Ace Combat 7 is another Ace Combat game, just with some added tweaks and refinements. That is absolutely not a bad thing in this case seeing as how Ace Combat as a series doesn't really need major amounts of improvement. Many were obviously disappointed by the direction Assault Horizon headed (haven't played much to form an opinion), so for many long time aces out there this was the return to roots that the series sorely needed. As for me, I was just happy to see a brand new Ace Combat game. Been a fan of the series since AC4 and have been eagerly awaiting for the next installment while I played that game for the twentieth time. Thankfully, the wait was totally worth it.
*Note: this review does not cover VR or multiplayer. This is purely on the strength of the game's single-player.
Skies Unknown's story ditches the real-world setting of Assault Horizon and instead goes back to its fictional universe of Strangereal. To put simply, war once again breaks out between the continent of Osea and the Kingdom of Erusea. Trigger, the surrogate for you, the player, is caught up in the middle of this war. It's tense, it's grand, it's melodramatic. It's everything I enjoy in an AC game. It does come recommended that you have played AC4, AC5 and AC0 to get a better general idea of the story, but it's not like newcomers will be completely lost. Fans will get a kick out of plenty of nostalgic moments and locations, while everyone else can be sucked in by the character banter and intrigue of the game's events. If that doesn't hook you in, the game's magnificent soundtrack certainly will. This has always been a consistent highlight with the series. It's filled to the brim with all the series staples: swelling orchestral arrangements, funk, heavy metal, electronic. All of it comes together beautifully and, for the most part, perfectly reflects the current situation.
The jump to current gen hardware was also incredibly beneficial to this game. While the game is certainly a step up in terms of overall graphical fidelity, lighting and textures, where this game truly shines visually is in one particular area: weather. Weather plays a very key role in Skies Unknown. This time around, the clouds you fly through not only react realistically when you run through it and add cool effects to your helmet, it can also be used to camouflage yourself from enemy radar and missile lock-on. High winds greatly affect your movement as you attempt to navigate past enemy sensors. Lightning strikes can screw up your targeting and momentarily stop your flying. While some of the use of weather can make certain gameplay sections a little more frustrating (sandstorms), much of the time it's a great and challenging addition to the franchise. It's a welcome stay if you ask me.
If you've played any previous Ace Combat game, you'll be able to instantly jump into the game. It's fast-paced, arcade-styled flight combat with a varied selection of aircraft and weaponry. Each aircraft has their own strengths and weaknesses, so it's important to understand your mission objective and prepare accordingly. For someone like me, it was very easy for me to get back into the swing of things. Each of the planes controlled beautifully and it didn't take long for me to instantly forget that I am even holding a controller. New to the series is the inclusion of an Aircraft (Skill) Tree. You use this tree to unlock new fighters, weapons, and add-ons that give your planes an extra boost such as parts that increase your overall speed or parts that enhance missile guidance.
For newcomers, this game can be difficult as there is a baffling exclusion of a training mode to get new players accustomed to the game's controls. You're given some faint yellow text on screen that tells you basic things you need to know about, but that's about it. Some of the missions even have specific point requirements that must be obtained in a very strained amount of time. Often you'll just barely have enough points to pass the mission. Late game boss encounters can also bring up the death count if you aren't careful. Much like previous games in the series, the checkpoints are few and far between. If you screw up on a 15+ minute mission, you're gonna have to do it all over again. Most of the levels do have mid-level checkpoints after meeting certain requirements so it isn't all that bad. It would just be a shame for people to give up on the game because of this, because once it finally clicks, it is damn satisfying to see that "Mission Accomplished" text flash on screen and you feel like a true ace.
If you're a long time fan of the series...well, you've already bought this game. For newcomers out there, I'd say go back and play some of the earlier titles in the series to get a better feel for the game's mechanics and world building. Regardless, this game comes highly recommended. It's really great to see a series and a genre this niche finally get another chance in the spotlight. 2019 is already shaping up to be an excellent year for games.