I, on occasion, will shock myself into this century by looking back at original release dates for franchises that I feel were relatively new, only to find out that they have been around for 20+ years. This was the case for the Ace Combat franchise which, to my jaw-dropping amazement, turns 24 this year. I originally played Ace Combat 2 on a buddy of mine’s PlayStation back in high school, but it still boggles my mind to think it has been around as long as it has been.
While my first introduction was to the long-running jet-fueled adrenaline rush that is the Ace Combat franchise was with its second outing, I have been in love with the franchise since the downright fantastic Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies. Featuring high-speed explosive action that let me live out my wildest Top Gun-inspired dreams, the Ace Combat family has long put you behind the throttle of some of the worlds most advanced military machines (and some that do not quite exist … yet). Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is Bandai Namco Studios and Project Aces’ latest numbered title and is a welcome sight on the current generation of consoles.
It is generally accepted that while Ace Combat Assault Horizon was quite quirky with regard to its story, it had solid gameplay (some of the best in the franchise in my opinion). Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown feels similar in many respects; lacking the deep, dramatic overtones of series’ storytelling powerhouse, Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, but full of spectacular moments not all that dissimilar to Ace Combat Assault Horizon. While anyone would be hard-pressed to call the Ace Combat franchise deep when comparing it to dramatic storytelling found in other franchises, Ace Combat 7 seems to fit right in the “B-rated ‘80’s action-flick” pile. Which is excellent because it really pulls at the Top Gun-dream of yesteryear.
The downside is that there are some truly abysmally acted scenes, largely any containing the commanding officer, McKinsey, which break the immersion and really ham-up the story. Cutscenes between missions are quite nice looking and generally follow home-grown air mechanic cutie, Avril, or “I belong in a Final Fantasy game as a villainous sidekick doctor” Dr. Schroeder, who are both extremely well voiced and even better acted. They deliver their lines with meaningful impact, even if there are a few bizarre lines / twists in the story.
Though Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown will not be winning storyteller of the year, the campaign is meaningful at time; plus, there are a few moments where I feel that some of the inspiration for the various missions or situations came straight out of a Mobile Suit Gundam episode. That is not a bad thing… I just think that the 20 campaign missions tend to jump from scene to scene with most pointing towards one or two primary arcs in only the loosest of manners. In fact, if you look at them all over the course of the campaign, many do not seem to “fit” together like they should; it is almost as if they bit off more than they could chew with what they wanted to do with the story.
I personally would have lengthened the first 1/3 (up to about mission 7 or 8) of the game to be the full 20-mission campaign, adding in appropriate content to flesh out those 7-8 missions. Then, and I will probably be tarred and feathered for this, put out a fleshed out mid-game (roughly missions 10 through about 16) DLC out, with a final DLC being the last few stages of the game. Speaking of which, I would strongly recommend removing mission 20 altogether, or severely re-work it as it is one of the most disrespectful and asinine ways to treat a gamer.
As what I am about to say will be Spoilery we have made the following text match the background; if you are not concerned with spoilers, please simply select the following paragraph
For 19 missions Ace Combat 7 shows you the glory of the sky; your encounters with Archangel (i.e. Mihaly) go to reinforce the joy and amazement of flying, of owning the airs. The emphasis on the sheer open-ness and scale of each missions is breathtaking. The casual yet expert marriage between the action in the skies and intensity of ground combat is wonderful. Mission 19 is a wonderful experience of the air combat and dogfighting throughout the Ace Combat franchise. Mission 20 takes all the goodwill and fuzzy feelings that Mission 19 gives you … and spits in your face. Here you have been, for the past 6-9 hours, providing kickass close-air-support or pulling high-G turns while splashing bogeys … and the good folks over at Project Aces / Bandai Namco decide “Hey, let’s throw all that in the garbage and put on in a restrictive tunnel for the final mission!” It is absolutely disrespectful to gamers; it is pointless and completely defeats the concept that Ace Combat 7 LITERALLY pushed for 19 missions. Shame on you Bandai Namco, shame on you. If this is indicative of the way they are going to respect their gamers, I will absolutely look elsewhere.
Now that I got that off my chest …
Combat and control have been the bread and butter of the Ace Combat franchise since Ace Combat Assault Horizon perfected a lot of the controls. With Skies Unknown control, whether you are using the simplified control scheme (where left stick does all the moving and aiming) or a more advanced, flight-stick-like control scheme (where you use both analog sticks for pitch, yaw, etc.) you can, and will feel like an actual Ace fighter pilot. The problem I ran into regularly was that controls just sort of … stopped. I thought maybe it had to do with the precursor to stalling, but upon paying closer attention, that was not the cast. I checked multiple controllers, wired and wireless, and the issue persists. Even tried a second Xbox One. Same issue. Finally it boiled down to, I think, just trying to do too much at once; almost as if the game could not keep up with the inputs being provided.
