The lesser spotted aerial combat genre makes a glorious return in this heart-pumpingly exciting game.
Assuming the role of virtual pilot while engaging legions of foes in the art of aerial combat is a concept synonymous with the origins of video games. Many popular titles of the 70s, 80s and 90s centre on this simple concept. Sometimes it was a space craft, other times a fighter jet but the concept is simple to grasp and always promises loads of fun. These games started as simple two-dimensional shooters but, as technology evolved, developers started to push new boundaries. Three-dimensional flight simulation games started to become extremely popular especially on the PC platform. From After Burner to more serious simulations such as Falcon 3.0, we certainly weren't starved for choice.
In 1995, Namco embraced this concept and introduced console players to the world of aerial dog fighting with Air Combat or, as it was known in Japan, Ace Combat - its own take on flight simulation with a perfect blend of realism and arcade style action. During this early era of 3D graphics, nothing quite showcased a new machine like an aerial combat game. Ace Combat, along with other games such as Factor 5's Rogue Squadron series, were extremely popular in their day, receiving many sequels along the way.
Over the last decade, however, this light has faded. While hardcore flight simulation has retained an audience on PC, the arcade-leaning gameplay offered in Ace Combat and the like has all but dissipated into thin air. Namco made a few attempts at redefining the series with moderately disappointing titles such as Ace Combat: Assault Horizon but, for fans of the series, the last truly great instalment in the series, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, launched nearly 12 years ago on Xbox 360.
So, when it was announced that Ace Combat would return for a numbered, seventh instalment, I was cautiously optimistic. With the right people at the helm, however, chances were good, and after a lengthy development, Ace Combat 7 emerges. I couldn't be happier with the result.
To start, Ace Combat 7 returns once more to the fictional Strangereal world first defined in Ace Combat 04. The campaign offers a lengthy narrative centred on the conflict between the Kingdom of Erusea and the Osean Federation told through video sequences depicting life on the ground. Players assume the role of Trigger but, as with several previous games, the narrative focuses more on the impact of war on people from both sides of the fight. It strikes a tone somewhere between the seriousness of Ace Combat 04 and the cheesy drama of Ace Combat 5 and it works surprisingly well. With a focus on the importance of modern communication and the impact of AI on combat, the story takes some interesting and unexpected turns.
What really defines the Ace Combat experience, however, isn't something that can be plastered on the back of the box. No, it's the combination of key elements which draw you deeper into each battle. In my experience, there's a certain dryness to most flight sims and that's OK, honestly - but Ace Combat is something different. There's this atmosphere and sense of excitement in the air - moments when you push your flight skills to the limits as you chase a difficult enemy. You're fully engaged in this air ballet - low on missiles, armour nearly depleted then, just as the music swells and the brilliant colours dance around your peripheral vision, you nail that precision shot. You exhale. It's an emotional experience and anyone that's played through the series will know exactly what I mean.
Rest assured, Ace Combat 7 is packed with moments like this and it feels better than ever when engaged in combat. There's a weight and sense of momentum to your plane now - like a steel blade slicing through the clouds. When engaged in dog fights, you have options for making high-G turns, using your aerial brakes and strategic stalls to almost drift around your foes which feels so satisfying to master. Add in the flares for shaking incoming missiles and the dog fighting system feels more tactical yet engaging than any previous entry. Thanks to the increase in fidelity you have a better grasp on each of these actions as well. There are enemies you'll face that really force you to master these maneuvers and, once you get the hang of it, it's extremely gratifying.
As in the last few games, players have the option to select between two control schemes. The default controls handle more like arcade game - almost as if you're piloting the F-14 from After Burner 2. With the new camera system and more fluid movement, however, it feels much less twitchy than in previous games and is a great way to fly. The other 'expert' option, however, offers a flight model more inline with what you'd expect from a traditional flight sim - you can execute more complex moves, but it demands more skill to pull them off. I found myself switching back and forth between them during play - they're both excellent and I feel AC7 now offers the best handling game in the series.
