitable framework for me to explore (and revisit) the rest of the series along the way, too. For the unfamiliar, my “Delving Into” pieces are more immediate, personal reactions to games or series I want to explore over the long term, but which don’t really fit into the Cover Game structure.

Each article will focus on a particular aspect of the overall experience, or something that I’ve found otherwise noteworthy. Let’s kick off today with my impressions of the game’s overall sense of style, based on my playthrough of the single-player campaign up to mission 17 so far.

First up, a brief “modern gaming is irritating” rant: Ace Combat 7 insisted on installing 13GB on my PS4 before it would even start up, and then once it had actually started up, it continued to install, noting that “some game features would be unavailable” while it was still copying data. Most notably, the VR and multiplayer modes don’t work while it’s installing, only certain aircraft are selectable and only certain paint jobs or decal schemes are available.

This probably wouldn’t have been an issue if I had just started the campaign there and then since you don’t have much available to you at the start of the game, but I still can’t help but feel I’d rather it just install the whole game before letting me start it up at all.

Anyway, that aside, I felt immediately at home once into the menus: as in Ace Combat 5the menu screens are set up in a sort of “tree” layout, and you can see the other “layers” as you navigate around them. The whole thing is intended to look like a computer display, and it does a good job of this; one thing that Ace Combat 7 highlights very well is how far technology has come in the last few years, and this is emphasised even in the menus. Ace Combat 5’s menus looked like they were on a monochrome “green screen” CRT monitor; Ace Combat 7, meanwhile, looks much more “high definition”, for want of a better descriptor.

Once the campaign is underway, we get an initial idea of how the narrative is to be presented. Much like past installments, the cutscenes that explain the broader context of the story do not unfold from the perspective of the player character; in fact, as ever, the player-protagonist themselves is never seen. This is because they are you; “Trigger”‘s real name or gender is never stated and you never hear them speak; this allows you to fully inhabit their role and be a full participant in the story. And this is, to my knowledge, how the mainline Ace Combat titles have always been — though if I remember correctly, Assault Horizon had more “pre-scripted” player-protagonist characters throughout.

But no. The point is, the cutscenes do not unfold from “your” perspective; throughout Ace Combat 7, we see events through the eyes of a few different characters, including a young engineer called Avril who gets swept up in the early stages of the conflict depicted in the game; a scientist named Dr. Schroeder, who is developing the unmanned drones that form an important part of the overall narrative; and Rosa, the princess of Erusea.

The visuals of the cutscenes are very realistic indeed — with the exception of a now-notorious rather static-looking dog at one point, apparently a tribute to a developer’s pet who passed away while the game was still being worked on — but the way the scenes are actually executed is rather stylised.

Rather than literally depicting things “as they happen”, for the most part, they tend to be “narrated” as if one of the major characters is looking back on the scene, recounting what happened. Occasionally characters speak in context, but even this is stylised; for example, there’s a scene late in the game where Rosa meets Avril, and Avril is seen speaking out loud “in the moment”. We don’t witness Rosa’s immediate reply, however; we simply hear her narrate what she claims she said in response. It’s an unusual stylistic choice, but again, firmly in keeping with how Ace Combat has tended to do things in its most popular mainline installments.

By contrast, anything you are directly involved with is presented as happening right now. You see mission briefings from a first-person perspective, with ill-defined reflections of you and your squadmates just visible in the screen. There is extensive dialogue during gameplay. And mid-mission cutscenes that take you out of the cockpit are brief and relatively rare.

This isn’t to say that Ace Combat 7’s presentation is in any way dry, mind you; on the contrary, gameplay is kept consistently exciting by well-scripted, interesting dialogue with recognisable, named characters and the series’ trademark fantastic music, courtesy of returning composer Keiki Kobayashi and his regular collaborators Tetsukazu Nakanishi, Hiroshi Okubo and Junichi Nakatsuru. As in past installments, the team’s music blends traditional orchestral and choral sounds with modern electronic, acoustic and amplified instruments, with a number of recurring leitmotivs highlighting various characters and situations throughout the narrative, both during gameplay and in the cutscenes.

As you might expect from the first installment on PlayStation 4 (and Xbox One/PC), the overall presentation of Ace Combat 7 is gorgeous. Of particular note is the fact that the sense of speed when flying at low altitude has never been better in the series, and the new weather effects are not only visually spectacular, they also provide interesting new gameplay mechanics to contend with. (But that’s a story for another day!) As with other Unreal Engine games on PS4, however, be prepared for your console’s fans to go into overdrive while playing… still, you can just pretend it’s the sound of your jet or something.

So yeah. If you want an impressive game to show off today’s gaming hardware at its best that is also a lot of fun to play and a thought-provoking narrative about war, technology and artificial intelligence… Ace Combat 7 will most certainly “do you”, as it were. And we’ll talk more about those other aspects — as well as the VR mode, which I’m both itching to try and mildly terrified of — very soon!

More about Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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