Ace Combat 7 (PlayStation 4) Review

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Ace Combat is a series I’ve always been fond of despite never touching a numbered title. Enjoying the PSP and more controversial 3DS entries, the fast-paced dogfighting and diverse set of missions kept me hooked from start to end. Looking now to my first mainline game, just how far has the series come since I last looked in 2011?

Into the Skies

A swift reminder of how the home console experience differs from my portable memories, the campaign kicks off with a cutscene to set the tone for the rest of game. Visually speaking, it was magnificent. The cinematography, audio, and effects all contribute to a brilliant camcorder feel without necessarily having to sacrifice on quality to support it. Looking at the narrative itself, it’s about what you’d expect from this kind of game. You have your two nations at war and a new ace pilot on the scene; what made it interesting for me however was how this story was told. The cutscenes shifting between the perspective of what seemed to be everybody but the main character, you get a feeling of a world being built around him in oppose to him actually being the center of the events. Where he may be mentioned and involved in mission briefs and debriefs, the nature of the narrative prefers to shine a light on other characters through their storytelling. It does well in building up a silent protagonist in a way where he has a personality and an active role in events, while still giving you the freedom to project and really put yourself in his position and appreciate some of the more minor appearances.

I’m not sure I’d call the plot anything particularly memorable or ground-breaking, but it does what it needs to well. Each mission draws you in with new details of the world and ends with the consequences of your actions. Be it destroying a key structure, taking out an ace pilot, or even failing to protect your objective in some cases, you’re fed a reason to immediately want to move to the next mission. It gives you just enough as to entice you onwards, saying “this is what you did, don’t you want to find out more?” With how well this is executed, I did find myself a little disappointed to see a lack of branching paths. As one of my favourite aspects of the PSP release Ace Combat X, it added to this enticement by putting further responsibility on you. The flying fortress destroyed another city? Maybe you should’ve gone to deal with that first. You put yourself in a cycle of making decisions and feeling a necessity to see it through to the consequences; the lack of decision-making removes the biggest part of this. Given how the story plays out, it’s written well as to justify the lack of direct player choice, but I still feel something like this could’ve thrived on a smaller scale, the choices made mid-mission having an effect on the overall outcome.

The missions themselves still stand out to me for the sheer quantity of different objectives. You have the standard dogfighting as you might expect, alongside your bombing runs to cut enemy supply lines. On top of this, you have stealth sections, boss fights against unrealistically huge aircraft, protecting allies, there’s even a mission where you have to fly around and act as bait for a while. On top of this you have recurring ideas, now utilising weather and other elements to redefine what you thought to be familiar. My favourite missions came later in the game where I’d already bombed targets, I’d already fought aces and seen the seemingly-unbeatable mega-plane, and yet I was caught off-guard by just how fun it could be to add clouds. A standard “take out five radar sites” mission burst into a strategic game of battling the wind and low visibility to stay low, emerging to strike, and falling back down. There’s so much on offer that I truly believe there will be something that’ll make every player stop for a moment and reflect on just how much they enjoyed what they did. Even for those not fond of fighting are catered for with each mission having a free flight mode to be played afterwards, allowing you to fly around the map with no stress and no limits. Of course, I’d hardly recommend the game to somebody who isn’t fond of its best parts, but it’s a great way of easing somebody new into it if they happen to be watching you play.

Weather plays a far more significant role than I’ve seen in other titles. Instead of clouds simply being there to look pretty, they now obscure aiming and make it easier to dodge missiles. Rain splashes onto your HUD, turbulent areas wrestle control of the plane from you, you can even have your electronics disabled by a freak jolt of lightning. You have the missions I previously mentioned that go out of their way to utilise the weather as a means of expanding otherwise-simple objectives, but even when not in one of these, you still can’t help but harbour an appreciation for the intricacies of this system. With clouds in almost every sky, you usually have somewhere to hide if you need it. If I had to fault the weather for anything, it’s that they didn’t do enough with it. The missions that utilised it were fantastic, but what about those that didn’t? An option for the free play mode to change the weather would’ve been great and really add to the overall replayability.

