Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Review

By Andrew Ogley, 1 month ago
Editor's Note: This review was originally posted last week, but after investigation and community feedback we felt that the review did not reflect a full experience of the game's offerings. We therefore took the review down to allow for more play time and a more thorough evaluation. Below is the updated review. Thank you for your patience and understanding. — Sam
The Ace Combat series has had a bit of patchy history on the Xbox. Despite the large catalogue of titles, only two games have ever made it onto the platform, first in 2004 and latterly in 2011. Now, with the release of ACE COMBAT 7: Skies Unknown, the franchise makes a return to Xbox. It might have been a long time coming, but the latest title is well worth the wait, Ace Combat 7 marks a barnstorming return of the arcade aerial combat franchise.

17/01/2019 - Carousel

The player takes on the role of Trigger, a pilot thrust into the war between two supernations. Early on, the player's career all seems to be going to plan, until they are court-martialed and dumped into a squadron of convicts and felons who still have their aviation wings, thus forming an avionic suicide squad of expendable pilots. Here begins the inevitable road to redemption and whilst the player gets to experience all of the combat heroics first-hand, the rest of the story is narrated by a separate character who fills in the details and background information. Whilst there is a story to tell, it begins to feel like a distraction and interruption to the key part of the game, the aerial combat. Something similar can be said about the pilot banter that peppers the flights or ends of missions. Comments about celebrating with beer and pizza come across as cliched.

For each campaign mission, players can select one of their planes from the hangar along with a single special weapon package. Initially, you'll be given a basic crate, good enough for the opening missions, but you'll need something that packs more punch later. Fortunately, there is an impressive technology tree that players can work their way through, unlocking more advanced planes, aerial tech, and weapons. The only downside is that you'll only be able to reach the more advanced planes by unlocking the preceding planes in the tree. This means you'll have to spend a lot of credits to reach those aircraft. Players can also purchase upgraded parts for both the aircraft and weaponry. Improving speed, maneuverability, stealth or defensive properties enables to personalize the complete aerial package to match their own particular combat style.

It becomes a key mechanic to the game. Picking the wrong combination of aircraft and weapon can make later missions more difficult than they should really be. Having struggled to complete one particular mission with my kitted-out plane of choice, I opted to spend my accumulated but yet unto ignored wealth on a much more advanced fighter and weapons. The difference was a stunning change in fortune in the battle and was a clear indication that you needed to keep forging ahead in the development tree to stay competitive in battle.

Gamescom 2018

Most of the planes are real-world aircraft that most avionic fans will recognize, spanning different eras and countries of origin including the US, Europe, and Russia. Most of the weaponry too will be familiar, however, this a fictional world and later you'll encounter weaponry straight from the realms of science fiction. Enemy forces are composed of the same varied selection of aircraft, although there are a few available to your opponents that you won't find in the technology tree. Significantly, enemy squadrons are bolstered by small and extremely agile unmanned drones that can be dropped en masse from a huge flying wing aircraft that wouldn't look out of place in Final Fantasy. Those drones form a key part of the storyline and you'll be facing them more often than you'd like.

The missions are enjoyably varied. You'll be tasked with air-to-air combat, intercept missions, bombing runs, and escort missions. More often than not, you'll find yourself performing more than one role as the missions grow in difficulty and become more challenging multi-stage battles. On harder difficulties, munitions are scarce too and you'll need to count your bullets — and make them count.

To add to the complexity of the missions, the developers have also introduced much more challenging scenarios using the weather and environments. Dust storms and thunderstorms will play havoc with the players' visibility and instruments. There will be times when players will be constrained to fly through or under clouds to remain undetected by radar. Deep canyons or high rock columns will test the player's flight and navigation skills. Dogfighting under such conditions suddenly becomes more intense and nothing is as straightforward as it appears when first presented in the combat briefing.

Gamescom 2018

That is what it's all about, those dogfighting missions when you're chasing opponents through the skies, trying to get a lock on the target, avoiding enemy planes, missiles and SAMs. It can get hectic. There are times when the whole sky around you feels full of planes and missiles streaming towards you, little white lines on your radar that seem almost impossible to shake despite your best evasive maneuvers. It can also seem that the alarm sirens are continually blaring and warning you of some impending disaster. There are also moments of mild frustration and panic when your own missiles miss their target, but throughout all of the battles, the combat and controls all feel responsive and intuitive. They need to be too, as there are few combat tutorials in the game itself.

