Delving Into Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown – #4

All right. We’ve established that Ace Combat 7 absolutely has its own sense of style, that the VR mode is something rather special and that it strikes a great balance between arcade action and more realistic simulation. What about the actual missions, and the overall “game” experience?

Well, for those who have been hoping for a true next-gen Ace Combat experience, I am delighted to confirm that you will absolutely find this in Ace Combat 7 — both in terms of its narrative style, and in terms of how it plays.

Actual combat is where the game is at its most unrealistic — but also its most fun. Let’s take a closer look.

Ace Combat 7 is split into a linear sequence of 20 discrete missions that chronicle the eruption of yet another war in the troubled other world that is Strangereal. Over the course of these missions, you’ll be challenged with a variety of different objectives that, as you progress, will start to combine various different skills together and become increasingly challenging in the process.

The first mission in the game focuses on air-to-air combat. The base at which you are stationed is under attack, and so you and your squadron are scrambled to intercept the incoming bombers and their escorts. Since they are coming in at high altitude, this provides a great opportunity to get to grips with how to fight in the sky — bombers are slow, easy targets, and their escorts put up a bit of a fight but are still pretty straightforward to take down at this point.

Both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat in Ace Combat have three main components with regards to weaponry. At close range, you can use your craft’s machine guns, which have unlimited ammunition as well as a moving sight that indicates where your bullets will impact according to your velocity and angle of attack. Further out, you have multi-purpose heat-seeking missiles that can lock on to targets and be launched up to two at a time. And each plane in the game has access to up to three “special” weapons, which might be multi-warhead missiles that can lock on to multiple targets at once, unguided weapons such as bombs, rockets and laser cannons (yes, really) and weapons with special properties such as extremely high velocity or area of effect explosions.

When you start the game, you’ll have access to the standard heat-seekers and a four-way lock-on air-to-air missile, and you’re encouraged to try out both over the course of the first mission. Two heatseekers is enough to take out a bomber at this point, and the later “waves” in the mission feature just enough targets at once to make the four-way lock-on’s usefulness pretty self-evident.

The bit where you need to suspend your disbelief somewhat is in quite how much ordnance your plane can carry with it. While a real plane (and indeed a plane in a more conventional military flight simulator) can carry maybe two to four missiles and perhaps a bomb or two, Ace Combat 7’s planes all come with a physically impossible (albeit still limited) loadout of missiles and special weapons that allow you a certain amount of… margin for error, shall we say.

This has been a convention for the series since its very first installment Air Combat on PS1, and is a means of keeping the action interesting and the missions substantial. If you had to fly back home after releasing a couple of missiles, that wouldn’t be any fun from a gameplay perspective, nor would it be dramatic from a narrative perspective. In more abstract terms, one can think of your massive loadout as being a metaphorical representation of what a squadron of well-trained pilots would be capable of achieving; alternatively, you can imagine it as an airborne equivalent of the core tenet of Omega Force’s Warriors series — the concept of “one warrior worth a thousand”.

However you choose to rationalise it — if at all — in its most simple terms, this design decision is there for no other reason than to make the game more fun.

Once you’ve mastered flinging missiles at airborne targets, you’ll start getting some ground attack missions. Since your missiles are multi-purpose, they can be used to lock on to ground targets as well as flying ones. Ground targets don’t move as quickly as planes — though in many missions they do move, assuming they’re vehicles rather than buildings — but you do have the additional consideration of whether you have line of sight to them. Shoot off a missile to a target that is behind a mountain or large building and you’re simply not going to hit it.

The game makes use of a clear visual language on your in-game head-up display to distinguish air and ground targets, and whether or not you will be able to hit the latter at your current position. Aerial targets are in a square box, while ground targets appear in a hexagonal box, with this box using a dotted rather than solid outline if you don’t have line of sight. Tapping the triangle button on the controller (or equivalent if you’re not playing on PS4) will cycle through the available targets, generally prioritising the ones closest to the centre of your viewpoint. Mission-critical targets are indicated with a red “TGT” tag, so you can quickly distinguish which things you need to prioritise.