The environment plays a significant role this time as well. The terrain is much more detailed and easier to read from the skies with more structures and landmarks to fly through and around but it's the new cloud system that steals the show. The new volumetric clouds are gorgeous in motion but also integrated directly into gameplay. Tracking becomes more challenging in the clouds while ice and precipitation batter your fighter while zipping through especially thick cloud formations. There are even missions which rely on using cloud cover to avoid enemy radar. The beautiful volumetric rendering also increases the sense of parallax with the terrain below lending the game a boosted sense of speed. A new weather system is also included - bursts of strong wind can throw you off course now while bursts of lightning can temporarily interfere with your instruments - both are used to build tension during specific missions.
Clearly, the primary focus of Ace Combat 7 is its campaign. Packed with many missions, most of which are highly replayable, the results feel like an evolved blend of Ace Combat 04 and Ace Combat 5. You have a wide range of objectives which can change mid-flight - stealth sequences, boss battles, high-speed dogfights, bombing runs and escort missions are all here. Unlike the rather scripted Ace Combat 5, however, Ace Combat 7 features plenty of missions with a wide-open battle field often with a score target. You have full reign of the battle field with the freedom to approach your objectives as you see fit. It's remarkably satisfying.
As you play then, you earn credits which can be used to purchase new planes and special weapons via the aircraft tree. This feature was first introduced in the mostly forgotten free-to-play game Ace Combat Infinity but it's a great idea and it works well here. There are a lot of planes to unlock and each plane can equip a variety of special weapons in addition to performance upgrades. Picking the right plane for the job is essential especially on harder difficulties. Missions focusing on dogfighting play best with highly manoeuvrable fights like the F-15 Strike Eagle while a bombing run might work best using an A-10 'Warthog'.
There's also multiplayer this time with a pair of modes at launch including a Battle Royale mode, which is actually a free for all battle mode based on score, and Team Deathmatch which has two teams aiming to achieve the highest score. It's a fun little addition and I'll be curious to see where it goes in the future but, for me, the draw is still very much the campaign.
If you're playing on PlayStation 4 and happen to own a PSVR there's a VR mode included too. Limited to just three missions, this mode puts you in the shoes of Mobius 1 from Ace Combat 04 with a series of missions referencing the PS2 classic. While limited in scope, I found this mode to be utterly enthralling. Starting in a hangar reminiscent of that from AC04, you get to experience the full take-off sequence from within the cockpit before taking to the skies. Tracking targets with your head as your plane and stomach do flips never gets old and VR dramatically increases the sense of speed during combat. It's a genuinely amazing thing to experience and I'd love to see more missions in the future.
All of this is backed by a wonderfully crafted soundtrack featuring several longtime series composers including Keiki Kobayashi, Junichi Nakatsuru and Hiroshi Okubo among others. It's a tremendous effort and one that is central to the Ace Combat experience. Each mission features a carefully orchestrated selection of music designed to set the tone while radio chatter fills the air around you. The soundscape also changes dynamically as you plunge in and out of cloud cover leading to some dramatic moments.
It's visually stunning as well. As with Tekken 7 and Soul Calibur VI, the Ace Combat team has made the jump to Unreal Engine 4 and the results are overwhelmingly successful. After the last-generation of Ace Combat games dropped the target frame-rate to 30 frames per second, it's great to see the series return to a full 60fps - at least, provided you're playing on the enhanced consoles. If you want the full breakdown on performance and visuals be sure to check out the video I've produced covering the game over on Digital Foundry.
If you couldn't tell at this point, I've genuinely had a blast with Ace Combat 7, and I'm thrilled that Namco managed to avoid chasing trends while instead focusing on making the best possible Ace Combat game. It offers one of the longest campaigns in the series with a solid selection of missions and, thanks to the aircraft tree, there's a lot of aircraft and gear to unlock - all of which is earned through playing the game both on and offline. Ace Combat 7 is the real deal with a perfect blend of new and classic ideas packed into a cohesive, highly replayable package. There aren't many games quite like this being released today so whether you're a returning fan that has missed the classic series or a newcomer looking for something a little different, it's an absolute must-play.