Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown first impressions – super soaring, muddled mythos

After spending our first few hours with Ace Combat 7, here are some initial thoughts...

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is out today, marking the first instalment of Bandai Namco’s popular flying simulation series to appear on the current generation of consoles. It’s also the first title in the franchise to support Virtual Reality headsets, which is a significant leap forward for a property where immersion and eye-catching visuals always play a significant part.

We’ve spent a couple of hours with the game in single player mode on PS4, albeit without the assistance of a PSVR headset, and we’re pleased to report that a good time was had for the most part. Read on, then, to discover our first impressions on Ace Combat 7

A tantalising opening

Before you’ve even taken control of an aircraft yourself, Ace Combat 7 sets its stall out in no uncertain terms: this game is pitching for visual excellence, and we’ve seen nothing thus far to suggest that this game won’t be revered as the most realistic flight simulator to date.

The game kicks off by introducing a new character, named Avril Mead, and showing her first flight in a snazzy new plane. You can’t control this character, at this point, but her foray skyward gives the developers a chance to show off the increased graphical abilities allowed by this generation of consoles as well as the Unreal Engine (which is also new to the series for this instalment).

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Even if you’re not historically a huge lover of flying games, you’ll be keen to jump straight into a cockpit yourself after witnessing this exhilarating opening cutscene. Thankfully, once you’ve sat through a generic mission briefing (picture blue and white pseudo-holographic visualisations, backed up by some scene-setting voiceover), that’s exactly what you get to do.

Spectacular soaring, whatever your skill level

This first flight showcases exactly what we were hoping for: the chance to soar about in a nice big map, which renders everything in sight in an uber-realistic level of detail. If you swoop close to the ground, you’ll see tiny details in trucks and towers. If you get too close to a blast, you’ll see the sparks sizzling over your windscreen. Fly through some trees and you’ll see the leaves. You get the idea.

The experience is also elevated by Keiki Kobayashi’s uplifting score (both weak aviation puns very much intended), which makes it feel like you’re flying through an epic-but-heartwarming feature film. It combines with the visuals to create a game that is so pleasing to the senses that it almost distracts you from the task at hand. There was more than one occasion when an enemy locked us into their sights before we realised they were nearby, for instance, because we were far too busy checking out the scenery and enjoying the music.

It’s lucky, then, that the controls are pretty easy to pick up: you start the game with two powerful missile-type attacks at your disposal, which it’s nice and simple to cycle through and deploy. And it must be said, there’s something very satisfying about seeing your enemy blow up as you spin away and seek out your next target (or the next bit of lovely foliage you want to check out).

The game comes with three difficulty levels to choose from: one for newbies to the series, one for regulars, and one for hardcore players that fancy a challenge. So, whether you’re looking to try out a flying simulator for the first time or hoping to show off some well-honed skills, you should find something to enjoy here. Certainly, if the 4K-friendly visuals are tempting you to make this your first ever flight sim, don’t let the fear of an OTT difficulty level put you off.

A muddled mythos, but not without intrigue

The more we play of Ace Combat 7, though, the more the game’s convoluted mythos begins to become a distraction from the unincumbered thrills of the flying itself. The temptation to skip the cut-scenes, news reports and samey mission briefings does grow as you progress, with only the fear of missing something important standing in your thumb’s way.

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The backdrop to the game’s narrative is a war across a fictional continent, which involves such uninspiring objectives as gaining control of a ‘space elevator’. If you don’t have much of a history with this franchise, there isn’t a great deal in the overarching story here to immediately grab your attention, nor much proof of why one side in the conflict is any better than the other.

Thankfully, there is intrigue in amongst the not-particularly-engaging fictional politics at play. The path of the player character (Trigger) and how he relates to Avril from the opening cut-scene is a story that we’re looking forward to unravelling, after the initial handful of character-driven scenes that we’ve seen, even if the background details of this world have failed to amaze thus far.

The main appeal, of course, is always going to be the flying missions. In this, the most important element, it seems like Ace Combat 7 really succeeds. Whatever else is going on in the game, we’re always itching to get back in the cockpit and see what the next level has in store, be it a new set of weather conditions to contend with or some new toys to try out. As first impressions go, we’re certainly keen to load this up again and take to the skies some more.

Ace Combat 7 is out now on PS4 and Xbox One. The PC release date is February 1st 2019.