Whilst the unexpected twists in missions keep the player on edge, it can occasionally be a cause of frustration. Objectives can change dynamically during the mission, usually relayed via radio messages. These new instructions can be lost amongst the sounds of battle and other chatter. You can easily find yourself confused about what the exact mission objectives now are leading to you failing missions a number of times until you've worked out what the battle sequence is. There are also sudden difficulty spikes that can prove challenging and result in mission failures. More frustrating are the multi-stage battles that occur unexpectedly. Just when you think you're done with combat and start standing down, a radio message warns "Wait, there's another enemy on the radar." I've never been a fan of such mechanisms, and it does feel a little unfair especially when your plane is damaged or ammunition is low. Fortunately, when the mission does go awry, a checkpoint system allows the player to restart from the last autosaved mission objective. On easier missions, it should not be needed, but the tougher missions may well require multiple attempts to complete, and it's a useful mechanism to have.

Gamescom 2018

The fast and intense combat action carries over to the multiplayer side of the title, although it's disappointing that there are only two MP modes included. Team Deathmatch is pretty much what you'd expect with up to eight players being able to face off against each other. Battle Royale, however, is not quite what you've come to expect of that mode and plays out more like a standard Deathmatch than last-man-standing. Matches were happily lag-free and the biggest delay you're likely to encounter is the time spent waiting for other players to select their planes and weaponry in the lobby. The biggest challenge is selecting the best combat package within the confines that the host has set. Special weapons can be disabled and there can be a spending limit for the aircraft and payload, meaning you might have to change strategies between battles.

A special mention has to be made about the graphics in the title. Regardless of the camera angle, everything looks spectacularly good. In chase camera, along with the standard ailerons, flaps, and rudder, you'll also see the vents on the afterburner opening and closing, and airbrakes popping open when decelerating. More impressive still is the first-person cockpit view. The dials work, legs and feet work the pedals, and the weather effects on the cockpit window are incredibly believable. The level of detail in the environments is impressive too. The cityscape is not just a cut and paste collection of blocks, attention has been given to the look of the city, industrial areas, docks, business district, and suburbs are all modeled. Other than the lack of cars and people, it really looks believable. Jumping into the free-flight mode and just cruising the skies is a cathartic joy and an escape from the intense battles. The soundtrack also complements the game, with a good mixture of rock and electronic tracks.

E3

There are 49 achievements in the title and achievement hunters, be warned, this could take some time to complete. Whilst there are some nice and simple ones for completing each of the missions, there are some such as completing each mission with an S rating or completing the campaign on each of the difficulty settings that are going to demand a fair amount of effort and dedication to complete.

Summary

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown brings the franchise hurtling onto Xbox One with all guns blazing. For genre fans, it's a great time thanks to intuitive and compelling combat, an interesting variety of missions, a wealth of content, planes, weaponry and technology, all backed up with stunning graphics and a thumping soundtrack. Other than issues with difficulty spikes in missions and a substandard multiplayer offering, there is little to complain about with the title. It's a high-octane, jet-fuelled blast.
4 / 5
ACE COMBAT 7: Skies Unknown
Positives
  • Compelling and intuitive combat
  • Stunning graphics and attention to detail
  • Varied missions with different challenges
  • Impressive tech tree with so many planes and weaponry to unlock
Negatives
  • Annoying difficulty spikes in the missions
  • Multiplayer is basic
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 40 hours on an aerial tour of duty. 32 of the 49 achievements were unlocked. The download code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. A standard Xbox One was used for review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Andrew Ogley
Written by Andrew Ogley
Andrew has been writing for TA since 2011 covering news, reviews and the occasional editorials and features. One of the grumpy old men of the team, his mid-life crisis has currently manifested itself in the form of an addiction to sim-racing - not being able to afford the real life car of his dreams. When not spending hours burning simulated rubber, he still likes to run around, shoot stuff and blow things up - in the virtual world only of course.