“Technology’s always changing. If you don’t keep up with it, it’ll leave your ass behind” —Avril Mead’s grandfather
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown marks the first time the world and lore of Strangereal has been available to PC players. With it comes all of the flight mechanics, colourful characters and impressive settings that accompany Strangereal, brought to life in Unreal Engine 4, which represents a return to the Ace Combat universe for many longtime fans. For me, it means the opportunity to get into the cockpit of a fighter jet and take to the skies of an immensely detailed world that I’ve longed to explore since the days of the PlayStation 2 and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. However, before I can experience the realm of superweapons and tunnel flights that I’ve come to expect as standard fare in Ace Combat, there is the journey of actually reaching this point. In Skies Unknown, players take the perspective of Trigger, an Osean pilot who is assigned to the 508th Tactical Fighter Squadron (Mage Squadron). On his first flight with Mage, Trigger downs several Erusean bombers attacking the Fort Grays island base, and later encounters Erusean MQ-99 drones during a ground attack mission. With the Eruseans becoming more belligerent and threatening an international space elevator, Osea decides to secure the mega-structure. While securing airspace in support for an operation to defend the space elevator, Trigger encounters the Arsenal Bird and its payload of MQ-101 drones. A mysterious aircraft appears and shoots down several Osean fighters before vanishing. Trigger is later tasked with rescuing former President Vincent Harling, who is stranded at the space elevator since hostilities began. During the operation, a stray missile hits the Osprey VTOL Harling is on, and Trigger is suspected of murdering the former president. He is court-martialled and sent to Spare Squadron as a prisoner. When Eursean forces appear at the 444th Airbase, a fake facility, Trigger sorties along with Spare Squadron, earning unexpected praise from other prisoners for single-handedly shooting down enemy bombers.
With this, I’m now five missions into Skies Unknown, and the first thing that comes to mind is just how smoothly the game handles. In particular, the controls for Skies Unknown are very smooth for PC, far out-stripping what was present in Assault Horizon. I had gotten my wings flying in Assault Horizons with a keyboard-only setup, and while the controls were tricky, they had been manageable. Here in Skies Unknown, the keyboard-only controls handle very well, and I can precisely manoeuvre my aircraft with confidence. The flight system of Skies Unknown on PC is evidently a step above Assault Horizon, and so, I had no trouble flying with the Expert configuration. Besides improved handling, Skies Unknown does away with the Dogfight Mode, which ultimately ended up being a crutch that, while exhilarating for the first few times I used it, quickly became a chore that took the thrill out of dogfighting. One of the key frustrations about Assault Horizon was that some opponents were impossible to shoot down without Dogfight Mode, forcing players to depend on this element to complete missions. In Skies Unknown, this particular aspect is gone, as is the notion of regenerating health: players are able to engage all enemies with only their wit and must be mindful of damage, bringing skill back into dogfights in a big way. Every successful kill is immensely satisfying, and after the first quarter of the game, it is clear that Skies Unknown is definitely the Ace Combat experience players have waited for: it is the first true Ace Combat game for PC, featuring both classic gameplay mechanics and the Strangereal universe, and at this point, having had some experience with the flight mechanics of Skies Unknown, I look forwards to delving deeper into the story.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Whereas Assault Horizon dropped players right into things with a mission over Miami, Florida, in the cockpit of the bleeding-edge F-22 Raptor, Skies Unknown puts players behind the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the first thing to do is get in the air and head towards a flight of Erusean bombers. The F-16 is the default aircraft, and is characterised by good all-around performance, with high manoeuvrability, as well as options for both anti-air and anti-ground special weapons.
- The F-16 is known for its negative stability: aircraft with positive stability will naturally return to level flight if no control input is given, and its fly-by-wire system is designed so that the aircraft can match the pilot’s inputs. As a result, the aircraft has impressive manoeuvrability, but is also stable where it needs to be. After taking off into the skies, the reflection of the ocean and tropical heat can be seen in the surroundings. The first target is a TU-95, a Russian turbo-prop strategic bomber. These bombers have been around since 1952 and are still operational.
- I’ve heard that traditionally, Ace Combat games typically feature a bomber interception mission as its starting mission to warm players up to the flight controls. Shooting down the slow-moving bombers is very straightforwards, and when players get the feel for things, a wave of MiG-21s appear. Being able to engage distant targets, then turn away and engage a second target, is one of the most satisfying features of Skies Unknown, and while Ace Combat veterans will be very familiar with this trick, this was new for me: Assault Horizon forced me to focus on most targets until I were certain they were down.
