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Outstanding combination of style and substance

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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Sony PlayStation 4

FLIGHT SIMULATORS don’t normally appeal to the masses, so it’s a testament to the quality of the Ace Combat series that it has managed to earn a multitude of fans all the same. It certainly had modest beginnings; Air Combat, its very first release, found shelf space in 1995 shortly after the Sony PlayStation was introduced and left much to be desired. Publisher Namco strove for realism, but wound up making compromises, particularly in graphics, to speed up play, resulting in what not a few quarters noted as an unpolished presentation. Still, there were more than enough positive elements for the pioneer to plant the seeds for long-lasting success.

These days, the Ace Combat name is synonymous to fast-paced entertainment featuring an eclectic mix of over-the-top premises, optical realism, and arcade handling. No doubt, much of its reliability stems from experience; over the last 25 years, Bandai Namco has deftly steered the franchise through title after title in a whopping 14 platforms, in the process managing to avoid overexposure by ensuring freshness and, at the same time, emphasizing core strengths. And, as long time followers know, at the heart of the effort is an unrelenting thrust to push hardware boundaries.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, the series’ latest iteration, is no exception. It’s definitely a visual feast, offering up a level of detail that’s nothing short of fantastic. The planes are the star of the show, and, well, it shows; whether from afar or up close, they reveal a painstaking effort by developer Project Aces to maintain authenticity. And when they’re on air, they provide a rise to the senses by acting as conduits to exquisitely presented environs; from the clouds to the mountains to the ranges to the plains to the, yes, other marvels of machinery that share the skies, there is eye candy galore.

In this regard, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown not surprisingly excels on the PlayStation 4 Pro. Colors jump off stunningly sharp subjects, accompanying a symphony of sounds that heighten the sensory feedback. Meanwhile, the proceedings are unrelenting; the action occurs at a breakneck pace, aided in no small measure by steadily high frame rates and the ease of gameplay newcomers to the series will appreciate. Purists may protest Project Aces’ pronounced bias to partner the realism that marks its audiovisual presentation with uncomplicated handling, even in simulation mode, but the result cannot be denied. The adrenaline rush provided by the experience of flying in the midst of a bombing run or while aiming to shoot down other fighters jets trumps any pressing need to approximate true-to-life in-cockpit controls.

Not that Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown fails to reward the most fastidious. For all its intent to flatten the learning curve, it likewise provides refinements that enhance its replay value; mastery of advanced turning, in particular, can claim satisfying returns. Post Stall Maneuvers, for instance, will allow gamers to become hunters instead of the hunted; introduced in place of the Close Range Assault countermeasures found in Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, they get the controlled aircraft behind enemies when properly executed.




In any case, advancement in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown requires upgrades in equipment and weaponry, tracked through the Aircraft Tree system and available for purchase via Military Result Points. The latter serves as in-game currency and is earned through the completion of missions and the extent in which achievements are forged. The vehicle, armament, and hangar unlocks help in campaign progression, but are retained for multiplayer mayhem. Needless to say, a fair amount of grinding and farming thus becomes a requisite.

Those steeped in Ace Combat lore will appreciate the continuity that Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown provides. The setting is the same as that in the franchise’s other numbered titles, with the narrative picking up just as the Kingdom of Erusea launches an attack on the Osean Federation. Gamers assume the point of view of an Osean pilot with the callsign “Trigger,” wrongly haled to military court and sentenced to serve in an expendable military unit formed to fly dangerous missions. Soon enough, his success on air leads to a pardon and command of an Air Force squadron. More twists follow, and, with them, missions that serve to test reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and decision making under duress.

There’s a lot to be said about the manner in which Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown tries to frame the action with an outlandish story told through pre-rendered cutscenes and radio chatter. Admittedly, the flow of information isn’t easy to follow. On the flipside, the intrinsic lure and allure of dogfighting renders the plot largely immaterial. Once objectives are clear, gamers will be happy to take off with the end-view of meeting them; there are, after all, installations to wipe out, planes to do battle against, assets to escort — with the whys and wherefores for the most part unnecessary to their fulfillment.

In sum, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown meets its goal of advancing the series as far as prevailing technology can take it. It’s an outstanding combination of style and substance, taking full advantage of the PS4 Pro’s processing power to engage viscerally, actively, and intellectually. Parenthetically, it has three PS VR-exclusive missions that further attest to its desire to stay on the industry’s cutting edge, and the wholly immersive take leaves gamers craving for more. Around 15 hours’ worth of play on first pass, it coaxes additional commitment with its continual delivery on lofty promises. At $60, it clearly earns its keep, and how.

THE GOOD:

• A feast for the senses

• Ultra-smooth gameplay

• Uncomplicated controls

• Decent-length campaign mode

• Good replay value

THE BAD:

• Overarching storyline too complex to follow without notes

• Multiplayer modes effectively limit plane choice to air-to-air fighter

• VR missions capped at three and woefully short

• Grinding required

RATING: 8/10

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