Game Review | Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Death from above...
Game summary: Become an ace pilot and soar through photorealistic skies with full 360 degree movement; down enemy aircraft and experience the thrill of engaging in realistic sorties! (Steam)
I'd only played one Ace Combat game before - Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation on the Xbox 360 - which I'd enjoyed, but not loved and it turns out that might well be all that the series will ever be for me, because that's pretty much my exact sentiments for Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. That's not a bad thing though, as this is still a very good game.
Or, to be more precise, when you're in the thick of the action carrying out your objectives is a great time, it's the stuff around the edges that bring it down a notch or two. Controlling your fighter feels perfectly fluid and natural, with superb, responsive controls that make your weapon of war feel like an extension of your controller as intended.
As far as an arcade-style flying experience goes, Skies Unknown is right up there as probably the best game of its type that I've ever played. It helps that the game also looks incredible, runs very well and has a fantastic replay mode at the end of each mission for you to check out your moves from a more cinematic perspective.
The biggest problem here is the story, which is as cheesy as it gets. Think about how cheesy Top Gun was in its worst moments then add on a layer of cheese... and then maybe one more layer of cheese just to make sure. This wouldn't be too bad in smaller doses, but it makes playing this game for any length a bit of a chore.
If you go into Skies Unknown just wanting to blow shit up with fighters and don't care about the story in the slightest, then you won't care. The thing is, I like to have a reason for doing whatever I'm doing in a game, and the story and characters involved here just don't make me care enough to be bothered about what happens.
I ended up dragging myself through the campaign just to see how it played out rather than genuine curiosity. There just isn't enough substance here to justify the story's length, which makes the superficially-defined characters grating to have to listen to, with their lines delivered with far more enthusiasm than I was feeling.
When your allies don't stop chattering about the nonsense plot, it really starts to drag even the otherwise great combat sections down too and made me wish I could just mute them all. Then again, you do end up filtering them out a bit thanks to a few gameplay design decisions that slowly start to add up.
Firstly, there's the usual thing in these types of games where the enemies target the human player more than your CPU allies, often leaving them well alone so they can attempt a suicide run on you. Although I suppose they feel safe in doing so thanks to said squadmates being terrible at their jobs and their weapons doing little to no damage to enemies.
Other titles have managed to hide that the story in games tends to proceed at the player's pace by having allies kill 'disposable' opponents or just flat-out being good at their jobs and making you feel like part of a unit, but that really isn't the case here. You can have a dozen allies in a mission and it'll still feel like you against the world.
This isn't that much of an issue in most missions, as all the air-to-air stuff is great fun to play and the longer it lasts, the better. The problem comes with timed objectives, where it can sometimes be a struggle to achieve your goals because you have to dodge so much enemy attention that shouldn't be on you in the first place.
It also isn't the worst design choice that affects missions in Skies Unknown either: that would be having the nature of a mission changing halfway through. You get your briefing, you pick your fighter and set it up how you think best, then that goes out of the window as a new objective is received 15-20 minutes into the fight.
If you weren't lucky enough to choose the right plane and weaponry, the difficulty can spike massively and it is most likely easier to simply restart the mission and select what you need to get through it on a second attempt. I could accept it happening once as a jolt to the player as the enemies surprise you, but it keeps happening.
There'll be some that will love this and will enjoy the challenge of having to see out the multiple missions where this happens with this forced disadvantage. Personally, I'm just not a fan of what is effectively trial-and-error gameplay, where you have to play through missions once to find out what you have to do and then a second time to actually do it.
I think this is part of what distanced me from the story of Skies Unknown - a cheesy, insubstantial blockbuster plot that then frustrates you by pulling the rug out from under your feet in gameplay. This results in a weird tonal mess, especially as you have to listen to your over-eager allies repeating the same lines if you do repeat the mission.
I can accept objectives changing mid-mission and having to deal with a new enemy type, but the alterations to your goals here feel just a little too drastic for such a light experience. There's one mission that proceeds normally until an enemy ace shows up, at which point the difficulty sky-rockets and I ended up in a draining, yet epic aerial duel.
That was fine for me and actually one of the highlights of the game at that point, because the shift in goals and difficulty were effectively a variation of what I'd been doing in the rest of the mission. There are just too many instances of the objectives changing too far to be an enjoyable challenge like this moment.
As a result, Skies Unknown feels like it wasted its potential to a certain extent, because the basic gameplay is pretty flawless as a more arcade-like aerial combat experience. It is just those odd design choices and a thin story scraped like butter over too big a piece of bread to enjoy properly.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is great to look at and almost as much fun to play, but everything outside of the dog-fighting and some poor design choices hamper the lasting enjoyment to be had. The story isn't great and goes on too long, while some missions feel more like trial-and-error to find the right set-up rather than testing player skill.