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Awards

Rating

  • Graphics
  • Multiplayer
  • Story (Career Mode)
  • Originality

You Might Like

  • The perfect mix of arcade and flight-sim
  • Adrenalin-fuelled gameplay
  • Wide array of planes and upgrades for replayability

Might Not Like

  • Story feels bogged down by cliche
  • A number of harsh difficulty spikes
  • Scripted sequences feel lazy
Find out more about our blog & how to become a member of the blogging team by clicking here

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Review

ace combat 7 Skies unknown

Stay Sharp, Think Fast

A love letter to all fans of the hit arcade aerial combat series, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown marks a return to the property’s roots in order to reach new heights. As my first foray into the franchise, it was both a marvel to behold and a humbling reminder to sharpen my skills if I hoped to keep up with the supersonic speeds featured.

I’ve always loved the sound, spectacle and technological majesty of fighter jets, attending air shows semi-regularly from a young age. But that passion was reignited like flaming afterburners when I saw Top Gun: Maverick in theatres… twice. Itching to sit in any form of the cockpit myself, I turned to the screen once more, this time with controller in hand, to take to unknown skies for the first time.

Into The Unknown

From the start, AC7 locks onto everything novices and experts alike will enjoy. The first thing that struck me, besides the impressive visuals, was the tightness of the control scheme. On the novice control layout (I hear series veterans scolding) it’s as easy as one thumbstick for movement, the other for flicking the camera behind you to judge incoming surface-to-air missiles or spy bandits on your six; one trigger for igniting your thrusters to accelerate, the other for braking; then one button for changing weapons, one for changing targets, one for letting a missile fly, and one for the thunder of your guns. I went in anticipating intricate button combinations and a dexterity margin not far below that asked of qualified pilots. What I found was intuitive, responsive inputs that struck a balance of realism and delightfully impossible loops and turns.

Naturally, the foundation of this game is its planes, and the first time you purchase a new aircraft using in-game currency earned from completing missions, you feel a rush of pride and excitement. A majority of those available are the most iconic modern fighter jets on the planet. I doubt there’s a plane enthusiast out there who won’t get chills the first time they take to the air borne on the sweeping, retractable wings of an F-14 Tomcat like a pilot straight out of Top Gun.

We’ll cover the campaign itself in the following sections, but once you’re done, the replay factor goes beyond the classic arcade bragging rights of sitting at the top of the leaderboard. Along with testing yourself to the limit with the unlocked ‘Ace’ difficulty, there are also hidden named Aces (one in each mission) who must be drawn out by meeting certain criteria that can be anything from destroying specific types of target, to completing objectives in record time, to staying below altitude ceilings for attack runs. Splashing these elite pilots will earn you their unique paint jobs on their custom fighter craft, although these cannot be used until after completing the campaign for thematic reasons. Beyond that, there’s simply experimenting with the 24 named aircraft and smorgasbord of plane parts to achieve as high a rank as you can or just run whacky setups!

Adios, You Damn Fool

The storyline, primarily delivered organically through gameplay events and radio chatter but also broken up by disjointed cutscenes at the start of some missions, leaves a little to be desired, but has a quality befitting a title primarily focused on its fast-paced arcade gameplay. The characters you fly with, only seen and heard through in-flight communications, offer the most variety and investment. Without spoilers, there are plenty of fan-favourite-worthy wingmen who are placed in peril to up the ante, and these pivotal dogfights are some of the narrative's most powerful moments.

On the subject of going gun to gun, the game's few antagonists are its most compelling cast members; boss battles are a particular highlight and some of the slower escort missions fade into obscurity in comparison. In terms of the overall structure, AC7 organically puts you through your paces from recruit to fully-fledged ace - introducing new mechanics at a steady rate without bombarding your senses - then really gives you the space to soar in the last four missions or so, culminating in white-knuckle air-to-air combat and a thoroughly memorable finale sequence that will leave you breathless.