- While the absence of Dogfight Mode means no more seeing the charred husks of destroyed aircraft, the visual effects of Skies Unknown are very impressive. This fireball resulted from me blasting a MiG at close range. The primary missiles of Ace Combat have limited tracking ability, being able to lock onto both surface and air targets. American and Japanese aircraft run missiles resembling the AIM-9 Sidewinder, while Russian aircraft use R-60 missiles.
- Missiles are solid general purpose weapons, but they aren’t always effective. Coupled with the fact that ammunition for them is finite, and despite the prodigious payloads even small aircraft have, they shouldn’t be thrown around. Instead, there are some conditions during which the aircraft’s integral cannons will come in handy; even the base gun is fairly effective at destroying aircraft with a few well-placed bursts, and in close-quarters dogfights, guns can be useful when enemy combatants are moving too quickly for missiles to get a lock.
- The second mission in Skies Unknown entails a combination of anti-ground and anti-air combat. Ground targets present their own challenges despite being stationary: because one is flying by so quickly, if one overshoots their target, then they must turn around and hit them again. Flying at slower speeds helps one get a good lock before firing, and there are some aircraft with dedicated anti-ground special weaponry that can lock onto multiple surface targets, or else deal massive area-of-effect damage. At this stage in the game, I don’t have access to those parts or aircraft yet.
- In most missions, critical targets will be given a special designation and appear in red outlines on the minimap. Eliminating these targets allow the mission to proceed to the next stage; I’m still a novice when it comes to Ace Combat, so I’ve not bothered to go for score and time bonuses during my first run. Instead, my goal will be to go through the game and get an idea of what each mission entails, unlock the F-22 Raptor, then go back and get all of the ace kills, as well as unlock the Wyvern. Once I have enough of the aircraft tree unlocked, I’ll then attempt the S-rank and challenges for the game.
- After the surface targets are eliminated, the Erusean forces begin deploying MQ-99 drones. Unlike human pilots, drones are immune to high G-forces and so, can turn much more sharply than human pilots. Players are introduced to high-G turns here, which are superbly useful for making tight turns for getting behind drones. While powerful, they also drastically reduce one’s airspeed, and dropping below a certain speed, one will stall. Fighting drones for the first time proved challenging, but eventually, I managed to beat them.
- After completing an in-air refuelling, players head towards a group of enemy fighters, flying over a rainforest that resembles the Amazon. Skies Unknown introduced clouds as tangible entities that can impact gameplay: flying through them interferes with missile tracking, allowing one to evade missile locks at the expense of reducing their own locking effectiveness. As well, staying in clouds for extended periods can cause icing and expose players to turbulence, affecting stability and manoeuvrability.
- The biggest surprise encountered during the third mission is the Arsenal Bird, an airborne aircraft carrier that houses the MQ-101 drones. Superior to the 99s in every way, these unmanned carriers also carry laser weapons and the Helios missile, which can disrupt or damage multiple aircraft. When the Arsenal Bird appears, the targetting HUD lights up with enemies, and players are overwhelmed with the amount of firepower there is in the air.
- Players will be tasked with destroying the Arsenal Bird, although at this point in the campaign, it is much too early to be destroying the Arsenal Bird. I managed to deal some damage to it, but the Arsenal Bird then deploys an energy shield, and the mission switches over to destroying the UAVs, which have begun decimating allied forces. During the confusion, an unknown aircraft will appear and shoot down two allied pilots. The mission ends when all of the UAVs have been destroyed.
- I believe this mission was the one showcased during the E3 and the subsequent demos some years back: Skies Unknown was first announced during 2015, and was set to release during 2017. My curiosity in Skies Unknown were piqued by my experiences in Assault Horizon, and Infinity was a PS4-exclusive: upon hearing that Strangereal was coming to PC, I found myself interested to see what the game would be like. However, developmental delays pushed the release date to 2018, and then 2019.
- When Skies Unknown launched, reviews for the game were largely positive, with players praising the game’s return to classic mechanics and style seen in earlier titles. The PC version came out after the console versions, and while still fun, the game is a console port whose lack of easy support for flight sticks was its biggest shortcoming. I can see the frustration amongst those who have sophisticated flight stick setups, but for me, Skies Unknown remains very enjoyable: I don’t even have a controller and fly using the keyboard.
