It's been a while since we last made a trip to Strangereal on PlayStation. The Ace Combat series has a long and relatively complicated history of releases scattered across a wide range of formats, resulting in a somewhat fragmented state. Fans largely agree, however, that the PlayStation 2 entries - 4, 5, and Zero - are the collective high point, after which things began to stall and take a bit of a nosedive. With Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, it's fair to say that Bandai Namco has brought its series back with a bang on PS4.
Much like its predecessors, Ace Combat 7 is an arcade fighter jet action title with a penchant for explosions. You’ll pilot realistic planes with unrealistic handling in a made up world with a silly name that’s, yes, at war again. It’s quite the concoction, yet despite its parts seemingly at odds with each other, it somehow coalesces into something, well, daft, but also highly entertaining.
The key to Ace Combat’s success is the marriage of its slick, arcadey gameplay to a melodramatic tale of warring countries, super weapons, and sci-fi technology. As with previous titles, the story here isn’t going to win any awards, but there’s definitely a certain charm to the hammy dialogue and brooding characters in the pre-rendered cutscenes. As always, the narrative serves up the usual anti-war themes, but it’s seasoned with plot threads regarding drones and machine learning that give the game a fairly modern taste. The biggest problem with the story is the characters; it’s hard to care about most of the cast when the majority of the dialogue comes via radio chatter during action-packed missions. With most of the voices largely interchangeable, it’s possible you’ll lose track of who’s who and what’s what.
But let’s get down to brass tacks — the minute to minute action is the true star of Ace Combat, and it shines as bright as it ever has in Skies Unknown. Project Aces has practically perfected its unique brand of arcade flight handling that dips a toe into realism here and there. The emphasis is on slick flying and making you feel like an ace pilot, which the game achieves by providing you with fluid controls, countless enemy targets, and hundreds of missiles with which to shoot them down. In some ways, it feels like the Call of Duty of air combat.
Like the popular FPS, Skies Unknown also runs extremely smoothly and features crisp visuals. The planes themselves are highly detailed, and naturally, the sky boxes in which you battle are gorgeous. Physical clouds even add a new gameplay element by acting as makeshift cover if you have a bogey on your tail, and extreme weather conditions can play havoc with your aircraft. If we’re to level any criticism at the game’s looks at all, it would be the lack of detail on the ground. This might seem slightly unfair, considering you’re high in the sky a lot of the time, but many missions require you to deal with land based enemies, so it’s hard not to notice.
Speaking of missions, there’s a decent variety of locations and objectives here. One memorable sortie sees your squadron approach an enemy base by flying through a valley at low altitude before launching a surprise attack, while another forces you to get close to unknown targets to determine whether they’re friend or foe before you bombard them. It’s a fun campaign overall, but some objectives can be a little frustrating. A few missions task you with reaching a certain score within a set time, which can result in some irritating losses if you’re struggling to meet the quota.
However, completing each mission is satisfying, and you’re encouraged to replay them to improve your rank and earn more MRP. This is an in-game currency you’ll spend in the Aircraft Tree, a sprawling web of vehicles, special weapons, and stat-buffing parts. Chipping away at the tree is a necessity to stay ahead of the curve in the campaign, but all your unlocks carry over to the multiplayer, too, making those aircraft and upgrades twice as worthwhile to purchase.
The multiplayer allows up to eight players to dogfight either in Battle Royal (free for all) or Team Death Match. While there are only two modes to play, the online seems to be pretty robust — we didn’t run into many issues at all, and it balances your aircraft’s loadout by assigning it a cost, which lobby creators can set restrictions on in order to prevent veterans from using top tier equipment.
But what of Skies Unknown’s much talked about PSVR support? It’s been a major talking point since its announcement, and we’re glad to say that the end result is top notch. Set several years before the events of the main campaign, there are three missions to fly through in virtual reality, and if you own the tech, it’s well worth jumping into the cockpit and taking it for a spin. Controls are identical to the regular game, but you’re forced into a first person view, and although it doesn’t look as clean visually, it’s a very impressive effort that you’ll wish there was more of.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a top entry in the long-running series that sees a return to the PS2 glory days. The war opera story is enjoyably charming, despite a rather flat cast of characters, while the gameplay is, crucially, as dramatic and slick as it's ever been. Online multiplayer and PSVR are both implemented well, and serve as great companion pieces to the main campaign. Whether you’re a diehard fan or coming to this game fresh, Skies Unknown is a joy, and a series highlight.