Often, though, the story's maudlin themes and stilted dialogue are a far cry from the lofty ambitions and knife-edge adrenalin of the gameplay, and are so vague as to be almost unnecessary besides providing a few contextual clues to events sometimes taking place many gameplay hours previous. Regardless, that also means they're mostly harmless and can be skipped with little consequence if you feel they're starting to drag.

Deep, Dark Blue

The game’s graphics are nothing short of spellbinding, and for the first time, maybe ever, in my gaming lifetime, there isn’t a single breath of any performance issues or visual bugs to speak of. Jets are rendered in glorious detail, with visible pilots (including your faceless, silent hero, Trigger), dynamic lighting, and all the appropriate markings and surface textures. Even the landscapes you’ll spend most of your time flying high above are diverse and intricately populated with enemy emplacements and lived-in features.

In keeping with the story’s romanticised emphasis on the sky and the marvel of flight, all of this is awash in a cool blue tint, like someone turned the visual temperature down by 25% in a photo editor. This subtle change is pierced by blinding lens flares, white-hot defensive chaff and, of course, fiery crashes, to create an excellent contrast not just visually but thematically, offsetting the starry-eyed idea of soaring freely through the clouds with the explosive reality of its inherent dangers.

Any heads-up displays and user interface assets are also kept minimalist to give horizons ample space to yawn across the screen; the clean, thin lines of any missile alerts or targeting overlays are in keeping with the overall elegance of the game’s visual language. This carries over to the Aircraft Tree - the game’s upgrade tree for buying increasingly advanced planes along with various parts like de-icing systems and reinforced hard decks - and its delicate wireframe iconography.

You Must Find Your Own Sky

When it comes to the difficulty, I played on Normal despite having no experience whatsoever with Ace Combat or flight games in general. I don’t think I made the wrong choice, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times where I wished I could drop down a level to Easy (beware: you’re stuck with your choice unless you restart the whole campaign). The intensity of missions rises incredibly steadily for the majority of the story mode, building to fever pitch by the final dogfights and Death Star-style trench run, but it’s punctuated by some veritable difficulty mountains.

Notably, the so-called Annihilation levels, tasking you with destroying a laundry list of targets to accumulate a certain amount of points in a time limit. The first comes just six missions into the campaign’s total of twenty. Here, the strain on your abilities doesn’t just pick up; it roars into a high-G climb. Every facet of your awareness and skill is suddenly tested out of nowhere, asking you to manoeuvre tighter, hit harder and fly faster than ever before.

This is all in order to avoid terrain in claustrophobic narrow canyons (get used to that ‘Pull up’ alert!), manage your loadout and ammo over an extended period, and do it all within a time frame that simultaneously manages to be barely enough and far too long; the first time I finally managed to hit the required score threshold, I quickly died to the ensuing bombardment of missiles as soon as I even slightly eased off my aggressive bombing runs. The second time, after two dozen attempts, I ended up resorting to repeatedly returning to resupply at the edges of the arena for the next four minutes to avoid death, rather than risk racking up a high score. Not very bold for a game with a theme song entitled ‘Daredevil’, but I was about ready to break a controller by then.

To The Heavens & Beyond

Overall, however, like the pinpoint machining of a fighter jet’s wings, this game’s greatest achievement is the balance struck between all its facets. It somehow welds the rapid rinse and repeat of money-sucking arcade outings to the calculated level design and gameplay considerations of modern titles. It offsets admirable technical accuracy with the suspended disbelief of pure fun. Despite a few misfires, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is undoubtedly aware of the legacy it honours as it meshes the masterful with the mischievous to bridge the near twenty-five year gap between its take-off and zenith, like a gracefully ageing Ace with a hot-headed young gun for its wingman.

That concludes our thoughts on Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts and tag us on social media @zatugames. To buy Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown today click here!

Zatu Score

Rating

  • Graphics
  • Multiplayer
  • Story (Career Mode)
  • Originality

You might like

  • The perfect mix of arcade and flight-sim
  • Adrenalin-fuelled gameplay
  • Wide array of planes and upgrades for replayability

Might not like

  • Story feels bogged down by cliche
  • A number of harsh difficulty spikes
  • Scripted sequences feel lazy

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