As it stands, the game’s replayability stems from core two areas: its difficulty settings and the customisation of planes. Featuring three difficulty levels of Easy, Normal, and Hard as standard, you’re given the freedom you need to enjoy it at your own pace. On the lower difficulties, you’ll find yourself taking less damage and scoring thresholds being far more lenient on missions that require a certain score to complete. While the scaling of difficulty may do well in making the game more accessible, one thing I’m not fond of is how you’re locked into it after deciding at the start. If you progress through the entire game on Normal or Hard and happen to find yourself stuck towards the end, your only options are to restart the entire campaign or battle through the frustrations of your own inadequacy. Though a small criticism, a system allowing you to turn down the difficulty mid-campaign, would have been a simple solution. For the skilled among us however, there is the chance to go beyond—the Ace difficulty unlocking after beating the campaign on Hard. With this, even those only interested in a challenge have a reason to come back again.

Being able to customise your plane is something I’ve always loved about the series. In the options available, you’re given the power to create your own challenges, and to replay each mission again and again and still have them feel fresh. While difficulty options alone give a sense of replayability, it’s here where the bulk of it lies. In Ace Combat 7, you have the Aircraft Tree. Here, you buy new planes, parts, and weapons with the money earned from missions and online play. Despite being conflicted over what at first felt like yet another generic skill tree, I was surprised at how well-balanced it ended up being. As the player, you have the final say over how your money is spent. With an ever-expanding set of options before me, I was forced to think about when I should buy and when I should wait. It’s a layer of strategy without leaving new players too overwhelmed, the game placing key aircraft in your path early on. You get a perhaps undeserved sense of satisfaction for your choices, but it all does well in contributing to the overall progression of the game.

When it comes to mobility in-air, you’re given two choices of control options. By default, the game has a much more arcadey feel to it, left and right on the analogue stick actually moving the plane left and right. For the more traditional players out there the Expert control scheme is available, allowing you to fly by rolling and pitching. I spent much of my time using the Expert controls with them being closer to what I’m used to, but the default options are definitely worth giving a chance. On top of the simplified control scheme, the camera often felt more dynamic in its motion. The game ended up feeling more active and explosive, further highlighting its best features and effects. It’s hard to say which I preferred in the end, but in both I felt the responsivity and fluidity I’ve come to associate with the series.

Ace Combat: Battle Royale

For those seeking more once the war is over, the game features two online modes: Team Deathmatch and Battle Royale. Team Deathmatch is thereabouts what you might expect: split into two teams with the first team to hit the target score winning. Battle Royale on the other hand, for better or worse, isn’t really battle royale as we’ve come to know in recent times. Essentially acting as a free-for-all, it follows largely the same format as Team Deathmatch in the victory condition being the first player to hit a certain score threshold. Both of these modes also operate on a timer, avoiding the possibility of a heavily drawn out fight if the players present aren’t up to par.

Each mode comes with a short list of customisations, the two of particular interest being a cost limit and whether special weapons are allowed. The former of these is great in allowing players who aren’t too far in the campaign to still enjoy online play and perhaps earn some money to help them progress without having to face players with long-range lasers and a myriad of handy parts. The latter is interesting in that it could be seen to do the same thing in setting an even playing field. In disallowing special weapons, the focus is shifted to manoeuvrability and mastery of the game’s control scheme. If like me you jump from room to room, you’ll find a surprising variety in the online experience, and you’ll likely walk away a better player for it.

An Ace Experience?

I have no doubt in my mind that Ace Combat 7 is the best game in the series I’ve played, but when I’m only comparing it to its PSP and 3DS counterparts, that might not stand for much. From its easy to grasp control scheme, to its huge variety of missions, planes, and weapons—if you’re a series fan, I can’t think of a reason to avoid picking it up. For those without prior series knowledge, don’t be intimidated by it being the seventh entry; my time playing is proof it can be enjoyed all the same. If in the past you’ve enjoyed Pilotwings, or even Google Earth’s flight simulation, I urge you to give it a shot. You really don’t know what you’ve been missing.

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