- The fourth mission involves flying through a tight radar net to reach the orbital elevator, marked by large red circles on one’s minimap. There was a similar mission in Assault Horizon where one had to pilot a strategic bomber through radar, but the radar beams were projected onto screen-space, making them easy to avoid. This mission was a test of how the keyboard setup worked, and when I came out of the other end in one try, I knew that the keyboard setup I’m currently running with would be sufficient.
- After clearing out the anti-air emplacements around the orbital elevator’s base, players fly towards the city and engage trucks carrying launchers for the MQ-99 drones. Any UAVs that have launched must also be shot down: they will move towards the orbital elevator and open fire on the rescue forces if left unchecked. Being made to deal with multiple targets at once and multi-task is a staple of Ace Combat games, and provides the sort of challenge that engages players.
- Some of the combat in the fourth mission is set over Selatapura, a Usean city that experienced economic hardships during the events of Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, but since underwent massive development. It turns out that Selatapura is roughly Strangereal’s equivalent of Singapore, being a major port city, and those with linguistic background in Malay and Sanskrit note that Selata is “South” from the Malay seletan, and pura is city from Sanskrit. Details like these show the extent of the creativity from the Bandai Namco studios in world-building.
- During the course of this mission, a few UAVs did end up getting past me, forcing me to peel away from striking the launchers on the ground and turn my attention to the stray drones that’d begun making a beeline for the space elevator. I’ve found that at distance, drones can be downed with missiles or picked off with gunfire, but owing to their mobility, dogfighting with them is very tricky. If one can pull out of endlessly circling their opponent and make some distance, engaging and destroying enemy aircraft becomes a bit easier.
- On the topic of guns, one of very few the pet peeves I have with the Ace Combat series is that is that the guns on planes are referred to as “machine guns”. The term “machine gun” specifically refers to small-arms calibre weapons (i.e. smaller than 20mm), and automatic weapon firing rounds with a diameter of 20mm or greater is referred to as an autocannon. By definition, the M61 Vulcan, which fires 20mm rounds, is a cannon, not a machine gun. I imagine this terminology stuck from the days when aircraft fired .50-calibre rounds, which are 12.7mm in diameter, hence their being referred to as such in Ace Combat.
- Skies Unknown has been seen by some as Ace Combat with Gundam 00 elements for the orbital elevators, and one of my friends remarked on his surprise at the Arsenal Bird’s “GN Field”. While there are no super-powerful Gundams in Ace Combat, players do get access to increasingly powerful and iconic aircraft as they progress through the game. Players can unlock the Wyvern, and later DLC could add the Falken and Nosferatu to the lineup. If I do get the DLC, I’ll likely do so when it’s on sale: I’ve seen that it’s supposed to add three new missions, as well, in addition to iconic aircraft that are as legendary as Gundams in the Ace Combat universe.
- Enemy planes traditionally carried countermeasures against missiles in earlier iterations of Ace Combat, but as of Assault Horizon, countermeasures finally became available for player use, and in Skies Unknown, aircraft do not abuse them the same way powerful targets did in Assault Horizon – this was the biggest frustration in Assault Horizon, forcing players to enter Dogfight Mode to destroy tougher enemies. Flares in Skies Unknown can instantly break all missile locks, but are in very short supply, and I only use them in cases where I am absolutely focused on a target and do not wish to evade: missiles show up on the minimap and usually can be dodged with a high-G turn.
- Special weapons provide a powerful means of quickly and efficiently dealing with particularly tough foes, or large numbers of foes at once. The F-16 is equipped with four active radar-guided missiles that lock onto a maximum of targets at medium range. I’ve been using these to deal with a large number of airborne foes when they’re a ways away. The supply of special weapons is very limited, and while upgrades allow for more to be carried, it’s nonetheless a good idea to save them for tricky spots.
- The story in Skies Unknown is fairly engaging, as is the chatter players experience in the background. While engaging drones, friendly forces will suggest firing missiles at the orbital elevator’s main pillar, which would cause the drones’ programming to kick in and defend the elevator, drawing them off Harling’s VTOL. Unfortunately, a stray missile will hit the VTOL and kill Harling. Since Trigger is the closest to Harling at the time of his being shot down, he will be held accountable as Harling’s murderer and spend the next several missions with a penal unit stationed at the 444th.
- Located along a quiet coast , the 444th Air Base is far removed from other Osean population centres and military installations. Despite its remoteness, the location is beautiful: the blue skies look amazing, offering a calm airspace to fly about in. The peace won’t last, however, as Erusean aircraft begin appearing with the aim of destroying the base. While prohibited from using weapons, the ferocity of the Erusean attack forces AWACS Bandog to give clearance to engage.