Over the course of the game, you’ll face ground targets in a number of different circumstances. Some missions give you a time limit in which you have to score over a certain threshold of points, requiring you to seek out high-value targets and destroy as many as possible. One mission sees you flying through a sandstorm attempting to track down a specific number of trucks before they escape with valuable cargo; naturally, the sandstorm interferes with your instruments, so you have to find alternative means of tracking them down, such as following the roads and their tracks when they are visible. And in another, you attack two enemy bases and a naval fleet, all of which are shooting at you; here, you discover the joy of taking out certain specific key targets such as structural supports, and them bringing down a whole host of other things with them for minimum effort. Regular Ace Combat fans will also be pleased to hear the obligatory stealth, canyon and tunnel missions are very much present and correct here.

The further you go in the game, the more dependent success becomes on good strategy as much as your own flying skills, whether your upcoming mission is primarily air-to-air, air-to-ground or a bit of both. It’s no good making a kamikaze run at an enemy base if you’re going to get shot down before you do any damage; hang back and take out the defenses from afar first. Enemy Advanced Tanks shooting down your missiles with flak before they can hit their target? Get up close and pelt them with machine-gun fire or a point-blank missile strike before they can respond. Enemy bomber escorts shooting you down before you can get close? Hide in the clouds.

Yes, Ace Combat 7’s big addition to the series is weather. This has a number of effects, particularly on combat. Missiles have much greater difficulty tracking a target through the clouds, for one thing, plus while inside a cloud, your visibility is reduced as your cockpit gets covered in water droplets and eventually freezes over. In a thunderstorm, you’d better hope you don’t get hit by lightning, because it’s absolutely fucking terrifying when you do. And in high winds, don’t be surprised if you find yourself flying sideways and bumping around all over the place, struggling to maintain a clear shot to your enemies.

Besides improving your own skills at fighting under these various conditions, you can spend the points you earn during the campaign on a tech tree. Over the course of the various nodes on this tree, you can unlock a number of different aircraft, plus up to three special weapons for each, and also equippable “parts” of various descriptions. These parts can enhance the abilities of your weapons — increasing the range and/or power of your missiles, for example — or affect the overall handling of your planes.

There’s a limit to how many you can equip at once, however, both in terms of a hard cap on how many individual parts you can equip at once, and the “value” of each of these parts in three different areas. In other words, you can’t just load up your plane with every part available to make it an absolutely indestructible killing machine; you’ll need to choose what you want to prioritise for the coming mission, which you will have usually been given a good indication of in the detailed briefing beforehand.

Of course, once it comes down to it, ultimate success is still primarily down to your own flying skill — and in the case of fighting certain “ace” pilots and drones over the course of the story, more than a little luck — but it certainly doesn’t hurt to try and level the playing field a bit.

While the campaign for Ace Combat 7 is quite short in the grand scheme of things, it’s a wild ride while it lasts — plus there’s plenty of incentive to go back and try for high scores and medals, to play on a higher difficulty or just see how different planes work under different circumstances.

Or, if you’re me, quite simply to take joy in the ability to sit in a wide variety of lovingly crafted virtual cockpits and fly some very expensive virtual aircraft that no-one in their right mind would let you anywhere near in real life. I’m a man of simple pleasures.

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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3 thoughts on “Delving Into Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown – #4”

  1. I can’t help but love the sheer volume of ordnance your plane can carry – imagine try to approach these missions with a sim style payload! I think it does lead to some spectacular dogfights when you can unleash a ton of missiles at once. It’s funny watching the replays though and seeing the missiles magically reappear. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, it’s so good. It allows for what I tend to think of as “Top Gun moments”, where you fire off a whole volley of missiles at a single target “just to make sure”. It gets even better once you start strapping laser cannons and all manner of other ridiculous weaponry to your planes.

      The replays are great. I love how the missiles are kept inside the plane on the F22, and they open up the bay doors on the side when you fire them.

      Liked by 1 person

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