Whether I was dogfighting or providing CAS, everything would just go un-responsive. It would not happen constantly, but it most CERTAINLY happened at crucial moments in the game (carving through a canyon while shaking off an enemy on your tail while you are trying to splash the one in front of you? Nah, I’ll just fly you into the ground). I thought maybe it was a part of the new and absolutely AWESOME weather effect / turbulence features in the game. Nope, not it. No rhyme or reason things would just suck. I also noticed it happened more on certain levels and in others it never happened, so it has to be specific to those missions.
I was a little shocked and quite dismayed with the fact that the dogfighting feature of Ace Combat Assault Horizon was removed; I loved the whole concept of dogfighting in that game. Instead Ace Combat 7 takes one out of Elite: Dangerous’ book and errs on the side of ‘who can turn in a tighter circle?’ Add to the fact they got rid of the traditional high-G turn in favor of a horrifically-controlled method (accelerate+decelerate+pitch/yaw in a direction and you will do a sharper turn; it just does not have the same effect), and Ace Combat 7, while an awesome game, in many respects, feels like a step back in the franchise. Sure, the combat is still excellent, controls (when they work) are snappy and responsive, and the game is literally chalk-full of awesome cinematic moments, but if feels lacking in many cases when compared to the older games in the franchise. However, as a standalone? It is an EXCELLENT arcade shooter that felt very Afterburner at times.
One area I like that is a nice evolution of the franchise is the “Aircraft Tree.” Think of it like you would a store where you purchase new vehicles and upgrades … because that is what it is. Each aircraft has its statistics like mobility, defense, stability, air-to-ground / air-to-air strengths, etc. listed, though I do wish there was a “Compare” option, as it is awfully difficult to determine which aircraft is best for a mission when you have to scroll through this list and try to remember what the other craft’s stats were. Other than that, the progression is solid, if a little out of place with the story as you are essentially a rogue band of ex-cons that are drafted into a near-dead, broken military; how the hell do you afford and/or build an F-22 or an extremely advanced experimental fighter? It makes no sense when looking at the core aspects of the story. Still, flying some of these machines is wonderful as each handle very, very different. I myself am partial to the F-2A, a derivative of the U.S. Air Force’s nimble little F-16. In fact, I rarely use something different, though I DO love the Typhoon…. Ah, so many wonderful choices.
I want to interject real quick about Multiplayer in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown … Frankly it sucks. The implementation sucks. The stability sucks. The people suck. To play multiplayer you pop into the menu option and after setting up your hangar (which, by the way … you will likely need to change regularly), instant radio messages, and options (thank GOD for the ability to turn voice chat off), you are provided an option to join a match or create a match. You can do battle royale style combat where last-jet-flying is the winner, or you can do Team Deathmatch … Given my proclivity for teamwork, I tried for about 90 minutes to get into a lobby/game (which are each hosted by the person that created the match; no dedicated servers) and ultimate quit as it seems the favorite thing to do is to create a match then just sit in it indefinitely… Because each match can have limitations on parts/special weapons or even price caps (meaning you can make it so everyone flies starter jets, or you can all use end-game jets) this means that those jets you set up at the start of the multiplayer menu? Yeah, you need to go tweak or reset them if you are in a match that has limitations that your jets exceed.
This means people will hop into a lobby/game and will sit there for twenty minutes altering their jets to their liking. During this time people tend to spam the “Let’s Sortie” option to try to get the lobby host to start a freaking game… The problem is people do not want to wait around on you, especially if you are new to the multiplayer aspect in Ace Combat 7, and will leave a game because they want to play, not sit and twiddle their thumbs while someone takes forever to retrofit their aircraft. Then if you actually get into a game the lag is garbage (note, I am pushing 230-250MB down, 25MB up so it is most certainly not me) and the stability will push out any others that just cannot stand it anymore. There are a LOT of lobbies with just one person in them, waiting for others to join but never will. It is really, really sad.
Seriously, the setup and implementation of multiplayer is just bad …
I may have some honest and strong criticisms of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, but that is because I came to expect excellence in a franchise that is nearing 25 years old. Though I may be harsh in my assessment, I do have to say that the latest from Project Aces is still an awesome experience with some of the coolest, most cinematic moments that I have seen in recent years. Over the past four or five days I have spent nearly 30 hours hunting the skies and I loved nearly every moment of it. Arcade-like response, explosive action, solid “skill” progression, and a half-way, if cheesy, story are wrapped up in an action-packed sky-faring adventure.