- As the AWACS officier, Bandog is one of the more colourful ones, frequently insulting the other pilots in the air. His dialogue is hilarious, and while be belittles everyone in Spare Squadron, Trigger’s combat efficiency earns Bandog’s begrudging respect over the course of his time in Spare Squadron, even as he badmouths everyone else.
- We’re now more than halfway through February, and this Family Day Long Weekend’s been a bit more of a quieter one on account of the snowfall in the area. Both Saturday and Sunday were characterised by extremely slippery roads. To close off the Chinese New Year festivities, we went out into a frigid evening for a dinner with family, where we had Poon choi (盆菜, a Cantonese dish with a variety of ingredients, such as prawns, abalone, chicken, pork, duck, oysters and vegetables). The warm and flavourful experience was a much needed respite from the winter cold. Also on the menu was ginger-onion lobster on a bed of noodles, pea shoots and sweet and sour pork.
- While yesterday remained cold and snowy, the weather today’s been much more agreeable, being both warmer and sunny. Back in Skies Unknown, I continue flying against the Erusean bombers, who’ve really become convinced that the 444th is a legitimate airbase. After being transferred to Spare Squadron, players gain access to the F-104C and MiG-21. I ended up picking the MiG-21 for its gun pods. Flying a weaker aircraft seemed appropriate given the story, and the MiG-21’s biggest strength is its mobility.
- Initially, I was struggling with this mission because the last three bombers approached from a higher altitude than before, and leaving too many aircraft in the air meant I was constantly being painted. It was here that I became more familiar with the minimap; I learned to differentiate between missiles that were about to hit me and missiles that were going to miss. When multiple missiles are coming from all directions, I deploy countermeasures.
- While Spare Squadron has no interest in preserving the facilities, the mission will fail if bombers deal too much damage. Bandog will bitterly (and hilariously) tell the other pilots to shut up, and the comedy of the moment made it worth losing out on the mission. However, I figured something out and managed to down all of the bombers targetting the base. in the end to finish the mission, and here, blast one of the bombers, which detonate spectacularly.
- The deep blue skies of this fifth mission looks absolutely stunning, although it’s hard to feel a sense of tranquility when there are targets to shoot down and enemy missiles to evade. Unlike Assault Horizon, Skies Unknown comes with both a free mission mode for replaying completed campaign missions as well as a free flight mode. The latter is absent from Assault Horizon, likely because some missions wouldn’t have accommodated for free flight, but now that this mode is back, one can conceivably fly around fantastic settings without mission objectives to worry about.
- With this post, I’m done the first quarter of Skies Unknown and will be pushing ahead in the campaign. My plan is to first beat the campaign, then go back and unlock the Wyvern and beat all of the aces. Finally, I’ll go for the S-ranks as time permits. There’s plenty to do in Skies Unknown, and one of the things I do wish to do is unlocking the entire aircraft tree. In the meantime, I think that with this post on Ace Combat, I’ve finished off one more gaming post. I’m not too sure when I’ll have a chance to look at Penguin Highway, but the ten-year anniversary of CLANNAD ~After Story~‘s Ushio arc is imminent, and I will need to take a look at that.
When I first went through Assault Horizon, I experimented with a range of controls and it took a while to find a setup that worked for me. I ended up deciding on the keyboard-only approach and stuck with it for the remainder of the campaign. Here in Skies Unknown, I similarly took a good half-hour to configure the keyboard controls so that everything would be intuitive and familiar: once this initial setup was completed, I began flying through the first mission. While Assault Horizon might be the game many wish to forget, I personally found the game modestly enjoyable despite its dependence on Dogfight Mode, taking players to a wide range of locations, from Dubai, to Moscow and Miami. For me, Assault Horizon was my entry into the series: I learned to fly here, and those experiences have translated over into Skies Unknown. Having had a quarter of the game under my belt, I am thoroughly enjoying Skies Unknown, and while the days of watching cannon-riddled wreckage from enemy fighters fly past my jet are gone, Skies Unknown has plenty going for it – it was a particular thrill to see the Arsenal Bird appear for the first time and then deploy its microwave shield. Such fanciful technologies were noticeably absent in Assault Horizon, and having high-tech gear in the game, both to fight against and equip, is immensely exciting: I personally cannot wait to equip and fire the Tactical Laser for the first time on PC, and in order to do that, I’ll need to push further into the campaign and earn the in-game currency needed to unlock new aircraft.